DEBATE: Facebook is Not Blackmailing Brands

by · November 27, 201245 comments

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a point/counter-point response to yesterday’s assertion by Jason Falls that Facebook is Blackmailing Brands.

First things first. Let’s not pretend we’ve never heard of paying a service to deliver opt-in messages.  M’kay?

Over the last week, I’ve seen a lot of business owners and marketers decrying the changes Facebook has made to EdgeRank which have affected the likelihood that your Business Page content will reach your fans.  Some people, including our Editor-In-Chief Jason Falls, equate these changes to Facebook blackmailing brands to use Promoted Posts to reach their hard-earned (or expensively purchased, depending on your methodology) likers with content they opted in to receive.

Not so fast.

Is it frustrating to have to pay for something you’re used to getting for free? Sure. Nobody likes paying for something they’ve grown accustomed to getting for free. But the modern social web was built on freeware that eventually either matured into a paid service, or disappeared. Whining about it makes you sound like the guy complaining that the open bar at his cousin’s wedding closed down before he reached his desired state of inebriation.

Is Facebook deliberately demoting the EdgeRank of brand content to boost their paid service? Maybe, maybe not. Possibly your content isn’t getting served because it kind of sucked. Facebook lives and dies by user satisfaction, and according to Forbes, users are considerably happier with their feeds after the EdgeRank changes. If your content didn’t prompt consistent signals from users that it was content they liked, that might be why it’s getting served less often for free.

Is what Facebook’s doing blackmail? Not even close.

With Promoted Posts, you’re paying for access to a particular kind of inbox. It’s no different than what Feedblitz, MailChimp, Exact Target or any other email marketing tool out there does.  It’s taking your content and delivering it to your list. Period.

Yes, your fans have opted in to receive your business’ content. Yes, you’ve probably worked your butt off and potentially incurred hard costs to build that list. Just like you have to do with an email newsletter. You have no problem with paying an email marketing tool to deliver that content to your customers, leads and prospects, in the channel they’ve said they prefer.

Why is it different if the delivery mechanism is Facebook? Is their technology somehow less valuable than that of Exact Target, when it’s doing the same thing? There’s a reason you send marketing emails through a tool, not directly from Outlook or Gmail. Deliverability. Because if you send out 10,000 copies of the same sales email to everyone in your address book, what’s going to happen?

Exactly what’s happening to your spammy Facebook Page updates. It’s going to get caught in some form of spam filtering system. Also, you’re not going to have any kind of metrics on deliverability, open rates and click throughs.

Kind of like the metrics you get in your Facebook Campaign Insights. The kind of analytics you’re used to paying for an email marketing tool to get, along with better deliverability.

My next thought was “Maybe the problem isn’t that they’re charging to deliver messages. Maybe people are complaining about how much they’re charging to deliver marketing messages.” To see if Facebook was wildly gouging prices compared to email marketing, I did a quick little experiment.

The cost of promoting a recent post from Social Media Explorer’s Facebook Page was $40 to deliver to 9.8k – 18.2k fans and friends of fans (our total number of Page Likes was 11,224 that day).  I compared that to the pricing structure of Feedblitz, which we use to deliver our blog content to subscribers who’ve opted to receive posts by email. It’s not apples to apples, but Feedblitz would charge $75 at the low end (5,000-9,999) and $140 at the high end (15,000-19,999).  A quick look at MailChimp and Campaign Monitor tell me that they’re priced comparably to FeedBlitz.

So no, Facebook isn’t blackmailing brands. They’re not even price gouging, if you’re comparing them to a similar “opt-in message delivery” platform.

Facebook is already giving away a lot of real estate for free, guys. How many small businesses have launched in the last couple of years who’ve completely forgone a business website* because they can claim squatters rights on Facebook? They get their business name in a short, memorable URL; upload as many photo and video files as they want; have them get served as often as their visitors like; and don’t have to pay for hosting or domain registration. Bandwidth and web storage ain’t free, kiddos. Except on Facebook.

But that’s apparently not enough for businesses, brands and marketers. We feel like Facebook owes us the opportunity to spam the crap out of our hand-raisers, even if they’ve possibly been quietly lowering those hands by hiding our stories and submitting them in spam complaints. (Both of which have gone down, according to Facebook, since the EdgeRank changes).

How dare they attempt to charge us a fee to send marketing messages? Who do they think they are? The modern-day newspaper or local TV newscast? The post-Millenial postal service?

Well, actually, yeah. And they’re not wrong.

