The Facebook Dilemma | Adweek
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The Facebook Dilemma

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Facebook privacy -- or the lack thereof -- has been in the news a lot, which is ironic because Facebook is a platform ostensibly based entirely on sharing. Obviously, people are concerned about with whom they share things, but that's not exactly the same thing as privacy. As much as people are concerned about sharing something overly personal with the wrong friend, coworker or parent, they're much more concerned about sharing with us.

This is not to say people won't interact with brands on Facebook -- many, of course, already do. A look at the top brand pages shows plenty have millions of people who have opted in. In general, however, people want to avoid sharing their information with marketers, advertising people, the media and those in public relations.

Interestingly, for all the buzz generated every time Facebook revises its privacy policy, marketers really haven't done anything too terrible on Facebook. This has a lot to do with Facebook doing a pretty remarkable job of making it hard for brands to do things that are intrusive -- to the point where Facebook is not as useful for marketers as we might like.

Facebook knows all sorts of stuff about its users, but it's using that information in a super elementary way. The basic feature set doesn't allow you to target with much more accuracy than you can with TV or magazines. You get basic age, location and interest, but a lot of the juicy information is held back. Facebook does let you be much more specific than traditional media, like targeting only people who are, for example, 23-years-old, instead of an age range or demographic. But there aren't really many situations where that level of granularity is useful. Most brands only have enough resources to customize their ads so much.

In the same way that "loss of privacy" is the enemy of the free-thinking Facebook user, the homogeny of the Facebook experience has become an enemy for brands.  We know our audience is there, and we can target and find them pretty easily. The challenge is that there aren't obviously useful features or tools available for marketers, and it's pretty tough to build something that feels unique. It's similar to Twitter and YouTube and Google AdWords -- platforms with constrained feature sets and few (but growing) options for creating interesting ad experiences.

In most cases marketers just get a spot where they can add a logo, maybe a gutter they can control on the left and right of the page, and then they're in the feed with everyone else. In a way it's like forcing them to communicate with their audiences through Google Reader. It strips the charm and eccentricity and fashion away, and leaves them with, well, a sponsored page on a Web site.

This is a kind of regression for branding -- a pulling back from some of the wild experimentation of the early days of the Web. We can't dress things up in the same way or make them as fun or special, and marketers sure can't be reposting or referring to the same content everyone else is if they want to stand out. The Internet has become mass to the point where brands can theoretically reach tens of millions of people at the same time, but it has become a lot harder to break through. It might be a few years before Facebook starts making it easier to do what we want to do, so what do we do in the meantime?

Maybe we should start with looking at the things that can be done easily. Maybe Facebook could give a brand the opportunity to own "birthdays" in a new way. Or if a marketer spent all kinds of money on its TV ad licensing an Iggy Pop song -- like Royal Caribbean Cruises did with "Lust for Life" -- maybe it can send the spot to everyone on Facebook who "likes" Iggy.

Maybe we can invert the hierarchy between Facebook as mass online and TV as mass offline. Instead of trying to sell an ocean cruise with "Lust for Life," Royal Caribbean could use Facebook to figure out what sort of people go on cruises and what sort of music those people like, and then decide what song to license and then put that song in the spot along with some sweet shots of shuffleboard -- and then feed that back to the people you know like both cruises and, say, Jimmy Buffett.

We might end up thinking about Facebook less as a place to run ads and more as an invaluable real-time research lab. At the same time, we'd do an end run around the half-billon people bound to cry foul anytime Facebook revises its privacy policy to make its platform a friendlier place for marketers.

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group.