Media Forum: Is Facebook overhyped?

Should advertisers be wary of the Facebook bandwagon? Alasdair Reid asks.

It was about time, quite frankly, that someone took the trouble to make poking fashionable again - and for this inspired act alone, Facebook deserves all the accolades it is receiving. Just about everyone loves Facebook, except, of course Rupert Murdoch, who presumably takes a dim view of poking, given the fact that he paid $580 million last year to buy last year's Facebook equivalent, the poke-free zone that is MySpace.

Poking is, of course, the term used by Facebook members for the means they use to attract each other's attention, though regrettably some of the community's more juvenile minds have wilfully misinterpreted this. For instance, the fastest-growing Facebook group currently (more than 200,000 members and counting) is the one entitled: "Enough With The Poking, Let's Just Have Sex."

While MySpace, its main rival in the social networking space, still feels at heart like a post-hippy commune of sensitive musicians, Facebook has more of a frat house feel, as befits its origins as an electronic version of the Harvard University yearly staff and student directory.

It is, quite simply, the media sensation of 2007 - and in its rapid dash to attract more than 20 million users worldwide, it has edged aside previous flavours of the month such as MySpace and the Google-owned YouTube. What's more, if you believe some of the hysteria it's currently dragging in its wake, you'll be in no doubt that advertisers should be dropping everything in the rush to find some sort of a way to become involved.

Should we believe the hype? In search of an answer, our first instinct was to give Robert Horler, the managing director of Diffiniti, a Facebook-style intimate nudge. He responds: "It's true that people are currently flocking to Facebook, but if you asked me if, this time next year, the favourite social networking site is going to be Facebook, then I'd say, probably not."

He also believes that many users of social networking sites are actually hostile towards advertising. "So if you are thinking about this as a marketing environment, you have to exercise a huge amount of caution. It remains very difficult to target the consumer in this environment," he says.

That's pretty much how Niku Banaie, the managing partner of Naked, sees things, too. He says: "It is an interesting place to observe how people use these platforms, but whether or not it is a good advertising vehicle is debatable. It's easy to forget that the power is in the hands of users as never before. It's like if there's you and your mates down the pub and you're having a great time when this weirdo jumps in and starts trying to tell you stuff. You're all going to start saying, 'Who the hell does this guy think he is?' Advertisers should be wary of pitching into spaces like Facebook just because they're popular."

Normally, Wayne Arnold, the European chief executive of Profero, would agree with much of that. But, in this case, he argues that you really do have to dispense with caution. "Facebook is worth every bit of the hype," he argues. "It's got it right on the button. MySpace was all about me. Facebook is all about me and my friends and the people I know - and in that sense it reflects what we do socially in the real world. It does that in the most beautifully simple way. As for the commercial angle, if you offer them something for free and let then make the decision as to whether they want to talk further or not, it can really work."

Which is pretty much the view of Kevin Heery, the digital development director for IPC Ignite!. He says that the route chosen by many advertisers - sponsoring game-playing applications called widgets - will keep everybody happy. He concludes: "I know there have been Facebook groups created by people who haven't been enjoying what's been happening. But I think that opening it up to commercial interests has been a stroke of genius. At the moment, everyone seems to win - and it has certainly shaken up the whole business."

YES - Robert Horler, managing director, Diffiniti

"As an advertising opportunity, it certainly is. I have yet to see any compelling evidence about how Facebook users might become engaged with ads. Most users are at best ambivalent towards advertising." and many are actively hostile to its appearance in this environment."

YES - Niku Banaie, managing partner, Naked

"Advertisers will try to grasp what they perceive to be the next big thing. People are leaving Facebook because of this - they're unhappy that something they regarded as theirs has become a commercial venue."

NO - Wayne Arnold, European chief executive, Profero

"People understand there's a trade-off. You get the service for free and in exchange there are brands wanting to talk to you. It's only when you do it in a bad way that you annoy people."

NO - Kevin Heery, digital development director, IPC Ignite!

"There's a new widget appearing almost every day. The users get something new to play with and the site is improved without Facebook having to pay for it. I know some users aren't entirely happy - but at the moment, just about everyone seems to win."

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