Ten years after the Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launched thefacebook.com from his college dorm, Facebook UK came of age as a medium for brands and agencies. Any internal soul-searching about whether the world’s largest social network is a media owner or a tech platform has made way for something far more focused: developing Facebook’s latent potential for advertisers.
In the UK, the site has 26 million daily mobile users, with research showing that users check their News Feeds 14 times a day on average. Facebook now boasts a suite of tools to help brands amplify and target their messages. Among the notable launches this year were premium video ads, opening up the social network to the world’s fastest-growing ad format. Meanwhile, the roll-out of Atlas has enabled marketers to track people across mobile and the web, bypassing the problems associated with cookies.
Another key development in 2014 was the introduction of Facebook IQ, an insights practice designed to provide marketers with a better understanding of attitudes and behaviours both online and offline. The first qualitative and quantitative study, Coming Of Age On Screens, was widely welcomed for adding unique insights by marketers.
At a local level, one of the biggest challenges has been to personalise what has traditionally been – somewhat ironically, given its "open and connected" raison d’être – a rather cold experience. There are limits to how deep a relationship you can forge with control panels and APIs. Facebook UK’s own mission for the year is revealing: "To be the most mischievous, creative, fun and entrepreneurial team in the industry. To be a great partner for our clients. To produce results. To ship love."
Whether the UK operation has achieved the "most mischievous" status is debatable, but the concerted push to become easier to deal with has been noted across many major agencies. The transition from being a transactional media owner to a strategic collaborator appears to be under way. The hiring of Steve Hatch as the UK managing director at the end of 2013 has helped. The former MEC chief wasted no time in reacquainting himself with former colleagues and sparring partners while educating those internally.
Strong leaders are beginning to emerge around him too, including the head of agency relations, Claire Valoti, and the UK sales manager, Ed Couchman. Other key figures include Tracy Yaverbaun, who heads Instagram sales across EMEA; Vanessa Fitzgerald, who leads Facebook’s Dublin team; and Jill Gray, who leads The Creative Shop in the UK. All focus on establishing more creative partnerships and new opportunities.
Staff numbers in Facebook’s new office on London’s Brook Street have grown 100 per cent in 2014 to reach more than 500. The 80-strong commercial team has played a key part in this. Collectively, they are believed to be targeting £576 million in ad revenue this year – growth of 55 per cent, according to eMarketer. And if projected figures prove correct, the social network’s digital display adspend looks poised to surpass Google – at a forecast £528 million – for the first time.
The strongest area of growth was in video – specifically mobile video. Since 2012, global mobile video views on the site have rocketed by 500 per cent. This year’s viral hit, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, demonstrated what can be achieved – the in-stream nature of Facebook helped the site attract ten times more Ice Bucket Challenge video views than Google’s YouTube in the summer.
Creative highlights include McDonald’s recreation of World Cup highlights using French fries by OMD, Arc Worldwide and The Creative Shop. "Fryfutbol", which comprised almost 30 videos in 30 days, reached 125 million people and increased purchase intent by up to 19 per cent.
Facebook has also continued to develop its relationships with other media companies. BSkyB used the social network to promote the super-middleweight boxing rematch between Carl Froch and George Groves.
Not all initiatives have been well-received. Plans by Facebook to host newspaper and magazine content on its mobile app met with a mixed reception. Publishers salivate at the prospect of all the potential new readers, but they lose control of distribution and any ad revenues will be shared with the social network. Its success will depend on satisfying the desires of publishing partners while allaying their fears.
Such tightrope-walking has been par for the course for social media’s biggest trailblazer since its inception. So don’t bet against Facebook traversing it successfully, as it has done with so many other challenges on its route to pre-eminence.
Recent winners: Twitter (2013); ITV (2012); The Guardian (2011); London Evening Standard (2010); Twitter (2009)