Facebook’s John Yi on the state of the Preferred Marketing Developer program

It’s been just over six months since Facebook created the Preferred Marketing Developer program, which certifies developers with badges in up to four areas: ads, apps, pages and insights.

In that time, Facebook has introduced a host of new ad types and page products — mobile app install ads, custom audience targeting, sponsored results, FBX, offers, advanced post targeting, tiered admin access and more. PMDs have merged, been acquired and raised significant funding. The landscape is more complicated and more competitive than ever.

But while marketers are growing increasingly sophisticated and turning to PMDs for solutions, many of the frustrations that developers have had for years remain. Facebook moves fast; APIs are unreliable; there’s not enough support. Then there’s the surprise new Strategic Preferred Marketing Developer classification, which gives 12 companies access to alpha and beta products, as well as more support from Facebook’s business, product and engineering teams. sPMD companies will also serve on Facebook’s new PMD Executive Council.

We spoke with Facebook’s PMD Program Manager John Yi to get a sense of where Facebook sees the program now, how it’s growing and what the sPMD label is all about.

The first thing Yi tells us is that the PMD program, like everything at Facebook, is a work in progress.

“We’re closer to the beginning of this than the end,” he says.

Facebook’s goal with the PMD badges was to introduce some structure and classify developers by discipline but also to show how ads, apps, pages and insights are connected. The most successful marketing efforts on Facebook will touch on all four areas, and over the past six to eight months we’ve seen PMDs building technology and forging partnerships to make this easier. These include layering the ads and insights APIs to identify potential candidates for page post ads, or apps and ads companies working together to create custom Open Graph Sponsored Stories.

Internally, Facebook has reorganized to bring relevant teams together and better serve marketers and PMDs. VP of Global Partnerships Blake Chandlee, who led the agency relations team, now oversees the PMD program as well, so that people who manage relationships with technology and service providers are both under the same branch. The PMD team also works closely with the Facebook product marketing team, which has recently reorganized by verticals. This allows client partners and PMD managers to connect about what different marketers need.

One issue that’s been identified is how brands and agencies find vendors. Facebook is looking to replace the current PMD directory this month with a PMD Center including more information, case studies and options to contact companies and submit RFPs through the system. Similar to the App Center, the new PMD Center will include a ranking algorithm to surface personalized results and help match marketers with the appropriate PMDs. Facebook also recently hired a sales liaison to help the internal sales team understand the capabilities of each PMD so representatives can connect brands and agencies with the right vendors. The company has other open positions for a PMD business development manager, a marketing communications manager and a few partner managers.

Still, Facebook maintains a “very, very lean team,” as Yi says, and there aren’t enough partner managers to provide one-on-one support for more than 300 developers. Even if there’s demand from PMDs, that’s not necessarily enough for Facebook to devote more resources to the program. The data-driven company instead looks at product adoption in the marketplace, as well as activity and engagement with PMD solutions. For example, how often are marketers using page management tools to make posts and how are those posts received by fans? And though Yi didn’t say it, the amount of revenue PMDs drive through ads would be another major factor.

“I’ve been pleased that the company has invested in the program and that we’re getting additional resources,” Yi says. “Of course, wanting the program to succeed, I’ll always want more, but we’re in a pretty good spot where we’re able to hire out and get to the next step. And of course we’ll have to show impact there, and perhaps we’ll re-evaluate in another six months or so.”

Developers seem pleased that Facebook is building out its team, but they wonder whether it will make a difference when there are so many developers in the program. Is the PMD list too big?

“There are two ways to look at that question,” Yi says. “Is it too big for the support that we have? Though we’re managing it fairly well, I think there’s always a demand for more support so we’re going to continue to try to improve there. But [the question] implies also that there’s some sort of finite amount of opportunity, which I don’t think we’ve gotten anywhere close to realizing. There’s a vastly larger pie that I think companies can think about building into.”

