You may notice drastic and significant changes in the design, functionality, and capabilities of individual and branded Facebook pages. These moves, made unilaterally without any advance notice, constitute the next stage in Facebook realizing its vision to eat the Internet and outsmart the competition.
Facebook aims to be the most important online tool. The five-year old, 800-pound gorilla intends to do it his way by forcing everyone, all 700 million of us, to follow along. As they’ve learned before, there is an initial flurry of outrage followed by conformity, which later leads to increased use. With 50 percent of registered users visiting daily for an average of 14 minutes, they have sufficient engagement and scale to make this bet.
The latest series of changes clearly signals that Facebook is about people sharing with their friends; not about brands. We can expect these changes to keep evolving without much input from consumers or brands. These new developments are different but not necessarily worse. Facebook is challenging brands to better align with Facebook’s outlook, underlying technology and gestalt.
Specific developments are schizophrenic. They de-emphasize “likes” and fans and make it tougher for brands to gain inexpensive mass exposure or reach fans’ news feeds. At the same time, these changes allow segment consumers to offer brands more targeted paid access.
From a macro perspective, the latest changes expand and refine the ways people can interact with each other on Facebook.
1. There is an increased emphasis on real-time interactions with the introduction of the Ticker, which also co-opts Twitter.
2. Larger spaces for pictures and video combined with changes in the underlying filters enhance the user experience and better prioritize the things users see in their news feeds. Users have the option to rank and filter content, but for the most part Facebook will do it for you.
3. In the same vein, the new List feature, “borrowed” from Google+, enables users to segment, tag, share and sort what they see on their wall and who gets to see what; when they post, watch, read view or listen to content. These new functionalities pre-sort audiences by actions and keywords to accelerate targeted advertising sales.
For some these new functions create a scary new Facebook where privacy is mostly in the less-than-reliable hands of Zuckerberg & Company, who already track, store, and keep your data even when you’ve logged off. The new functions will create massive amounts of personal and behavioral data, which eventually will be available to brands for dicing, slicing, and selling.
Here’s a quick rundown of the prominent new features and functions:
News Feed/“Recent Stories”
The main part of the page, the wide center column, has been re-engineered, eliminating “Top Stories” and “Most Recent Posts,” and has been re-titled. The idea seems to be to emphasize the content each person cares about. Facebook uses algorithms (EdgeRank and GraphRank) to monitor what and whom you like and then filter content so you see the stuff you like most first.
These items are marked with a blue triangle in the upper left corner and are the first things presented when you log on. Users can adjust these, which helps the underlying algorithms get smarter about your preferences. Pictures and videos will appear bigger and “Share” buttons will be attached to each content element but posts will decay faster, which means more recent content gets prominence.
To separate out important items from mundane activities, Facebook created a real-time news ticker that appears in the upper right column of the page. The Ticker records things that your friends are doing in real time so mentions will whiz by rather than persist on the page.
Integrated media services like Spotify or the Guardian will be automatically shared on the Ticker, unless you opt out. The idea seems to be get you to read, listen, or watch content on Facebook, rather than on other sites, so that your friends can see what you like and what you do.
Brands will need to generate a constant stream of content that gets interaction in order to have a realistic impact on the Ticker. The competition will be intense. This means either more involving posts or more posts per day in order to get into and leverage the ticker function to your benefit.
The profile page has been re-named and focused on getting people to create and curate their own stories in chronological order. The technology emphasizes crafting your story over time, calling out key events and people and posting pictures with an eye to sharing your life (e.g. birthdays, holidays, graduation dates, anniversaries) with your friends. Individual items can be highlighted or given greater prominence.
This co-opts the “Circles” idea introduced by Google+. Lists encourage users to sort the database for Facebook by separating friends into more discrete groups. Ideally this corresponds to the idea that select audiences need or want selected content from each user. The primary category “Close Friends” is closed to brands.
Facebook is scaling back its native technology and encouraging brands to conduct interactions and deliver content through bolted-on applications using the Facebook API. This will reduce their IT support requirements, isolate their ability to collect and manipulate data, and force brands to invest in more and different technology to achieve marketing goals.
Facebook apps need only ask permission once to share stories on your behalf. This tweak may be one of the more controversial. Previously, apps had to ask every time they shared information about you in your profile. Now, the first time you authorize the app, it will tell you what it’s going to share about you. This is the default position, though you can opt out.
They are recommending that brands spent 20 percent of the budget building apps and 80 percent promoting them. This also factors in the fact that more than 30% of Facebook users connect by smart phones and the growing use of mobile apps to ease their access and stimulate engagement.
Mirroring Twitter, Facebook introduced an option to follow people without “friending” them. This non-reciprocal relationship enables users to get content from many other sources and to follow leaders, celebrities, and gurus of all stripes more easily. This will increase the torrent of content vying for a spot on each user’s page.
If you follow those who are NOT your friends, you can now also comment on the walls of brands that are not your friends. This has already provoked a flurry of negative posts for some clients and will encourage further sharing and acting out. Brands will need to respond, edit, and provide more customer service faster in order to keep up with this. We suspect that the volume and intensity will wane over time but be closely linked to the news cycle and general anxieties about the economy and news events.
Sponsored Story Ads
As users curate, segment, and sort their data, Facebook will push their Sponsored Story ad units much harder. These are simple text ads that tell you when your friends like, want, need, listen, read, or buy something. The operative theory is that since we are peer-influenced, alerting us to our friends’ activities will raise our awareness and promote interaction with brands
Implications for Brands
1. Getting brand page posts into fans’ News Feeds will continue to be top priority. We will have to work harder to create engaging content and re-calibrate our publishing cadences since recency plus the number of responses, re-posts, and comments will count more than the number of fans in determining if our message gets through.
After one week of implementing the new News Feed, impressions (or reach) per post were down 33 percent in a study done by EdgeRank Checker. But likes and comments were up 17 percent, so it looks like Facebook is changing the dynamic just like they planned.
The implication is that brands have to switch their tactics to publish more interesting items more frequently to drive greater interactions rather than one-click passive likes/fans. If the average current fan access ratio is 10% or less, reach and impressions will take a short-term dip until we better understand and respond to changes in Facebook’s filtering regime.
2. Pictures and videos will become larger on the page and more important. If we need to get fans more engaged and spending more time, we’ll need to create and use more visuals more frequently.
3. We will need to build apps that provide functionality and value to Facebook users to gain access to the Ticker. Brands will need to distribute loyalty points, develop interactive functionality, and provide useful tools (e.g. store locators or shopping comparison tools) in order to get access to and get frequently re-posted and used, which will appear on fans’ real-time Tickers; this, in turn, will be seen by their friends.
It will take a few weeks to see how users adjust to these changes. There will be a lot of negative commentary. Some users will complain that Facebook is becoming too complicated, too demanding, or too nosy. Lots of Facebook users don’t want to work hard to use the platform and others don’t want to be looking constantly over their shoulders, worried about the privacy of their data.
This won’t be the last evolution of Facebook. They like to keep us off-balance, guessing, and beholden to them. Because they can. The jury is out on how much conformity and increased use will result from these developments. But it’s clear that brands will have to adjust our plans and our content strategies to optimize results in the near term.
Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.