DEBATE: Facebook Is Blackmailing Brands

by · November 26, 201229 comments

In February, Facebook announced to the world that, on average, only 16 percent of a brand’s fans actually see each post. The company then conveniently introduced a way to increase the number: By purchasing sponsored stories and ads. And at that point, the last bastion of reasonable people not skeptical that Facebook was evil, came over to the good side.

Okay, not the last bastion … Mashable and Techcrunch still suck up to the Zuck, but can you blame them? They think journalism is reprinting whatever the Facebook PR folks tell them to be true.

It was clear to those of us in the logic-thinking world that Facebook had a massive profitability problem and needed a quick revenue strike so Wall Street wouldn’t devalue the company any more than investors did on opening day.

Fast-forward several months and some who had been testing the reach of their Facebook posts declared the network’s brand pages the greatest bait-and-switch ever, claiming they’d have to spend over half a million dollars per year to have their posts seen at pre-sponsored post rates.

What gets lost in the back and forth over whether or not Facebook’s reach generator advertising mechanism is fair or right, is a simple fact I think changes the dynamic of the conversation altogether.

When someone clicks “like” they are, in effect, saying, “I want this brand’s content in my news stream.”

For whatever reason, people like Robert Scoble, seem to disagree with my assertion. Ironically, Robert is 100% wrong, according to the technology. When you click “like” on a brand’s page, you send a signal to Facebook’s algorithm that says it’s okay to insert that brand’s content in your news stream. To what degree you see the brand’s content is dependent upon dozens of algorithmic factors, including how often you interact with the brand’s content, how many other people interact with it, how many friends you have and how much content Facebook may want to present from them in your news stream and more.

But the point is, a “Like” means, “Give me this brand’s content. I am opting in.”

(You’re welcome to debate the philosophical issue of clicking “Like” on a brand page just because you actually like them and not because you want to see their content, right along with Mr. Scoble. But again, the technology proves my point.)

So you have 10,000 fans and they have opted into seeing your content on Facebook. But Facebook’s algorithm — which has to take content from all your friends, other brands you like and so on, then present it in your timeline in some semblance of order — only puts your content in front of 1,600 of those fans. It’s not intentional (at least I don’t believe it is), it’s algorithmic.

From the brand side of things, we should say to Facebook, “Hey!? They opted in. Make sure our fans see our stuff.” Facebook’s answer is, “Okay. If you pay us.”

Of course, there’s the organic way to “game the system” if you will. You could always produce content so awesome that the 16 percent like, share and comment so much that the content organically is delivered to more fans. Activity around the post is one factor in the algorithm that can make that content elevate to the top.

But let’s face it: Brand’s suck at good content and are always on the lookout for an Easy button. Actually working to create good content isn’t good enough for many.

So Facebook has given you the option of buying your way.

But should they?

If you buy the premise that your “Likes” or fans have opted into your content and Facebook is saying to beat 16 percent you have to pay us, then Facebook is blackmailing brands. The audience wants the content. The brand is creating it. Facebook is holding it back — intentionally or not — unless you give them money.

That’s blackmail, my friends. Plain and simple.

Facebook has always promoted itself as a utility. If it has indeed become one, and governments and bureaucrats think this pay-to-play model is disadvantageous to their brand pages, Zuckerberg and crew are going to have a hard time swallowing this fact: Utilities get regulated.

That’s my take on the Facebook ad platform and sponsored stories situation. Tomorrow, Kat French will offer a counter-point to try and show that I’ve lost my mind. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, what do you think? Is Facebook blackmailing brands? The comments are yours.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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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.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

    We’ve already played this out in the other comment stream so I won’t belabor my position here.  But one thing I’d point out is that the argument of “The REALITY is whatever the TECHNOLOGY does” doesn’t really mean anything given that you don’t accept the ‘reality of what the technology does’ NOW.  You can’t validate your argument of what a ‘Like’ is with cherry picking a timeframe in which to view it.  A ‘Like’ is whatever Facebook deems it to be, and until businesses understand they are working in an environment without contractual obligations on the part of Facebook it will continue to stay that way.

