GM Bookends Facebook’s Comeback Story

Mobile-first focus helps win back auto giant

General Motors' return to Facebook advertising may as well as put a bow on what's turned out to be a comeback story for the social giant in the last year. GM seemingly hexed CEO Mark Zuckerberg's baby by famously stating the carmaker was no longer a paying customer three days prior to his company's ridiculously hyped initial public offering in May 2012. Since then, Facebook's stock on the street has slowly rebounded from disastrous lows to respectability—shares are currently priced at roughly $28, or what impervious-to-the-clamor analysts thought it was worth at the time of the IPO.

This boomerang path belongs to COO Sheryl Sandberg and Facebook Marketing Solutions lead Carolyn Everson, who have convinced brands to bide with their team's ongoing product changes while—and this is most important—bolstering their mobile ads offering. So when the automotive behemoth yesterday said it was buying Facebook mobile ads to promote its Chevy Sonic to young, on-the-go consumers, well, compared to the negative spot in which Facebook stood last summer, it's arguable that the narrative couldn't have recently come full circle more nicely for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based tech company.

Does GM inadvertently deserve some credit for whipping Facebook into shape? The town-square criticism probably didn't hurt the social firm's motivation to accelerate ad-minded iterations, say industry players.

"The GM decision to pull ads called to light the improvements Facebook needed to make in a very public way," said Jeff Lantcot, global chief media officer at Razorfish. "Though at the same time, I think Facebook was already on the road to improve its marketing products. The thing about Facebook is they value getting to market quickly, and they aren't afraid to make mistakes."

Harley Block, svp of brand development and marketing at Rokkan, pointed to Facebook's mobile-first perspective—with its purchase of Instagram and other mobile-oriented entities—as the key reason why the digital giant has regained the confidence of industry players like GM. The company's "Home" integration with HTC and AT&T won't hurt the momentum, Block suggested.

"Facebook's come a long way with mobile," he said. "The time spent on mobile—especially among younger people—has skyrocketed. It's tough not to fold Facebook into the marketing mix. And so much has changed in the last year, as Facebook has tried to convince Wall Street that they have this figured out. I think [Facebook execs] Sheryl Sandberg and Carolyn Everson have done a good job with that. Everson, in particular, has constantly been out there talking with the industry."

Improved ad-targeting features, such as custom audiences, and better return-on-investment tracking are chief to Facebook's recovery from what once appeared to be a free fall, said Rob Leathern, CEO of digital marketing vendor Optimal.

"We've seen trending successes with those changes," he said. "Before then, it was difficult to prove ROI."

Whether GM's Facebook flip-flop translates into a healthy ROI remains to be seen, per Dyfed Richards, global cd at The Brand Union. "Being 'back' on Facebook is a smart move if that is where their demographic goes to seek information and discuss the subject," he said. "GM needs to be contributing to the conversation in a responsible and transparent manner."

Maybe more than anything, Lantcot from Razorfish added, GM's re-entry as a Facebook advertiser could mark the end to the business world generally overreacting to developments around the social site. Indeed, it appears doubtful that the social firm will see another up-and-down year of this magnitude.

"Now that the hype and the backlash have faded away from both the street and the marketing-community perspective," he said, "we have arrived at a more reasoned view of Facebook. For marketers in particular, we can see the number of users and the engagement level. It's a no-brainer that Facebook is going to be an important marketing partner for any brand in the foreseeable future."

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.