We had a good run there for a few years. 2009 to 2012 represented a branded creative renaissance that most thought would blossom into an entirely new purpose for the ad agencies of the day.
Facebook laid the bait, and agencies took it
Once everyone was onboard, it was a relatively paint-by-numbers approach: Brands could translate their established methods of creative output into a social media shell. Facebook applications and tabs were the most easily translatable medium; microsite production rapidly shifted to the Facebook Canvas, taking branded contests, user-generated content plays and even e-commerce initiatives with them.
The rise of Facebook-as-creative-platform happened in concert with the ever-rising social reach brands saw on their pages. It was a simple equation: acquire fans, and use virtually unabated access to draw them into increasingly interesting and nuanced experiences on your Facebook page.
The rush was so beneficial to digital brand managers, and so prolonged, that it gave birth to an entire subset of digital marketing agencies. Community-focused social media agencies easily wooed brands big and small, based on a seemingly endless need for Facebook tabs, contests, and of course, the content that kept people engaged. They preached "free reach" — and had the numbers to show for it.
For a while there, it looked like earned reach was our collective future. Media companies quivered. Brands prioritized potentially viral content. Sure, most users found it profoundly annoying. But brands (and their social agencies) seemed to have a new magic trick.
The switch was swift
But as quickly as the new operating protocols for brands on Facebook were built, they began to erode. First, Facebook shuttered Facebook Markup Language, a development protocol the company had hoped would spur more proprietary development on the Facebook platform. Then, brands and agencies were quietly encouraged to cease producing new Facebook Tabs on their brand pages. Rumour was, tabs would be restrained in the future.
Sure enough, as Facebook increased the cadence of its announcements about new paid-media opportunities and brand targeting, it massively de-prioritized Facebook tabs and relegated brands to a confined profile layout. No more landing pages or intense customization.
Suddenly, brands that considered their Facebook profile an owned property were reconsidering their choices, and those that warned of Facebook’s control over brand properties were smugly reminding the world that they saw this coming all along.
It didn’t take long for earned reach to slowly, mysteriously decline. Eventually, Facebook had to admit its new paradigm: pay to play, or remain invisible.
I recall a particularly awkward meeting with Facebook sales staff midway through last year, when they awkwardly admitted that we should consider them an ad network, plain and simple.
In one fell swoop, an entire paradigm of branded social creativity turned to dust. No more earned reach; no more fan acquisition. Just ads. Brand managers looked for answers. And social media agencies of all shapes and sizes saw their entire value proposition disappear, nearly overnight. Many found themselves building fewer digital products, and adjusting their business accordingly, by their own admission.
Where it leaves us
People get it. On social media, users find creative hubris boring and desperate. Punny hashtag campaigns and user-generated content often elicited eye-rolls in the past, but in the rapidly approaching era of post-social individuals, it’s downright annoying and easily ignored. People already fill their days with self-selected content that leaves little opportunity for branded interruption. Clunky attempts to infiltrate their media universe are no longer worthwhile, even when paid amplification makes them appear so.
Engagement-focused social media campaigns are moot (and it’s not just Facebook). Twitter hasn’t decreased organic reach just yet, but it’s definitely coming. Despite the fact that Facebook’s about-face has caused more than a few frustrations, stumbled, and re-written business plans in the agency space, their quarterly earnings are through the roof. Truth is, it works to be an ad network. Developing social content that relies on virality, earned reach, or proactive attention from the public is becoming difficult to defend.
Social media agencies are scrambling to find above-the-line work. It’s no secret that social media agencies have seen their value proposition plummet as Facebook’s algorithm effectively shutters earned reach, and other platforms threaten to do the same. With nowhere to turn, they’re looking to other forms of creative delivery to keep their client relationships alive. And much to the chagrin of broad-based digital agencies and traditional agencies-of-record, social media agencies are coming for their lunch.
What we can do about it
Treat Facebook and Twitter like the paid distribution platforms they are. It may sound like an obvious practice as we roll into 2015, but that hasn’t stopped the steady flow of engagement-focused Facebook campaigns coming out of agencies around the globe. Twitter too; and while user-focused Twitter campaigns aren’t currently suspect, their time is limited. Now is the time to shift your strategy.
If it makes it easier, just include "Considerations: EARNED REACH IS DEAD" on all of your briefs. Make it awesome — but don’t focus on engagement.
Draft off the cultural conventions of single-minded social networks. There are hilarious, beautiful, sometimes poignant communities on Instagram and Vine, to name the two single-purpose networks with enough scale to satisfy most brands. Their sub-communities are niche; they have vernacular shorthand, and community cues are specific and carefully observed and replicated by users.
Despite that nuance, most brands clumsily contribute in a way that serves themselves more than the audience they hope to reach. But by understanding user groups and playing into their conventions and expectations, you can find a relevance that couldn’t even be engineered on Facebook in the early days.
Don’t underestimate the shift from networks to messaging. As Frank Wilson noted last week in his oft-quoted "What Just Happened?" recap of 2014 in online behavior, users may not be quitting social networks in droves, but their time and attention are rapidly flowing to messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat. Wilson declares the social media era "dead"; I’d argue that more acutely, that the online public is defining the long-term role for social media in their lives. Primary communication is moving to purpose-built messaging apps. Networks like Facebook and Twitter will be used, primarily, to broadcast and archive personal content selectively.
Clearly, brands will need to acknowledge this behavioural shift in their creative work. Like the shift from engagement to paid media, this is a strategic pivot best enacted early in 2015. The realities of migrating audience time and attention will be on us before we know it.
Zach Pentel is strategy director/partner of AnalogFolk New York