Close to 50 per cent Americans stated that Facebook (FB) is a passing fad! These findings of a survey, conducted during the first week of May 2012, by AP-CNBC were followed by General Motors pulling out ads worth US $10 million from FB. The IPO still went off well but the share price tanked leading to questions on the business model of FB and whether hype and misinformation led to the ‘success’ of initial offer.
No matter what federal agencies of the US may find on the allegations against the managers of its public issue, it is sure that people have misread FB for being a typical form of media – just like television or print or internet – when it is primarily a social networking platform. Social networks depend entirely on the network and the views of individuals that create linkages of personal choices and preferences. It is these networks, just like in our lives before FB was born, that word-of-mouth becomes the key influencing factor and not an ad or necessarily a paid-for view or opinion.
That being core to FB with the added advantages of technology and the web, it is surprising that many believed that advertising could drive business and others referred to the network as media. Interestingly even traditional media referred to FB and platforms such as Twitter as media (social media), perhaps forgetting what they themselves stood for – the Fourth Estate. Maybe for some moments the media actually felt threatened by the information flowing within these networks where content and communications was core to all that happened there and that advertising was actually relegated to the sidelines forced by the elements of democracy that social network creators on FB often profess. Media also may have felt that social networks had the potential to form opinions and keep people informed.
With these important characteristics being similar to the Fourth Estate and the desire for freedom of speech, the Fourth Estate led itself to call FB ‘social media’ giving up in many ways its own role to networks. The media missed out on the fact that the Fourth Estate had gatekeepers and were always under scrutiny for what it did or said. It had a history of existence that has led even social network users to verify information from websites run by media houses.
Yet the hype around the power of FB and its reference to be media (by the Fourth Estate) and not a medium where millions of people engaged, has led advertisers and brands to believe that you can do what you did with people, the way you reached out to them in other forms of media (read traditional in common parlance) and ‘experts’ in this space never corrected the approach. FB is less about you and I and more about I ahead of you. The user that is ‘I’ comes first. I add you, I like you, I spite you, block you or even abuse you. I carry my opinion, express it and have the right to ridicule yours. It is me and how I wish to engage. After all I am there for my own personal need or even addiction to connect or see what my ‘friends’ are up to. Any intrusion is rarely welcome. I need to invite you to let you in. That’s the attitude of the user.
The media (Fourth Estate), as such, has similar powers but as a norm puts the public up first and believes that news is to be reported above one’s own personal. That in itself makes it meaningful to the role it is supposed to play. This is perhaps why, Rich Karlgaard, a contributor to Forbes in a report said the social networking site “is not integral to the global economy and its cool brand is rapidly fading” – a reflection of what the AP-CNBC survey found. “There is that much talking, chatting and networking one can do, people do want to listen and obtain information from verified sources,” an anthropologist following this space pointed out.
Moreover, intrusions to private spaces or chosen spaces by individuals is not easily received or appreciated and social networks are private spaces amplified on an FB. “We as people have always had problems with intrusions if the space is ours. We have never liked spam mails or messages or pop-ups as they always intruded our purpose,” points out a social scientist. This could then explain why GM cut back on FB ads and has continued to invest US $30million on paid-content as per reports, clearly indicating that content is what matters more on social networks as content can lead to conversations more often than not. Ads, if any, are part of an integrated approach keeping at core content on FB. And like GM which also indulges in free content, several others brands such as Toyota, Hippo and Deloitte, amongst others, take pains to generate content that leads to conversations and the opening up of people towards their brands.
Jack Hollis, Vice President of the Scion brand, is quoted on the Forbes website saying that brands tend to spend too much getting people to like them (what they advertise). “If you ‘like’ us, it is best to “have a relationship with us via content,” he has argued. However, what gets underlined is the importance of material that engages and finds its way into the intrinsic nature of FB – that of conversations, breaking through networks speaking as a friend rather than as an intruder or someone who is forcing a thought or idea or product into the eyes of the user. Acting as a by-stander like a side ad on an FB page could compare well with lampposts on a street – rarely noticed unless they illuminate.
Agreeing with Hollis, “This is not a space where you can own the message like advertisers do through slip ads or pages,” points out Jean Leopold Schuybroek, Founder of Interel and President of the International Communications Consultancy Association (ICCO). This is the space for communications, he says, “Communicators are better placed managing and engaging this space since they have traditionally engaged with people in a non-commercial manner.”
An Indiabiz News and Research Services survey finds that most Indians were on FB for engaging and connecting with friends. Ads had little meaning to them and were indifferent to their presence which would mean an uncertain return on investment for any corporate. They also said that their views on brands were often influenced by their friends. They ‘liked’ brand pages only if they related to them in their ‘normal’ lives or were asked to by a friend. They followed such pages only if they were engaged with through content and not advertising. This pattern reflected in their approach to information and news as well.
That being the case, it is obvious that the commercial viability and the utility of FB has been misread while the power of communications not truly realised in a space that thrives on word-of-mouth driven by content – information and views. Still, while ads may slip off FB and Americans may see the space as a fad, the behaviour of the individual may be an indication on how it ‘consumes’ the Fourth Estate on a daily or hourly basis – be it in print, TV or the internet. This could mean a greater emphasis on the quality of content and engagement and perhaps even changing ratios of commerce over editorial. And even if editorial may be sliced by the likes and dislikes of the empowered user of the digital space, it is more than likely that content drives the person in and out and not mere commercials.
The author is the CEO of Integral PR