    Businesses invested a lot of money and planning based upon a set of assumptions of how Facebook would act in the future.  Those assumptions turned out to be wrong.  But why this would be considered true blackmail vs. any other company that decided to add or modify a freemium business model is beyond me.  Bait and switch? Certainly.Cheers,-Matt

    • http://www.socialidentities.com/ Hugh Briss

       I agree that blackmail is the wrong word. I’d use an even stronger one. Censorship.

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

        Censorship, filtering, take your pick.  It happens to individuals as well as businesses. I do find it humorous that we try and take ownership of how a business should run itself.  Companies are allowed to be idiots, whether we like it or not.

        • Brad Lovett

          Censorship is something a government does to legally prevent you from speaking. A private company may do whatever it wishes, including delete your comment or hide your post.

        • Rebecca Caroe

          Matt, call it what you will, the underlying risk for a brand remains the same.  You create an audience (engaged or otherwise) on a gated community which is apparently free but over which you have little or no control.

          Google is similar – many of my clients use FeedBurner to distribute their blog feeds by email to subscribers.  

          If either organisation withdraws or changes their terms of service, it’s hard for brands to take ownership of the value they have created using the technology platform and to relocate that asset to a place where they do have control [the brand website].

          A commercial risk like any other and one that each brand has to work out for themselves.

          When we manage Facebook pages, we spend a lot of time trying to drive readers back to places where the brand is in control and can set the rules.

          The internet used to be a level playing field but again, it seems $$ spend enables the gorilla to out-perform the minnow.

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

    I definitely agree, and as a digital marketer it scares me actually.  It makes no sense whatsoever and brands are spending a lot of money on advertising to get opt-in fans and yet they cannot view their content.  Users have the option to not-like a page in the first place or dislike a page if they like.  I have worked ways to “Game” the system as well which is why like-gating posts and others are a nice way to prime the algorithm, but at best the posts will be seen by 15-20% MAX.  You can game the system or create very quality and engaging posts and still will never top that.

    Now Facebook just created this Pages Feed to alleviate this problem, but no user will ever take the step to find that link and click it.  Just another BS attempt by FB to calm brands down.  Mark Cuban got some heat for his stance and I agree with him.  I wouldn’t abandon FB but he is clearly in a position to do whatever he wants, and I’m happy he spoke up.

    Facebook also is continually taking away any reasons for small business to have a Facebook presence or spend money.  Based on how things are now, I would never recommend a small business spending money on Facebook, I honestly don’t see the ROI for them.  People will debate me on that but Facebook really only works on scale, pretty much like any social network.

    It’s tough to give BS answers to clients when they ask why more fans (opt-in) can’t see their posts when the honest answer is Facebook wants more money.  If FB doesn’t change, I think brands will slowly spend less despite the users using the product at records amounts.

  • http://twitter.com/neicolec Neicole Crepeau

    Well, you probably saw my post on Mark Schaefer’s blog last month–I certainly think it’s a bait and switch, and a betrayal on Facebook’s part. They led businesses down a path and told them to invest in pages, then changed the rules making that investment worth considerably less. It’s Facebook’s prerogative, but it’s rarely good business to antagonize and alienate a significant portion of your customer base.

    I’ll agree with you, Jason, that a Like indicates an opt-in on the user’s part to receiving content from a page. However, what is unclear is how much content the user wants to receive. I expect Facebook would say “Users can see your content, but they only want to see the most interesting of your content, not everything you post.” 

    My response to that would be, “Fine, give users control.” At it’s heart, Facebook is a technology company. Why don’t they add a nice little slider for each page (even for each friend) that lets us easily adjust up or down the amount of content we see from a given page/friend? As I said in my post on Mark’s blog (http://www.businessesgrow.com/2012/10/31/facebook-youve-failed-us/), if Facebook was truly a customer-centric company, they’d give users easy control such as this. And let us decide. 

    The truth is, Facebook hasn’t put its users or its paying customers first for a long time. It’s fine to seek a profit, but the best companies seek a profit by putting customers and their needs first and delivering great value. In the long run, companies that continually put profit first even at the expense of customers usually lose the game. 

