The internet is ablaze with chatter of how Facebook is "backstabbing" advertisers and "corroding" the relationships between brands and the followers they have worked so hard to attain. Between Eat24's heartfelt breakup letter to Facebook and Nate Elliot's "told you so" article on Forrester's blog, many companies and commentators have very publicly voiced their opinion on Facebook's decision to limit organic reach and drive marketers to paid advertising.
But before you sever your social marketing ties with Facebook, take a second and review the situation. Facebook isn't necessarily backstabbing marketers (although it is trying to make money). Instead, the social network is simply growing up and going down the natural path of marketing evolution -- one that we've already seen with search.
It happened before
As former VP-search at Yahoo, I saw a similar pattern a decade ago. As part of their initial go-to-market plans, Yahoo and Google both offered free traffic for a limited time to business sites. As a result, Yahoo and Google were able to improve and refine the relevance of search while simultaneously building a large and loyal user base. Once they achieved this, both companies monetized their large audiences by offering advertising through Yahoo Overture and Google Adwords.
Businesses that initially enjoyed completely free site traffic had to start competing in paid search ads as well as search engine optimization in order to maintain position. Today, businesses understand that investing in paid search and SEO are necessary to drive relevant traffic to their sites. More recently, Google increased its focus on the quality of content in paid and organic search. When companies try to game the system with generic, bland content or excessive links, their rankings and traffic drop. If you want to keep rankings or traffic high, you have to pay attention to its criteria, pay to stay on top in sponsored links and keep up with SEO.
Facebook is protecting quality
We're witnessing the same process underway at Facebook, so don't take it personally. Facebook is not targeting or attacking the businesses it spent so many years cultivating -- it's just the natural evolution in marketing. There are now 1.3 billion people actively logging into Facebook every month, and similar to Google's and Yahoo's go-to-market strategies, Facebook has spent the last few years getting businesses hooked on the free traffic.
However, Facebook realizes that the value of traffic depends on the quality, not quantity, of content. There are many reasons people "like" or become a fan of a business page. Perhaps you are a loyal consumer. In many cases though, you probably liked a page for the chance to win a convertible, a free vacation or another one-off giveaway. This means that you don't want to always see offers or promotions from that brand. Without some boundaries, the current technique of spamming fans would eventually annoy users, driving down engagement and conversion for the business and Facebook.
Facebook targeting is evolving
Now that Facebook is prioritizing relevance, the ability to use predictive social analytics to identify quality content is more critical than ever before. The old method of inundating fans with multiple offers is no longer effective. Businesses must focus on messaging that their audience cares about.
But how do you know what your audience cares about? The answer is simple -- they tell you! Social media is a cornucopia of public information -- particularly facts about people's personal lives. Moreover, Facebook's recent implementation of hashtags and Instagram acquisition make it easier for companies to use predictive social analytics to identify hot leads, increasing the chance for conversion. From "#itsaboy" announcements to "#ihateapple" rants, consumers constantly tell businesses what they want (or don't want). Brands can then predict buying behavior based on these announcements of definitive events or personal preferences that require specific products or services.
The lesson of the story is: Don't let a few jaded commentators convince you that all hope is lost and don't let a few evolutionary marketing changes cause you to break up with Facebook. Instead, work to keep the relationship strong and effective by understanding the changes and adapting your strategy.
Or you could try taking a page out of Eat24's PR playbook. Its breakup letter may have gotten the company more attention than any of its previous campaigns. But there may be diminishing returns that way.