Friday, November 9, 2007

Losing Facebook?

The wildly successful online social network Facebook has a new advertising platform that presumes to get its 52 million members to embrace “conversational” marketing, making them so many walking extensions of brands of advertising, getting those members to discuss various products with their friends, virally spreading the advertisers’ message.

The new strategy announced on Nov. 7, in an event hosted by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (pictured), bids to let advertisers reach prospective customers on pages that let those members become “fans” of a product. Another component of the new strategy, dubbed Beacon, lets marketers send Facebook members alerts when a new product is being discussed by the Facebookers’ friends. Powerful companies like Verizon, Conde Nast and Coca-Cola have already signed on.

“The whole aim,” reports Mark Walsh of Online Media Daily, “is to turn Facebook users into product endorsers who can spread brand messages virally through their online connections.”

But for all the hoopla accompanying big advertising’s entrĂ©e to the “social graph” that is Facebook’s singular niche in the world of commuication, Facebook may have overlooked something fundamental about its own community – a cultural distinction that could short-circuit marketers’ best-storyboarded plans.

There’s no denying that the Facebook strategy could be a boon to advertisers increasingly eager to target potential customers in their native habitat. Advertisers online are relentlessly exploring new ways of demographic, contextual and behavioral targeting, the better to sell their products to people who actually want them. For them, the Internet is fertile territory; the market research firm eMarketer reported recently that ad dollars continue to migrate to the Web, expected to top $21 billion in 2008.

But Facebook’s eager appeal to marketers gives some of its 52 million members cause for concern.

One matter has to do with the pertinence of the brand to the Facebook user’s lifestyle spend. For the untried brand – the company hoping to stretch beyond its usual demographic – it could well be seen as a transparent bid for attention, with none of the necessary understanding of the desires of the consumer in question. Charles Rosen, founding partner of Amalgamated ad agency, may have got it right in the Online Media Daily story. "If a marketer isn't already projecting itself as a meaningful brand with a distinct message, then going on Facebook isn't going to help."

Another thing already concerning some in the blogosphere has to do with privacy – an old issue for Facebook. In September 2006, the social site made a misstep when it introduced News Feed, a feature intended to reveal everything members did on the site, from declaring a favorite song to the process of adding or subtracting friends contacted on the site -- bird-dogging members’ movements in a fashion some said was straight out of Orwell.

“The outrage was enormous,” reported Bruce Schneier that month in Wired News. “One group, Students Against Facebook News Feeds, amassed over 700,000 members. Members planned to protest at the company's headquarters. Facebook's founder was completely stunned, and the company scrambled to add some privacy options.”

What Wired News characterized as “the Facebook riots” was an object lesson for Facebook, which discovered ways in which privacy was, and remains, the third-rail issue for many of its members.

Does Beacon create a new privacy issue? Is the new Facebook initiative different enough from the “News Feed” goof to prevent members from feeling violated again?

True, the Beacon feature gives members the choice of opting out of the interaction with advertisers. But one suspects that Facebook’s newest flirtation with marketers will be seen as a betrayal of sorts.

Consider the Facebook demographic. The site, begun as a networking project among Harvard students in early 2004, still has a majority of its users who are very young, despite inroads with an older audience. The Wall Street Journal reports the average Facebooker is all of 21. One blogger, citing graphs charting the ages of Facebook users at two universities (Connecticut College and MIT), pegged the age of the average Facebooker as between 15 and 26 years old.

Those are the years of independence and willful rebellion, of sticking a finger in the eye of anything that moves, of all kinds of activities meant to frustrate all kinds of authority figures. Like corporations and advertisers with deep pockets.

What if Facebook users decide not to play ball? Some part of the latest Facebook strategy will no doubt depend on contextual targeting. Say if a Facebook member writes to another member something about the iPod. Tipped off by the word “iPod,” the Beaconized message received by the second member from the first member may well contain the Apple logo and a link to the Apple home page for news or a sales message about the portable music device.

But what if the Facebooker writing the first message decides to deliberately frustrate the Beacon feature – describing the iPod as an “eye-A od-pay,” invoking pig Latin or some other coded language (“Jobs machine,” “portapoddy”), as a way to thwart the marketer’s contextual connection? No context engine is that good.

Is that a stretch? Maybe. Since Facebook’s Beacon feature is intended to be voluntary, anyone who agrees to use the Beacon service may well not mind linkages to the products and brands offered by marketers. But the potential for such benign mischief is certainly there.

Now as always, the Internet is happily populated by mavericks and iconoclasts of all stripes, many of whom delight in frustrating the best intentions of major corporations – the better, in their minds, to keep the Internet on the frontier of electronic freedom.

One of the early appeals of Facebook was its unruly, renegade nature – the very essence of the viral online experience that users may feel is, to one degree or another, being commoditized away. Zuckerberg & Co. may not have considered a main reason for Facebook’s phenomenal success: its status as a sanctuary from advertising, a place to go to get away from marketers and advertisers, not to be subjected to a new way of being hounded by them.

Facebook’s new venture may have the intent of furthering the conversation between members of a community, and widening that community to include sellers of products the community wants. But there’s a thin line between opening the bazaar to salesmen and being a salesman yourself.
Photo credit: This photo is released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license.
Update: MediaPost reporter Wendy Davis writes on Nov. 9 about another issue for Facebook: “[R]eal questions have surfaced about whether the [new Facebook ad platform] program is even legal. … The problem, according to University of Minnesota Law School professor William McGeveran, is that a 104-year-old New York law prohibits advertisers from using photos, drawings or other likenesses of people without their written permission. Courts in other states as well have held that people can sue when photos or drawings of them are used in ads without their consent.”

1 comment:

  1. Facebook is a strange phenomenon. I think part of the draw was the clean interface of a myspace-like social network. It was simply less annoying than myspace. However, with the addition of the news feed feature and also the ability to add applications to profiles, it's become a little less clean, and a little more like myspace every day. You raise some interesting issues for sure.


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