DEBATE: Facebook Is Blackmailing Brands

Point one in a two-point series from Jason and Kat

by Jason Falls |

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.


About the Author

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).