Facebook is a Company, not a Platform: 5 Key Points for Marketers

The ubiquity of Facebook would be fascinating enough without its additional centrality to the growing number of companies wishing to market to Facebook users as part of their social media campaign planning. And to its credit, Facebook has provided a unique marketing and personal contact engine that deserves all due respect. Today, Facebook has perhaps half a billion users and shows little if any sign of slowing. That kind of reach is proving irresistible to marketers; and to serve this market, a nascent industry of “Facebook marketers” has sprung up. These companies specialize–they say–in making your Facebook campaign more effective.

None of the above would be in the least bit disturbing if it were not for the fact that all of these corporate Facebook campaigns can be considered “eggs” and Facebook can be considered “the basket” into which all of the eggs have gone. The problem is not so much that all the eggs are in one basket, but that the basket is not even being held by the egg-owner. To extend the metaphor one step further, Facebook, being a private company with no mandate to be neutral or even fair, might yank the egg basket at any time–and the marketer, wondering where their eggs went, might be rewarded only with the scent of omelettes being made by people wearing Facebook hoodies.

Facebook has become so prevalent in our digital thinking these days that it seems often to be mistaken for something “open” and “platform-like”. This misconception is born of the earlier days of the web, when web sites were launched on “the Internet” which is, in fact, “open” and “not owned by anyone”. No one who owned a domain name ever needed to fear that someone would come along and say “no” to their content, or shut it down, or take it away, or make it invisible, or change all the rules on a whim, or get the Internet platform sold off in the public markets and thus become slave to quarterly profits to the detriment of its customers. In fact it is Facebook itself that relies on these very certainties about the Internet and the World Wide Web in order to power its own franchise.

The Digiday event in New York last week hosted an interesting panel about Facebook. One of the panelists, Todd Sawicki of Cheezburger, noted the following important points which I believe every marketer should understand before going out of pocket for Facebook.

1: Facebook Owns All Content on Facebook:
Many organizations spend millions on their Facebook campaigns. What they may not realize is that Facebook not only owns all the content and can use it any way they’d like–including in ways that might benefit your competitor.

2: Facebook Can Take You Down:
Facebook can take down an organization’s Facebook site without any explanation at all. And word is, it’s virtually impossible to get any help from them when this happens.

3: Facebook Has a History of Sudden Changes:
Facebook makes changes to its interface with little or no warning but with potentially large impacts on its customers. For instance, they used to have a “share” button which meant people could share the content of a publication on their Facebook page but the link would take the reader to the site where the content originated. Then they changed that to the “like” button which meant users would now link to the article only via a pass-thru from Facebook. This results in more traffic for Facebook and, it seems, less traffic for the publisher. According to Todd, many publishers lost about 40% of their readership due to this change. I am certain this was not an expected outcome when Facebook made the change, but it happened nonetheless.

Adding to the abovementioned caveats, I will add two that I personally believe deserve wider discussion:

4: Facebook Does What’s Best for Facebook:
Facebook has no incentive to make life easier for anyone except its owners and up to a point, its advertisers. With a virtual monopoly in its own market, Facebook is big enough, like Google, to “make its own weather”. While it certainly provides the opportunity to market in an exceedingly granular manner, it is important to note that all the rules, all the data, and all the user accounts belong to Facebook. Prepare at any moment to be disenfranchised.

5: Facebook May Change or Disappear:
Facebook is a private company, and in all likelihood expects to go public. Unlike an open platform or protocol (like the web itself), Facebook could get bought, decide to change direction, suffer a serious breach or breakdown, or otherwise become unavailable or of little value to the digital marketer. These changes could happen at any time. This simple fact is often overlooked.

The issues in play here are large. Once, we had an open system called the Internet. Free enterprise glommed onto this and gave us highly useful (and free for the consumer) products like Google and Facebook; but at a cost overall. And that cost is the fact that enormous amounts of Internet real estate are now essentially behind fences where data and wealth are accumulating at a stupendous rate. Is that capitalism at its best? Sure it is. But it doesn’t mean you have to put all your eggs in their baskets.

When working with Facebook, proceed with caution. Their best interest is not necessarily yours.