Buddy or business? It’s time for Facebook to come out one way or the other

Facebook is one of those global brands that has become the victim of its own success. A straw poll of Facebook-related headlines over any given month throws up a mixture of celebratory growth stories, alarming claims about privacy, and the usual one we all know and love about a teenager who throws a house party which is invaded by a thousand gatecrashers, (“It just got out of hand so fast, I didn’t realise so many people would show up!” she said).

The industry’s relationship with Facebook is a complicated one. Social media platforms have revitalised marketing campaigns the world over, and there are plenty of success stories concerning brands that have nailed the creation and mobilisation of that coveted Facebook fan base. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into one of those articles that questions the value of a ‘Like’, although the fact that debate lurches on signals a worrying ongoing uncertainty about just how much investment social media is worth.

For years, the advertising industry and Facebook shouted long and hard from the rooftops that the Facebook model of encouraging brand advocates to spread awareness was the way forward in social marketing. Back in 2008, the idea of monetising the Facebook community was limited to the business pages of AdAge, meanwhile everyone else jumped on the advocacy bandwagon, and for a while it was “spend, spend, spend” to get Likes Likes Likes.

Now we’re at a place where everything has been tried on Facebook – direct marketing, social commerce, graduate recruitment, B2B marketing, crowd sourced product development, internal communications, the list goes on. But the difference today is that Facebook HQ now has a different priority from the industry that helped build its success.

Since going public, Facebook has to be driven by something different – the shareholders. The old Facebook values of loyalty and connection have been replaced by dollars. The merits of Facebook’s recent social graph functionality have been thrashed out in media and tech blogs already, and the detractors have a strong case in that where Facebook used to be an online ‘place’, it is now a business.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Of course Facebook has every right to try and develop a sustainable revenue model – it has an obligation to do so to its investors. But as it looks for greater yield, they run the risk of displacing existing users who have until now been loyal to the site. Bring up Facebook timelines in any conversation and a sizable number of people will comment that the regular brand messages that appear, supposedly from your own friends, is annoying, and it’s only a matter of time before those annoyances lead to account closures.

So Facebook can be seen to be finally calling in payment for use of the platform, and that means you help advertise to your friends. Some people will hate it, others will ignore it. On that level there’s an interesting parallel to be drawn here about the whole online free/paid content discussion. A recent US study indicated that paywall content sites were on the increase and the music andfilm industries have finally worked out sustainable revenue models for online distribution.

We’re seeing a repeat of the idea that not everything is free – and this dates back to theidea of free magazines and commercial television. But in those cases, people expect to see advertising as the pay-off for receiving the content. They expect the same online, and there is plenty of data to prove that well targeted advertising can enhance the viewer experience and deliver better results for the advertiser. The difference between this viewer/advertiser relationship and that on Facebook, is that the former is carried out in plain sight, while Facebook appears to be trying to hide its commercial activities in one hand, in an attempt to maintain your friendship with the other – gossip advertising?

Paps Shaikh is the Commercial Director at Say Media.