Without a big team, Facebook prioritizes who it works with, giving more attention to a smaller group of PMDs rather than giving reduced support to everyone. In the last quarter, Facebook doubled the amount of support it provides top developers, which includes other companies besides the 12 sPMDs, Yi says.

But for developers, there’s a chicken-egg problem. PMDs want to work more closely with Facebook, but they can only do so if they are already showing some level of success and future potential. This is one of the main criticisms of the new Strategic PMD label; it gives additional status and resources to the most prominent companies, while in the process making non-sPMDs seem second rate. Clients and potential clients want to know why a company didn’t get the “strategic” title and wonder whether they should work with another vendor that might have a better relationship with Facebook or access to newer features.

Even if the label creates this dichotomy, Facebook stands behind its decision to highlight a few companies as “strategic.” The company wants to show marketers who is “most well aligned with where Facebook is going” and set an example for other PMDs.

“We’re using it as a tool to help show the rest of the developer community what they ought to likely be doing as well,” Yi says, later adding, “The positive intended effects of having marketers focus on a subset of PMDs that we feel really strongly about is a good thing for everyone.”

Plus, there’s more to the sPMD program than a title. It’s actually a large commitment, as developers have agreed to test more features and maintain additional standards. We’ve spoken to one sPMD about the difficulty of budgeting for next year knowing Facebook could throw a number of new products and requirements their way. Smaller companies may want the benefits of being an sPMD, but they might not be able to afford the responsibility that comes along with it.

“We made it clear [to sPMDs] that this isn’t a sign of arrival, this is a sign of mutual increased commitment on both ends,” Yi says. “It’s very much a reciprocal up-leveling. If you’re able to meet a higher standard of excellence, then we are able to give you additional support.”

Facebook has said it would review the program every six months, possibly adding new companies in or swapping some out, but it is likely to keep the group small. Yi did say, however, that there are opportunities in emerging markets, as the current sPMDs primarily serve the U.S. and other Western areas. Not to mention, the landscape can change quickly. Some of the current sPMDs like GraphEffect are only a few years old, and some of the original Ads API beta partners like Marin Software and TBG Digital haven’t made the list at all.

As for the future of the program as a whole, it’s tough to say where it might go.

“Don’t ask me what’s happening in six months, I have no idea,” Yi says perhaps only half-joking.

As a company, Facebook seems to avoid spending too much time planning the near future because it knows innovation is always around the corner, whether it’s a great idea from an internal team or a bright new start-up. Instead, the company strives to stay flexible, trying different things, evaluating the results and adapting accordingly. Of course, that isn’t much comfort to PMDs or others looking to invest time or money building on the platform.

“We’ve never painted this as an easy place to do work,” Yi says. “There’s a lot of opportunity, but to realize the opportunity in a sustainable way doesn’t allow anyone to rest on his or her laurels.”

The question is, is that attitude sustainable for Facebook itself? Start-ups have the most to gain and the most to lose by building on the platform, so for years many of them have put up with what others would see as an intolerable environment for developers. As PMDs diversify beyond Facebook and get bought by larger companies, though, they have less incentive to endure the frustrations and uncertainties of the social network. For instance, companies like Oracle and Google, which acquired PMDs earlier this year, have 10 times the revenue of Facebook, and there’s arguably little reason for them to bend over backward to develop marketing products that contribute to the social network’s success. How Facebook evolves to build and maintain relationships with other large companies in the next few years could have a significant impact on its future.

Yi says Facebook is committed to creating a platform that provides opportunities for developers and creates better experiences for marketers and users. Hiring more staff and launching PMD Center are just some of the steps in what is “going to continue to be a learning process,” Yi says. Through webinars, case studies, events, emails and one-on-one conversations, Facebook hopes to offer more help and direction to PMDs over time.

“Sometimes you might have to read slightly between the lines — we can’t be completely open about our products — but if you pay enough attention to the directional guidance,” Yi says, “if you really want to, you’re going to succeed.”