Maybe in making us think for a second about whether that post is worth paying money to send, we’ll think a little harder about whether it’s worth our hand-raisers time and attention to read.

And maybe if we’d been doing that all along, we wouldn’t be complaining about taking a hit in EdgeRank now.

 *Note: I’m not saying it’s a smart strategy. I’m just saying I’ve seen a ton of small local business decide it’s worth the risk.
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About Kat French

Kat French

Kat French is the Digital Operations Manager at CafePress. An exceptional writer both on the web and in other genres, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in community management, SEO/PPC, social media strategy and program management. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, Optima Batteries and more.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.brainwads.net/drewhawkins Drew Hawkins

    At the end of the day, Facebook at least appears to be making user happiness the priority over brand happiness. Sure, brands are the ones that actually pay Facebook and its shareholders. However, if users aren’t happy, they’ll find greener pastures. Without users, brands have nobody to market to…

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      “Without users, brands have nobody to market to…”

      Exactly. Facebook has plenty of ways for users to signal what they like and don’t like. If Facebook lets marketers spam users with abandon, they it creates a user experience problem. The whole system depends on user satisfaction. It’s like vampires versus zombies. Nobody talks about a vampire apocalypse, because vampires are smart enough not to wipe out their own food source. Facebook is being a vampire; they may be leeching their livelihood off selling access to users’ brains, but they’re smart enough not to let unrestrained marketing kill the cash cow. 

      I have somehow managed to turn this marketing reply into a science fiction/horror fable. Sorry.

      • Brad Lovett

        I thought I was alone in thinking that that Facebook doesn’t owe marketers, or any of us, unrestrained access to our page “likers”. We have to earn that “like” every day. Marketers having themselves tied up in knots over “Facebook hiding my posts” are going to need to adapt to the reality or find something that works better. We have plenty of pages that are still earning shares, comments and conversions. We have used promoted posts sparingly, usually when they are already taking off on their own. A $250 promotion helped us get 40,000 likes and 2000 shares, and after a month, it’s still getting comments and shares. Some claim to want an Edgerank free Facebook, thinking that would mean everyone would see everything (including 10 Auto Zone posts every day), but I can remember all the complaints when users couldn’t hide game posts (you really want to see everytime one of your 400 friends guesses a new song on Songpop, or wins coins in Farmville?) and constant “Joe Blow likes Hostess Twinkies” posts. Edgerank, with lists and tweaking, works fine for me. Feed me all the brand pages I’ve liked and I’m unliking all but about 10.

      • Nichole_Kelly

        Umm…okay this is where I have to jump in. Love that you just turned this into a vampire apocalypse analogy!

        Here’s my issue. I argue that Facebook isn’t making the user experience “better” with the new algorithm. In fact, my experience has become worse. I don’t see my friends content. I see a bunch of sponsored stuff and I have no way to say, stop showing me that crap and give me my friends and organic content back. At least that I can find.  

        There are two challenges for me here:

        1) when brands are “paying” for a post it immediately gets categorized into their brains as an ad versus a status update that should engage users. This has made the content worse in my personal stream. Now I’ve got a bunch of ads that I can’t even say are mediocre.

        2) as a user, I can’t say, yes I DO want to see everything and let me sort through the mess I’ve just subscribed to

        As a brand I’m annoyed because even with client’s who have really good content it is harder to get that content in-front of eye balls so that it can be liked, commented on, or shared. Do we “deserve” the right to have our content showed to everyone who liked it? No. I think that’s crazysauce. But I’d prefer that it was handled like Twitter. If I follow a brand on Twitter and I’m online when their status update comes across or has been shared by another user, I see it. It’s a beautiful relationship. 

        The advertising model is a Facebook Face Plant in my opinion. It’s allowed brands with lots of money to game the system and puts the underdog at a severe disadvantage. Leveling the playing field was the beauty of social media. 

        Just because this may be similar to some other traditional marketing channels, doesn’t make it “right”. It just gives precedence for the practice.
         

        • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

          You could use lists to “boost the signal” of friends (put them on the native “Close Friends” list, and the Pages tab for brands, whose content you wanted to be sure to not miss, similar to how some people use lists to manage their unwieldy number of Twitter follows. 

      • http://mysocialgameplan.com/about Jonathan Payne

        Sure, but users have an ignore feature and they have the ability to unlike the page altogether.  If the messages they’re receiving are no longer relevant to them, they can make the decision for themselves.  In exactly the same way as they do with an email — you mark it spam, set up a rule to send it to trash, or you unsubscribe from the list if the content of the emails isn’t valuable to you anymore.

