So brands, it turns out, are not people after all—at least on Facebook.
The social media giant moved last week (and actually has been moving for some time) toward restricting the organic reach of pages associated with brands. What does that mean? Well, if you’re a brand, it means you're soon going to have to pay for Facebook advertising if you want to reach Facebook’s users.
If you listen carefully, you can hear the collective updating of résumés across the land by marketing strategists who have encouraged brands to invest time and resources in amassing a huge audience on Facebook. They managed to build an audience all right (Starbucks has over 36 million fans and Nike has nearly 17 million) but that audience belongs to Facebook. And Facebook, which is a public company with aggressive revenue goals, will do what it wants with that audience, including charging boatloads of cash to reach those eyeballs.
As John Battelle noted last week, becoming a brand publisher is an existential choice—it’s not “should I publish content," it’s “where should I publish content.” Until now, Facebook (and to a lesser extent, Twitter and Tumblr) has been an easy choice—it’s free, there’s a built-in audience, and the content that does well is relatively easy to produce. But at the end of the day, it’s the equivalent of building a house on land you don’t own. You may have paid for the materials and done all the work—and maybe even put up some nice drapes and a granite countertop—but once the landlord comes around, you’re out of luck.
On the other hand, brands that have put the time and effort into building their own content properties, like American Express and Red Bull, are feeling pretty good about themselves. And brands that are still in the process of deciding what kind of publisher they want to be suddenly have a much easier choice. Building on the backs of other publishers is simpler, but what you gain in ease you lose in control.
And this is all in all a good thing. After all, what does a Facebook like really mean to a brand? Is it a captive audience? Is it really an indication of brand affinity? Are people who like a brand page really more likely to purchase that brand’s products? Maybe. But I would submit to the jury that what those people are really “fans” of is Facebook itself.
Publishers who depend on Facebook for traffic should take heed as well. Some, like Upworthy, have been burned already. Others are in the clear—for now. But Facebook shouldn’t be mistaken for an ally. It’s most likely just biding its time before it drops the hammer on those publishers as well.
One metaphor I like in working with Facebook is like the famous f**k you, pay me scene in the movie Goodfellas. Publishers are all getting fat off the benefits of free Facebook traffic for now, but when Facebook decides it wants to start charging (and it will), they'd better be ready to pay up.
Business bad? F*ck you, pay me. Traffic down? F*ck you, pay me. CPMs falling? F*ck you, pay me.
Sure, Facebook depends on publishers for the content that populates News Feeds … but in reality, who depends more on whom?
In an era where everyone is a publisher, owning your own audience is more valuable than ever—and there are no shortcuts. It’s time consuming, and it’s not cheap. But it’s the only answer to a new media world that’s changing as fast as brands can keep up.