Will Brands Buy Facebook’s Pitch?

Facebook is undeniably the new king of digital media. Google used to operate this role, causing agencies, advertisers and publishers to scurry when it wanted to press its point. But nowadays, it’s Facebook.

It’s no surprise, then, that Facebook was a key speaker at the Association of National Advertisers conference this past weekend in Phoenix. Another sign of its power: Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg got away with what was, at its heart, a naked sales pitch to marketers. It can be summed up something like this: We’re bigger (for you) than that thing you call the Internet, think about it. Here’s how Sandberg put it this weekend:
If you look at the numbers for almost any brand, but certainly any brand that’s invested any time or effort on Facebook, the number of people who are your Facebook friends massively dwarfs the number of people who visit your website. So I think one of the questions this industry needs to ask itself is why? Why continue to build as many microsites as we do when we know it’s so much easier to reach people where they already are?
The message should be clear by now: marketers and publishers need two strategies, one for what they thought of as the Internet and another for 800-million strong Facebook, which is now sucking up a quarter of time spent on the Web. That rest-of-the-Internet strategy an be the regular banners, microsites and whatnot. The Facebook strategy is all about piling up consumer connections in Facebook’s walled garden. The social network already has the drug to feed marketer addiction: likes.

Brands are in a race to build their Facebook connections. It’s not that dissimilar to the drive for email lists eons ago during the dot-com days. It’s hard to flip on on the TV or walk by outdoor placements without seeing a brand directing consumers to Facebook. The draw of this social marketing opium isn’t to be underestimated. One agency head broke it down for me recently in this way. A C-level exec is out hobnobbing with a counterpart who lets drop how many likes a brand in his portfolio has. The exec hear this then goes back to find out his brand has half as many. He gets the marketing people on that problem. That means pouring more money into Facebook, usually, to build up likes. This process is repeated across the brand landscape, as much as they might pooh-pooh the notion publicly.

And it is seductive. Microsites have long been an expensive add-on to campaigns. Drawing people to them has been a chore. And once there, what’s in it for them? Facebook offers a more effective, and on its surface, much cheaper alternative. Build pages on Facebook, gain connections (likes) from the millions already there and keep up an ongoing connection with these people. There’s a pollyannaish view of all this, with echoes of Google’s rise a decade ago. Facebook wants to improve advertising and its brand pages are its benevolent way of nudging brands into engagement rather than blasting out messages.

The question for the marketer and publisher is: at what price? Facebook is in position to be the new gatekeeper of digital media, filling a role that was served singularly by Google for a decade. Google exacted a stiff tax for its role. Best Buy had to pay Google a tribute every time a user searched for its website. Why? Because Google was the gateway. You can imagine something similar as Facebook plays that gatekeeper role with the social Web. Sandberg and Everson want marketers to build marketing programs on their platforms, with a nice slice of the value coming their way. After all, Facebook has that kind of symbiotic relationship with Zynga, from which it extracts a hefty 30 percent tax on virtual currency.

Even more, when you’re building these connections on Facebook, you’re renting, not owning. Facebook not long ago changed how brand pages appear. This came as a surprise to most marketers. Using Sandberg’s own figures, the way they communicated with the majority of theic customers through social media changed overnight — without notice, much less consultation.

Finally, Facebook likes have uncertain value. The entire like action is very low-involvement. That’s why brands pile up so many of them. I pressed the CMO of Virgin America, Porter Gale, on this subject recently in regards to the value of a Facebook like versus a Twitter follower. She said the more valuable connection is good old-fashioned email.

This is not to say Facebook isn’t critical to marketers. It is and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The question is how much marketers want to hitch their wagons to Facebook at the expense of going it their own way.

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