The web is buzzing with arguments that Facebook has become a bad deal for marketers. On Forrester's blog, Nate Elliot wrote that brands can now reach just 6% of their fans organically, citing a recent study from Ogilvy. Brands are also discovering that a lot of their "likes" come from fake fans. Elliot cites blog posts from several companies that detected "like fraud" ranging from 40% to 90%.
For years, brands spent millions on Facebook, thinking it would be their earned media channel, but recently, Facebook has decided that the way to drive revenue is to force brands to pay to reach their fans. This strategy netted Facebook $7.87 billion in revenue last year and has left social marketers without a significant earned media solution -- or so they think.
From brand reach to advocate reach
But Facebook is not screwing brands the way marketers might believe. By limiting the reach of brands, Facebook is not simply driving advertisers to paid ads, but also protecting the value of the social network and its shareholders. With Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and others becoming meccas for social marketing, Facebook cannot sacrifice the user experience in the name of marketing. Were their news feeds to overflow with brands posts instead of content from friends, people would abandon Facebook in droves.
People want real conversations and content from people they actually know, trust and like. You don't need 1 million fans to have reach -- what you need is a group of loyal brand advocates who feel strongly that they can benefit their friends and themselves by engaging with your brand and sharing your content. In fact, our research at SocialChorus shows that as few as 260 advocates can reach more than 1 million fans.
People have a deep biological yearning to share their immediate experience and a social impetus to build their self-concept on the web; associating with brand content helps them to do both. Moreover, the evolution of social decision-making has made humans intrinsically altruistic -- even when doing so might not fulfill their immediate self interest. Under these forces, people are prolific sharers.
So rather than lamenting the end of organic reach, brands need to empower people to share their message and thereby rebuild their earned media channel. Brand advocates -- a company's customers, employees and business partners -- will become allies in this effort to share the brand message, if and only if brands meet a few criteria.
Identify your real advocates
If your brand is successful, you have advocates that love your product, love working for or with your company, respect your company and tell their friends and family how awesome your brand is. You need to identify them on the social web, where word-of-mouth can scale. This sounds easy in concept, but it actually takes some careful research, especially in industries where "dark" social sharing (i.e. emails, face-to-face conversations and instant messaging) is prominent. This is not something that Facebook's paid targeting tools can do for you.
Look out for your advocates
You shoot your brand and your advocates in the feet if you publish content that no one wants to share. You must build and uphold a reputation for generating and distributing superb content. Typically, great content is not promotional -- it's interesting, funny, inspiring, educational or somehow beneficial in its own right. Instead of paying for reach, you need to create content so good that people will want to extend the reach of your brand.
Provide exclusive access, behind-the-scenes "insider" engagement and VIP experiences for the advocates who spread your brand message. Even if real fans aren't spreading the word in expectation of a reward, you stand to strengthen that relationship when you surprise your advocates with your thanks. Most fans feel invisible because brands can't hear, see or honor their loyalty. Make your advocates feel respected and visible. For those brands that gained or could have gained an organic following at scale, but lost this earned media channel due to rule changes at Facebook, advocates are the answer.
Facebook isn't screwing brands -- it's saying hey, if you want to build a social presence, you need to start authentic conversations and let people run with them. So marketers, you can either pay for Facebook to promote you, or you can become a remarkable brand -- one worth remarking on. It's your choice.