Opinion: If Facebook doesn’t move fast, it may break its most valuable asset—its brand
The Facebook boycott—which includes more than 500 companies, from Coca-Cola to Denny’s to Unilever—has gained momentum. But will it get enough traction to drive the change its organizers seek?
That’s a more complex question than you might think. The answer depends on how one measures the boycott’s power and quantifies its results. The boycott clearly has gotten the social media giant’s attention: Facebook executives, including founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, met virtually with the activists leading the boycott to discuss issues including removing hate-driven content from the site. But the boycotters left unimpressed and plan to release a scathing independent audit of Facebook’s civil rights practices. Zuckerberg has expressed skepticism about the campaign’s impact, saying he expects the advertisers to return “soon enough.”
Indeed, much has been made of the number of companies and the ad dollars that the walkout is depriving Facebook. But short-term finances are not what will propel this movement’s success or failure. The boycott’s power lies less in its financial might than its PR profile.
To this point, according to new Harris polling, the movement is winning hearts if not spurring actions. While 43 percent of U.S. adults are ambivalent about the actual boycott, the civil rights activists have broad support: 47 percent of Americans said they would have a more positive view of brands that suspend their social media advertising because of hate speech, versus only 10 percent who said they would have a more negative view of such companies.
Furthermore, the boycotters also have an edge among those willing to change their own spending habits, according to the poll. More than one quarter of Americans (27 percent) said they would be more likely to buy products from companies that have stopped advertising on social media in order to protest hate speech; in contrast, 23 percent said they would be less likely to do so.
A perplexing contradiction
Yet the same survey found Facebook to be overwhelmingly the most popular social media platform, with fully 75 percent of Americans claiming they use the platform—more than YouTube (60 percent), Instagram (46 percent), Twitter (31 percent), Pinterest (30 percent) or Snapchat (27 percent). Although Americans support and applaud the boycott, they aren’t changing their own habits. It's no surprise that users find it hard to stop scrolling through their feeds and posting validation-seeking pictures, especially at a time of diminished in-person social activity.
This seeming contradiction can be perplexing. Keep in mind, consumer sentiment is one thing; behavior can often show something else. So what does this mean for the boycott movement?
On one hand, companies gain a brand boost by doing what seems right by standing with civil and equal rights at a time of national turmoil and racial reconciliation. And on a more practical level, as firms scramble to cut costs in the face of the economic slowdown, advertising dollars unspent are a bonus.
On the other hand, the boycotters are a drop in the social media giant’s bucket. According to USA Today, in the first half of 2020, advertisers spent more than $4 billion on Facebook ads, and the top 100 advertisers—nearly all pledging to boycott—accounted for only 6 percent of that figure. Facebook’s sweet spot contains smaller and mid-sized companies that can afford its rates, which are cheaper and more finely targeted than platforms including television and print. With an unmatched audience and unparalleled knowledge of those consumers, Facebook is just a logical place for small ad buys.
Bad narrative for Facebook
But raw dollar amounts aren’t the right metric by which to measure the boycott’s potency. The same poll numbers showing that consumers think that companies are doing something right by pulling out of Facebook imply that the company itself is doing something wrong. That’s a narrative Facebook cannot afford to let solidify. That’s why Zuckerberg and Sandberg took the Zoom meeting with the boycott leaders—they know their optics problem is more serious than their financial one. And it would also explain the anger and frustration the meeting generated on the activist side. “Facebook approached our meeting today like it was nothing more than a PR exercise,” Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of Free Press told reporters afterward.
The bottom line is that Facebook can weather a mild drop in revenue. But it could lose the value it has today that drives overall revenue. If people see it less as a benign social connection forum than some combination of callous and hate-filled, they might look for another platform where they can connect with friends and family.
If Facebook doesn’t move fast, it might break its most valuable asset: its brand.