  • http://twitter.com/MarketingMusing Patrick Goodman

    Kat: Fun watching you and Jason have a healthy debate.  I ‘Like’ the analogy of FB (and by extension I see to most social channels) being the post-millennial postal service.

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      Facebook wants to be your inbox. They’ve been pretty clear about that with some of the changes they’ve made to messaging. And for younger millenials, they’re almost there, sharing the space with text messaging. I think Boomers and Gen X are slower to make that connection. 

  • http://scottmonty.com scottmonty

    @JasonFalls & @KatFrench: This debate misses a major point: you’ve never been able to reach all of your Facebook fans (or friends, for that matter). Facebook has never been secretive about that. The algorithm they use attempts to achieve a balanced approach so that feeds are not being overwhelmed by too many posts, from brands or friends.

    What Facebook is doing with their change of terminology (using “virality” instead of “reach”) is trying to reward brands for posting good content. If you don’t post interesting material, it won’t be seen by as many people – a very democratic process, since individuals vote up good content with likes, comments and shares, and vote down poor content by ignoring it.

    If brands are truly concerned with reaching more people on Facebook, they should focus their efforts on creating great content and meeting the needs of consumers, not on having to pay for more people to see their mediocre content.

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      They’ve never been secretive about EdgeRank, but they haven’t been broadcasting it in the past, either. The average non-marketer user has no idea there’s an algo that determines what makes it into their feed. But you make a fair point.

      FWIW, I also disagree with Jason that a “like” means “send me *all* this company’s updates.” Either technically (as you say, the algorithm’s always been in place that prevents that) or in terms of user intent (Scoble’s argument that sometimes it’s just a “hey, I like this company.” 
      I wanted to make one clear and salient argument, but there are a lot of different points to consider. I also agree that tweaking algo changes to improve user satisfaction is smarter in the long run. It’d be great if marketers could be trusted not to wear out and abuse feed access, eventually running off their own fans, but we all know many can’t resist the temptation to beat their hand-raisers’ repeatedly about the head and shoulders with mediocre messages. 

      • http://www.sideraworks.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

        Couple of notes.  Kat: Extremely well written case.   Scott: I agree with the overall sentiment regarding content.  However, I don’t know that I’d call something that you can override with cash as being ‘very democratic’ :)

        • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

          Thanks. And maybe “fair” would be a better term than “democratic.” ;-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9302789 Craig Kessler

       No one is arguing that great content triumphs poor content, but even if you have an A+ post with tons of engagement it still will only reach a maximum of ~16% of your audience.  I don’t know if I would consider that a reward.  Brands should organically be able to reach more fans .

      • http://www.sideraworks.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

        Not really sure ‘should’ is a powerful argument here.

      • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

        I’d point you to Jon Loomer’s point upthread, Craig. If it were an email campaign, an “open rate” of 16% would be… about average. Should you be able to reach more of your fans? I dunno. Should more than 10-20% of the people who signed up for your email campaigns actually open them?

        • http://mysocialgameplan.com/about Jonathan Payne

          Not necessarily, but that is the subscriber’s choice, rather than the choice of the service delivering the emails.  If I use MailChimp and have 100 people on my list, I expect my emails to be sent to all 100 of those people each campaign — it wouldn’t be reasonable for MailChimp to decide only 16 of those emails are going to be sent.  Whether they open them, read them, and take whatever action the email is encouraging is a different issue altogether.

          • Marc

            I think you’re using the wrong point in the analogy. If you use Mailchimp and you have 100 people on your list, but Gmail decides it’s only ever going to let your email into 16 people’s inboxes…

            THAT’S what Facebook is doing.

            As someone who likes a page, it should be MY decision whether I want it in my feed – my EXPLICIT decision. Not Facebook “algorithmically”  deciding I don’t want a page’s content in my feed because I never interact with it.

            Viewing content is interacting with it. But viewing content does Facebook no good cause it doesn’t give it MORE DATA about me to mine.

      • http://scottmonty.com scottmonty

        Only 16% see it *right away*. If fans are taking additional actions – liking, commenting, sharing – more people will see those interactions and thus see the post a a result. You’re rewarded for better content. QED.

        • Nichole_Kelly

          I think the challenge for a lot of companies is that 16% of a small fan base is really small. It’s a little different when you have millions of likes versus 2k. In the scenario of 2k an engaged audience quickly gets turned into a ghost town.:-) 

          • http://scottmonty.com scottmonty

            Which again, is no different than it’s been all along.