    • Brad Lovett

      I don’t fully agree that a “like” means “I hereby agree to accept any and all content produced by Brand X”. Especially at the beginning of the LIKE button, LIKE meant “I like the brand”. “I like Diet Coke: did not mean “I want to see 10 posts a day from Diet Coke in my newsfeed”. Facebook could include a subscribe function that would be more like a opt-in email, maybe even using Facebook’s own e-mail product. I would certainly imagine Facebook would charge. Facebook has no contractual obligation to deliver all of your content to all of your “likers”, (How could they? Every single person doesn’t sign in everyday. If I was off Facebook for a couple of days and had to wade through 1000 brand page posts to get to my first friend I’d be ready to throw my device out the window. Paraphrasing Jay Baer: Facebook is interested in Facebook’s success. If that happens to coincide with your success, that’s fine. 

      • http://coryobrien.com/ CoryOBrien

        Good point. Just because I ‘like’ a local restaurant that I frequent, doesn’t mean I want to constantly be reminded of their specials, coupons, or cooking tips. It might just mean that if a friend checks out my profile, I want them to know what restaurants I like.

  • http://coryobrien.com/ CoryOBrien

    Imagine applying the same measure to Twitter: If your brand has 100,000 followers, do you expect every single one of them to see every single thing you Tweet? Or put another way, if you managed to get an average of 10,000+ users out of 100,000 to see your Tweets, wouldn’t you be happy about that result?

    I think the reason people get upset about what Facebook is doing is that Facebook has developed a way for brands to pay to increase their reach, but Facebook does so by keeping old posts alive, which is something that Twitter hasn’t yet figured out a way to do at scale. So we blame Facebook for not giving everyone that privilege, when it would be impossible for them to do so, as a result of how much content is being generated on Facebook as-is. If I followed 100+ pages on Facebook, and each one posted 1 thing per day, that would mean I would have to read through 100+ updates per day, in addition to posts from friends and family, which are likely more important to me.

    So while I do wish that every brand post I shared was magically seen by every single person that has liked that page, I’m also realistic about how impossible that task would be, and willing to accept that some brands are able to pay to increase their reach on Facebook, but that it’s similar to brands buying email lists, sponsoring blogs, and all of the other ways to pay for increased reach that not every brand is going to be able to afford.

  • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

    Personally I think of this from a bit of a different angle. I look at it from the brand perspective and the user perspective, but I also try to consider Facebook’s position. Since we manage a lot of brand Facebook pages I can honestly say that in order to convince a company to advertise we need to be able to demonstrate that there is a viable ROI on Facebook. But Facebook has removed a lot of our ability to do that because we can no longer have default landing tabs and our posts are reaching less people than before, therefore the ROI is much harder to achieve as both of these result in less conversions. It’s the chicken and egg scenario. Brands want an ROI to invest, but Facebook wants you to pay to get the ROI. From a user perspective, I’m pretty peeved about the way Edge Rank is handled. It is not only hiding content from pages I’ve opted in to receive content from, it’s also hiding posts from my friends. When I log in after 4 hours and only have 4 new stories from my network that is riddled with oversharers :-P I know there is a problem. I used to have 60-100 status updates in that time. And personally, it makes my time on Facebook boring. I’m looking for new updates and I’m seeing sponsored posts and only a sliver of my friends updates.

    I wish Facebook would make a concerted effort to serve brands and users. One way they could serve brands is to bring back the default landing tab, allow for call to actions in cover images, and integrate tabs into the mobile experience. This would help us drive enough ROI to justify advertising expense, if that was in the best interest of the client. Whether or not the advertising model delivers ROI is a whole different debate. 

    I also wish they would let me see their Edge Ranked list of updates, and a pure time driven list minus the EdgeRank so I can see all of the posts that have been posted from friends and brands. This gives me more control over my user experience. I also agree with the recommendations to provide users with the ability to control how much content I see from brands, kind of like a subscription where I can get a daily digest, weekly digest etcetera. Or I like the idea of controlling the percentage of content. Every brand doesn’t post 10 times a day, so for those who post less frequently that I enjoy I may want to see 100% of their content, for others who post more often I may only want 20%. 

    If Facebook doesn’t start to take care of their customers (users AND brands) we all might start looking for other social networks that take care of us more. I mean after all, that is what allowed Facebook to overtake MySpace. Which by the way, may be on it’s way for a come back. Who knows. :-)

  • http://pestcontrolseo.wordpress.com/ Thos003

    I don’t know if it’s really blackmail considering that views for friends posts are down as well. And while the purist in me wants facebook likes to mean “opt in”, I have to admit that some of my likes were strictly given to get a free lunch.  (Sorry Panda Express, I like you but I don’t really “LIKE” you.)

