Once bitten, twice shy: Brands rethink Facebook’s role

Facebook long urged brands to connect directly with their customers on the platforms. Brands complied with gusto, often running promotions for their Facebook pages with their TV ads and buying ads from Facebook to build up likes.

And then things changed. As Facebook matured as a business, it decided to ratchet back the reach of brands when they post. Privately, Facebook execs have admitted that organic reach will go to near zero. The message is: Pay up if you want to reach all those fans. That’s left brands rethinking how much they want to make Facebook core to their strategies.

“In brand land, it is a huge misconception that social media is ‘free,'” said Maura Tuohy, social media director at Eleven Inc. “That said, we do think Facebook’s move over the past few years toward reducing organic reach (as well as their hesitancy to share data) has caused agencies and brands to further diversify their social platform strategy.”

This is a stance echoed elsewhere in brand land. At a Digiday conference held last month, Brown-Forman marketing exec Jason Loehr said Facebook’s cutting off its brands like Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort caused the liquor company to rethink its strategy — and to put more emphasis on the often-overlooked brand site. That is, after all, an owned property where a brand doesn’t have to worry about a mysterious algorithm suddenly keeping it from communicating with customers.

“It’s putting a discipline against us and a rigor,” he said. “Ultimately, what Facebook has done is, say, remember your Internet websites, how important are those.”

This readjustment is taking place across agencies and brands. Sure, there are some bruised feelings, but most brands and agencies say they are taking the experience as a valuable lesson on the basics:  a diverse portfolio of digital platforms should be used to reach people where they are.

“Yes, they are ‘free,’ but they also have flexibility for us to turn on the gas with dollars if needed or create organic traction through their integration potential across other media vehicles,” said Steve Carbone, chief digital and analytics officer, Mediacom USA. “The onus is on us in terms of how we use them.”

Facebook’s move is also a reflection, inside brands and agencies, of the maturation of social media marketing. Once a fringe activity for low-level staffers, the sprawling user bases of social platforms like Facebook has caused it to move up the ladder in attention — and that means more resources and money are allocated to it.

“Social media marketing, regardless of the platform, requires investment,” said Robin Grant, global managing director at We Are Social. “Not only in producing content native to the specific platform but also to attract and sustain an audience either through earned or paid media.”

Fine, but Facebook still looms largest in the arena with well over a billion users. Twitter, with more than 500 million is only half as potent. So are brands in denial of this loss, or is the social ecosystem strong enough that it can step away from the “free” notion and address itself as a pay-to-play marketplace?

“Now that it’s grown up, there will be less experimentation, and money can be spent there more efficiently,” said Michael Durwin, director of digital strategy and social media at Fuse Ideas. “It is still a far more effective place to spend marketing dollars than TV, print or radio; I can track a user from Facebook to the checkout, the same can’t be said for more traditional media like TV.”

That’s why you shouldn’t expect brands to follow the lead of food-delivery service Eat24 and flee Facebook with hurt feelings. This is business, after all, and Facebook can still deliver, especially for marketers who have stuck with it, taken their lumps and figured out their sweet spots.

“It’s easy to get lost in the hype of what’s new in social, but it’s a space that requires experimentation and failure to see improvement or reward. Those brands who have had the opportunity to invest heavily while learn along the way have found and can still find value in their efforts,” said Mediacom USA’s Carbone.

As for how brands have adjusted, the field varies somewhat but can be boiled down to a few basic strategies, either staying with the platform or moving away all together in favor of less costly tools like Instagram, Twitter, Vine. Across the board, brands are being advised to diversify across owned and earned channels.

“Our advice to our clients has always been to simultaneously build owned platforms (especially important for long-term SEO) and not to skimp on the un-sexy basics like CRM,” said Tuohy. “Now, we’re recommending that clients post fewer pieces, in order to pool budget and boost important brand-owned content within Facebook. We’re also recommending that they bolster other social platforms, depending on the demographics of their target market and the appropriate social strategy.”


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