  • http://shotgunconcepts.com Chris Houchens

    Let’s pretend it’s old media for a moment. How long would newspapers have lasted if ads outranked editorial copy? How long would you listen to a radio station where an advertiser had their commercial between every song.
    What’s happening (has happened) is that new media is (somewhat) evolving to meet old media standards. Party because that’s the way most brands know how to pay for eyeballs.

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      I love the radio station analogy. And frankly, a couple of months ago, that’s precisely what my personal feed felt like: a radio station where there were more commercials than music. I made adjustments in my settings, but how many average users are going to take that much time, as opposed to just giving up on Facebook in frustration?

      Facebook needs to make sure people don’t change the channel, or the whole thing crumbles. Great point. 

      • http://shotgunconcepts.com Chris Houchens

        Fundamental key for all media (new and old) – Cultivate audience with platform. Sell audience, not platform.

  • http://www.slopefillers.com/ Gregg Blanchard

    In many ways, I think we’ve actually worked ourselves into this corner. Think about an actual stream (not a news feed, but a quaint brook in the mountains). If 10 gallons a second flow down that stream, and you only want 1 gallon to come out at the end, you’ll have to block 9 gallons. If the flow increases to 30 gallons, more and more will be blocked…maybe even some of the water initially used when it was only 10 gallons.

    I track the ski industry, so I’ll use that as my myopic view on the subject.  A year ago today, there were 2.5 million likes of ski resort Facebook pages.  Today, that number is 4.1 million,  Total Facebook users haven’t seen such a dramatic increase which likely means that each user is liking more and more fan pages. That’s our (the marketers) doing. So, why are we so surprised that less of our stuff is coming out the bottom of the funnel when so much more is going in the top?  If EdgeRank only has 10 things to pick from, we’ll get chosen much more often than if there are 100.

    The more we all push for “likes”, the more pages each user will like, the more posts EdgeRank will have to decide between, and fewer of our posts will likely make it to the user. In other words, more likes = more posts I could potential see. More posts = less reach for each post (on average).  I really don’t see this as Facebook’s fault. If it’s anyone’s, it’s our own.

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      Agree. The feed will only hold so much, and all that content has to be throttled some way.

  • Brad B.

    While I agree with the point you’re making – there’s a slight error in the logic surrounding FeedBlitz. Your cost to reach ~15k fans with $40, is for a one-time post. FeedBlitz is charing monthly regardless of your distribution frequency.

    For those of us with 200k+ fans, the spend can reach 3k per post. We’ve learned to understand which content is trending positively, and promote only the successful messages. The spend is well worth it, as we see a strong ROI.

    At the end of the day, I’d rather lean on Facebook to deliver my message to the most appropriate audience. If my message hit everyone of our Fans every-time, they’d “unlike” or unsubscribe. With tailored targeted content, I hit each piece of the fan base with different messaging tailored to their particular interest. 

    As technology evolves, strategy changes. Complaining wont get your brand far, but adapting will.

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      Happy to hear that you’re getting good results by using the algo to vet content response. That kind of adaptation is a lot more productive than complaining. 

      I know the Feedblitz comparison was not perfect, but I wanted to demonstrate that there’s at least a ballpark comparison to be made. 

  • http://jonloomer.com/blog Jon Loomer

    Freaking love this, Kat. I cringed when I read Jason’s post yesterday and saw that you would be posting a response. I applauded it, but feared the reaction. So far, so good!

    So many thoughts here…

    1) Making Facebook better for the user is #1. Brands see this as taking something away, but it’s actually making it better for the user. Marketers are the edge case. Our opinion of what makes a good user experience is seriously skewed.

    2) While my Reach has decreased slightly, my engagement has remained steady or increased (I’ve done several detailed studies on this). This tells me that what Facebook says they’re doing and what they are actually doing are in sync. They aren’t showing my content to the people who don’t give a crap, and they are showing my content to people most likely to engage.

    3) Jason is absolutely wrong that users want to see everything from brands in their News Feeds. That is not what a “Like” implies. I know that I don’t want to see marketing messages from 250 brands in my News Feed every day, and the typical user doesn’t want that either. If I see some of their content, fine. If I see none of it because I never engage with them, that’s fine, too. Facebook takes my cues about what I want to see. And in the end, I’ve never felt like I was missing out.

    4) Is Facebook charging you to now reach your “fans?” Sort of. They’re charging you to reach the people who have shown Facebook with their actions that they don’t care whether or not they get your crappy marketing messages. That, to me, seems like a good trade off.