    But yes, it is still a ploy by facebook to exploit their own system’s weakness to get gain. Not uncommon in business to give preferential treatment to those who are willing to pay for it. But if wanting to stay in the black is evil then you have a case. Or perhaps we should just simply squeeze the last drop of free goodness out them and then let the whole system fail and die.

  • Ronak

    Sounds legitimate. Besides they have been changing their rules far too frequently to suit themselves. If a country changes its rules that often, investors will never enter the country. Similarly, as soon as brands and marketers realise this, they will turn their major focus to other sites with facebook marketing being a marginal part of their plans.

  • Vladimir

    Hi Jason,

    I enjoyed reading the post but I don’t agree that it is blackmail and no I don’t agree that by clicking like I want all the posts of a brand page to come to my news feed  I agree that the current system is broken, but considering that I have over 300 liked pages, who more or less post at least every two days, I would not be able to see anything from my friends, which is the primary reason I come to Facebook in the first place. Ergo, by doing this, in my opinion, Facebook would be committing social suicide.

    What I think Facebook should do is provide more targeting options for posts – e.g. if I like a brand like adidas or Nike, and am a male user, why on Earth would the new women’s running shoes interest me?! Or if I like pages and players of tennis, and not one football club, I don’t want to see the newest post on the Barcelona jerseys  So, introduce targeting by interests and my demographic data to ensure, as much as possible, that I get the relevant content.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lori.j.harris Lori Joyner Harris

      Great idea, Vladimir, but that is actually Nike’s bad not Facebook’s.  If Nike posts about women’s shoes they could (should?)  target that post to female fans only.  

      I agree that I don’t want my newsfeed full of the pages I like.  As a page manager if  I have a post I want to be sure is at the top of the newsfeed for all my fans, I’ll pay the $5. 

      Hard for me to see legitimate complaints about the “free” service.

      • thepostsocial

        Facebook does not allow you to target your posts by gender… only by geo-location.  If  Facebook allowed this type of targeting functionality, most savvy brands would absolutely utilize it.

        • Waleed Ahmad

          Facebook let you target posts by gender, you can also use targeting for age, relationship status, interested in etc.

          • thepostsocial

            Just read that they recently opened this up to brands with over 5k fans… I guess we’ll get that extra targeting capability once our page hits that fan level:)

    • http://twitter.com/bigboxcar bigboxcar

      Interesting. Can you clarify if the same Edgerank algorithms are used to filter our friend’s posts? Or is it a separate algorithm? Is my sister’s content on Facebook competing with Nike to get into my newsfeed?

  • http://nateriggs.com nateriggs

    I think you’re assessment, while brutal, is also spot on, Jason.  Your last point stuck a chord with me though.  I agree — Facebook is prime for deeper regulation for a lot of reasons including sheer size, market dominance, integration with thousands of other technologies, blackmail-esq behavior, etc.

    The problem is that the government has MUCh bigger fish to fry right now and legislation will always creep along at a snails pace.  Do you think this is Zuck and Sandberg’s attempt to leverage a short window of opportunity to boost profits before Uncle Sam steps in?  Maybe I’m too young, but I don’t seem to remember Google ever facing a PR crisis like this one.  Am I mistaken?

    Really thought provoking post and comments…

  • http://www.prweb.com/ Stacey Acevero

    Bravo, Jason, finally an assessment that doesn’t kiss-toosh to Facebook. It is absolutely blackmail, bait-and-switch, whatever you want to call it. I have examined that the posts present in my news feeds from brands I like are no longer present, and for brands I manage on Facebook, the impressions and other analytics are down more than 50% as of the introduction of promoted posts and rolling out of the new algorithm. I went to a social media summit last month and the Facebook folks speaking there declined to comment or answer ANY questions on the changes. 

    • http://www.prweb.com/ Stacey Acevero

      My thoughts on the Facebook bait-and-switch: http://socialbaconblog.com/2012/11/07/facebook-changes-brands/

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