Wednesday, December 11

When Does Facebook Surrender Its Social Network Status?

Facebook
When most people hear the term 'social network' nowadays, they immediately think of the brands that populate the Internet — anything and everything from Facebook to LinkedIn to Twitter. Most of them don't know that the true terminology isn't confined to digital. Such structures exist offline too.

In fact, the theoretical construct of a social network is simply based upon social entities voluntarily connecting and interacting or conducting an exchange. They are always self-organizing, and frequently create any number of complex patterns and shapes by their own volition.

It's largely what makes them so interesting to study. Even before social networks became akin to being defined by online service, different groups of people always came together in unique ways. Except this self-organizing theory might not be the case anymore, especially on places like Facebook.

Since its inception, this network has slowly evolved away from the self-organizing arena. Whereas once the network asked its members to self-organize, the network now defines social entities differently. And in doing so, the ability to interact is largely dictated by compensation or algorithm.

Why some marketers feel like they are losing out on Facebook. 

Last week, several stories broke around the headline Facebook Admits Organic Reach Is Falling Short, which talked about a new sales deck that Facebook sent to its marketing partners. The emphasis on the article was the bluntness of the company. It said marketers have to pay up.

For many in the advertising and communication industry, the article was confirmation that convincing people to like your Facebook page was not enough. Fewer and fewer people will see the content you share unless they interact and engage with it by sharing or commenting on the thread.

Simply put, a Facebook post might only reach (or be seen) by 15-35 of the 3,500 people who have liked the page. This is an amazingly paltry number in the eyes of most marketers, especially those who have already invested time and marketing dollars to attract those people in the first place.

Worse, many marketers are ready to toss their hands in the air because even if they do up the ante for greater reach among the Facebook followers they have already attracted, they will always be bought out by larger companies with bigger budgets. In short, they are going to lose. Game over.

Not everyone sees it this way. Some call it sour grapes. 

Sour Grapes
The opposite tact was taken on Kairay Media, stressing that maybe marketers were confused. In his generalized rebut, Brent Csutoras offered up that Facebook is not reducing organic content views (hat tip Amy Vernon). It seemed more likely that supply and demand is the culprit.

Csutoras is right in that the trend cited by Facebook didn't necessarily translate to the social network claiming to be the cause of the trend. People can only consume so much content. And even if they volunteer to consume more of it, Facebook is attempting to manage it with a prioritization algorithm based on its engagement values. When it doesn't, marketers get flagged as spam more often or abandon the service.

So, in essence, while everything is relative, the algorithm aims for some unknown threshold so content doesn't scroll faster than it can be seen (and even then there is no guarantee). And with this perspective in mind, it's easy enough to think of Facebook looking out for its membership.

But is Facebook really looking out for its members? Or is Facebook, like some ad-revenue based program channels, looking out for its bottom line because network content consumption works a bit like a Ponzi scheme? Since people can only consume so much, the rates will only climb higher.

Facebook is fine with that. It will be crossing the $2 billion per quarter mark soon enough. It currently has the number one mobile app in the United States. It would like to say the world.

Is Facebook a social network, marketing platform, or something else? 

This is very much what Julie Pippert warned PRSA Houston about two months before it happened. Her message was pretty clear. If you think you have a game plan for SEO and Edgerank, you don't.

Not everyone believed her, but she's right. A strategic approach to social media is adaptability over game plan. The winners are almost always those who cultivate a network as it becomes mainstream and seldom those who read the best practices about how they did it. By the time they do it, it changes.

But this isn't the extent of the change. When networks remove self-organization they cease to be social. And when you consider the most recent privacy issues that Danny Brown recently addressed, the pattern becomes clear. The lion's share of reinvestment by the network is to make it a better revenue-generating marketing platform and not necessarily a better social network.

Facebook Stock
It makes sense that it would. Facebook used to measure success by membership and usage. But nowadays, it is more likely to measure success by quarterly earnings and stock valuations. And the best way for the company to do that is by creating an environment where companies are willing to create content for the network, advertise this content outside of the network in order to populate it, and then pay to be seen by the same people they populated it with.

In return, the network will continue to chip away at privacy sensitivity, which will give marketers more insight into consumer behavior (which, ironically, companies cannot decipher anyway). And there is nothing wrong with any of it per se, but only because most people volunteer to do it. For now.

Online, people are social nomads and where they gravitate today will not necessarily be where they gravitate tomorrow. Facebook doesn't want to believe it, but they know it. While I wouldn't go so far as to say teens are abandoning Facebook, they are using the marketing-saturated snooper less.

Simply put, teens want to self-organize their social networks rather than have a company do it for them, especially one that no longer makes self-organizing a priority and never placed any value on privacy. If that's true, then social networks aren't turning into marketing platforms as much as television series. And those, as everyone knows, have a finite shelf life.

And if that's true, it would be a shame because I personally like Facebook, even when it does things that I am not fond of as a member or a marketer. How about you? What do you think?
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