    5) How many Fans should we reasonably expect to reach? Rule of thumb for email is 20% open rate. We expect more than that for Facebook when it’s a moving target? Only half are on Facebook on a given day and most of the rest won’t be on when you post, but you demand they see your stuff? We seem to be selective when we complain about EdgeRank, forgetting that it also surfaces good content to people who would have otherwise missed it. Yes, EdgeRank can actually help you, too.

    Overall, I’m just tired of the bitching and whining. Be Mark Cuban and leave already.

    I could go on all day about this. But you sum up many of my thoughts nicely. Well done!

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      Thanks for the thorough response, and especially thanks for pointing out another parallel I missed with email: the typical open rate. I’ve worked with clients who would have been delighted with a 16% open rate on an email campaign. Great point. 

  • http://twitter.com/DanOnBranding Dan Gershenson

    Let’s call it like it is. If your “post” is really just a gloried self-promotional ad, you should pay for it. Or not pay for it and live with the fact that less people are going to see it. I don’t love the concept of Promoted Posts at all, but if we have to create content in a world with it, the irony is that this could potentially help brands focus on generating the very best content and then paying for that rather than spewing out “Come on in for 60% off” posts that are, again, just ads. And of course, rather than doing that kind of content anyway, you should be wanting to mix it up with smart content that is of use to the community without expectation of a sale. 

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      Totally agree. The content most likely to get dropped by EdgeRank isn’t really “content”–it’s blatant advertisement. Which you pay to get seen. 

  • http://nickhuhn.com/ nickhuhn

    Just because @JasonFalls likes cheeseburgers doesn’t mean he wants them for every meal. A ‘like’ is a demonstration of interest or affinity, not a subscription. Kat wins. ;)

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      I just today discovered the shocking fact that @JasonFalls also does not want to eat BBQ three meals a day. 

  • http://twitter.com/bigboxcar bigboxcar

    Good post. Jason’s was good as well.

    I sincerely believe Facebook should be charging for distribution. However, instead of allowing brands to target people in probably the most incredible database of user interests and demographic information, they use a flawed voodoo Edgerank algorithm. It’s a pathetic use of awesome.

    Instead, here’s an idea: Force brands to choose a minimum of 4 demographic and/or interests to target their fans. This would:

    1) Limit the number of fans who see the content because this appears to be a major concern of Facebook’s

    2) Provide the niche marketing that brands so severely desire!

    Edgerank is flawed, and facebook acknowledges it. It’s a lame popularity contest based on “Shares” and “Likes” and “Comments”. I’m sorry, but “Make good content” and “Facebook rewards you for good content” is total crap. It’s flawed because Facebook can’t event track the number one metric of a good post: “Did a person READ it.” Does “good content” ALWAYS make it to the next level within Edgerank? I doubt it.

    Let us niche-target a brand’s content to the people who will truly LIKE IT more, instead of relying on some middle-school-popularity-contest-edgerank-algorithm.

    • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

      You do make a good point, and it’s one that I think Mark Cuban pointed out, that passively reading content is a desirable user action that doesn’t create a measurable signal. Should I have to like every post or picture I read to make sure that person’s stuff continues to be in my feed? I don’t think so. 

  • http://mysocialgameplan.com/about Jonathan Payne

    Both posts raise legitimate points.  My overall issue is it’s apparent Facebook is disproportionately considering the interests of their stockholders compared to the interests of the rest of their stakeholders.  Perhaps reasonably so, but you can’t expect the other stakeholders to sit back and be happy with that.  I don’t think this is t a long-term strategy Facebook can succeed with.  Eventually, brands (especially smaller businesses — those who don’t have the budget to invest as heavily in Facebook) will opt to substitute Facebook with another service.  And we know there are legitimate substitutes to Facebook right around the corner.

  • Waleed Ahmad

    Assume i have 100K followers and according to Facebook edge rank, your posts can reach only 15% of your followers! Now if i want to reach the remaining 85% out of 100K followers you’ll have to pay 100$ to 200$ for each posts! I’m not gonna do that, Not even medium sized business pages are willing to pay that much to reach the remaining followers that Facebook filtered so that people use promoted posts!

  • Ozio Media

    Facebook has been working on improving its user
    experience since it began and any alterations to the Edge Rank algorithm would
    be intended to improve the site for the average user, not the businesses that
    advertise on it. Nothing has been taken away from business pages and if they
    post boring status updates, they will have low engagement rates, which has
    always been the case. The only difference now is that they can buy a place in
    the newsfeed for those same boring status updates.

  • Randy Guzman

    I do agree with you.Thanks for sharing.

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