Mitt Romney believes that corporations are people—and so too, it seems, does Facebook.
Yesterday at New York’s fMC, the Facebook Marketing Conference, the company echoed that very sentiment as it argued that following brands on Facebook is no different than following friends and family. Introducing a suite of new advertising tools—enhanced brand Pages, premium offers, mobile ad placements—the social network reasoned that users would appreciate the additional avenues advertisers now have to reach them, because advertisers share "quality" content. "Our main objective is to make sure that over time, the advertising is as good as the content you would receive from your friends or family," said Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s VP of global marketing solutions. "It’s very similar to your own Facebook experience. There are certain friends that you probably love getting updates from—they are witty and interesting—and that’s really what we’re trying to do with brands: Stop thinking about brands over here and people over here, but actually [think of] brands as people."
In other words, Facebook is gambling that its 800 million users won’t see this influx of advertising as an influx of advertising, but as new content to be consumed and shared. Will they? That all depends on whether brands can figure out how to create content that their fans actually want to share. That’s something that marketers have been talking about—and, to some extent, doing—for years. But the new Facebook brand platform will provide a fairly pressing mandate for marketers to up their content game.
First, it’s important to understand just how many new opportunities marketers have to advertise on Facebook’s platform. The newly unveiled Timeline allows more creative options for designing Pages. Brands can create sponsored posts on their Facebook pages that will appear in fan news feeds both on desktop and mobile experiences; brands can place traditional ads on the right-hand side of Facebook; and they can now advertise on the page seen when a user logs out. (Roughly 37 million users sign out of Facebook each day.) Facebook also unveiled its "Reach Generator," a distribution tool that brands can use to reach north of 75% of their fans. Typically, a branded post is seen by just 16% of fans; with the "Reach Generator," Facebook essentially forces distribution to more fans. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, was able to reach around 98% of the ice cream maker’s fans through the system.
This means, as executives acknowledged Wednesday, that users on Facebook could potentially see the same ad (ahem, "Sponsored Story") myriad times when surfing the site. This could either be an incredibly annoying practice that compromises the user experience, or a trigger that could force brands to rethink how they market to consumers: In order to reach consumers effectively, they’ll have to generate "quality" content, or risk being un-"Liked" and losing fans.
Asked whether Facebook expects to see more users un-"Liking" brand pages because of the new ads (technically, if a user does not follow any brands, then she will not see any ads in her news feed, though the user will still see some advertising in the traditional right-hand rail, on the log-out page, and if a friend within his or her network interacts with a brand), Brian Boland, Facebook’s director of product marketing, said it depends on whether users enjoy the "content" that brands are sharing.
"I think the chances of someone 'Liking’ or un-'Liking’ a page are going to be less from them seeing this as a sponsored piece of content—it’s going to be about the quality of the content," Boland said. "So if businesses get really good about continuing to develop content that is meaningful that their fans want to see, then we don’t expect that to be an issue."
That’s partly why Facebook was in New York for fMC—not just to "woo Madison Avenue," as some have suggested, but to educate them. In addition to press events, Facebook held breakout sessions and fireside chats with brands and ad agencies to walk them through how to produce "quality content." Marketers from Gatorade and Walmart lectured audiences on how to best reach consumers without annoying them; one Facebook expert spent time chatting about why it’s important not to use "gimmicks" and promises of one-off offers to gain fans.
At one point during the presentation, which was held at the Museum of Natural History, Facebook projected the front cover of Where the Wild Things Are onto the auditorium’s big screen. Though used as a reference for the journey that lies ahead for advertisers, the lesson from the children’s story is more so indicative of the type of hand holding Facebook has had to do in order to make sure brands and marketers don’t take advantage of the platform and overwhelm it with poor quality content—or worse yet, ads.
I asked Carolyn Everson whether Facebook believed brands could actually produce content on par with that shared by family and friends.
"We think it’s going to take time to share best practices and case studies," she says, making reference to the work she’s doing via Facebook Studio. "I think it’s so similar to how your personal Facebook page works: There are certain people who you just love to hear from, and there are others where you’re like, 'Is that that exciting?' I think brands are going to be operating in the same direction."