Let's Hope Facebook and Twitter Are Thinking Harder Than This

In what has to qualify as the most unsurprising mobile marketing announcements so far this year, both Facebook and Twitter did pretty much what everyone expected this week. In back-to-back announcements, the social media networks took the same approach with plans to put ads into our news feeds.

Oh, but don’t worry, hypersensitive social media mavens. They won’t ruin the experience for you. Both companies assure us that the trick here will be to have sponsors add valuable content to your feeds, not just bald-faced promotions.

Because American advertising has been so good at giving us value rather than relentless pitches elsewhere on the Web?

Let’s give Facebook and Twitter the benefit of the doubt here. Adding promoted tweets and “sponsored stories” or “Premium Ads” into the feed was the obvious thing to do. Which, of course, is also the weakness here. In thinking about mobile platforms, use cases, location awareness, kinds of user interactivity, etc., their default mode is just to slap ads into the content? How 1888 of them.

Both providers emphasized in their announcements how the injection of brand messaging into flows of content that generally felt person-to-person would feel natural and authentic. When done well, these ads will just seem  like further pieces of the conversation, they suggested.

Please! All due respect to the Supreme Court and Mitt Romney, but corporations and brands are not people. This is especially true when they try to sound like people. I am not sure which is worse: the prospect of bald-faced ads showing up in my feeds or the prospect of cloying attempts by brands to seem like my “friends.”

I am less convinced than some that users (especially on Facebook) will revolt against brand messaging in their feeds. From a butt-ugly desktop interface to lamebrained privacy policy fumbles, Facebook users put up with a lot from this company in exchange for the core service that so many millions value. Twitter is already a broadcast medium where people more naturally follow brand messaging as part of the flow anyway. We will wait and see what these promotions look and feel like in the overall scheme of everyday use. Perhaps for different reasons, I can’t see these schemes blowing up in the faces of Facebook or Twitter. Where the hell are users going to go, anyway?

On one level, these schemes both incent marketers to be more “friend-like” in their social media presence. In Facebook especially, where “liked” brands are the ones showing up in the feed ads, the brands run the risk of being un-liked if they don’t provide value.  

But I do think these plans take some of the polish off of the social network phenomena of recent years in a couple of more subtle ways. First, inserting ads into feeds that are designed as person-to-person conversational vehicles simply erodes the p2p value. How much? I don’t know. But if Twitter starts targeting ads according to message flows in my newsfeeds (as opposed to hashtag searches, as they now do) then I become aware of an uninvited third party always there.

In Facebook, the appearance of promoted messaging in the feeds where I also check up on my daughter’s latest rock gym exploits or art projects won’t be a deal killer. They are supposed to reflect the brands I already “liked” anyway. But it will change the feel of the place. These social networks have always been p2p conversations held in relatively public spaces, to be sure. But the presence of advertising in those flows simply further undermines any illusion of intimacy the network may have had. Again, not a deal killer -- but a mild erosion of core value.

My bigger annoyance with all of this is the sheer lack of creative innovation when it comes to mobile. Neither social network -- once hip and plugged into the digital zeitgeist -- distinguishes their own brands in announcing these plans. The brilliant rising stars of 2007 suddenly feel as if they are playing catch-up with mobile. Clearly we can’t look to these behemoths of social media to lead the way. Both of these plans treat mobile as just another desktop screen. There is no awareness that the devices are out and about in the world -- that use cases and modes of use are different here, or that something new and different can and should be done here.

Nothing in these plans seems to leverage the ability of mobile to create ongoing one-to-one relationships with users, to provide real-world, situationally aware value, or even to acknowedge that these marketers have other mobilized CRM, app, or Web programs that they might want to integrate. Sure, smart marketers will find ways to do this, but shouldn’t the publisher be crafting programs that anticipate and understand a larger mobile ecosystem that has already evolved?

I am sure -- OK, I hope -- that there are some smart, mobile-savvy thinkers buried in the Facebook and Twitter skunkworks planning the next, more creative steps in leveraging mobile. But the value of mobile to marketing in my mind has always been its promise to take us beyond advertising as we have known it. The device’s intimacy forces marketers to create services, not just promotions. Its omnipresence offers any brand the opportunity to add value to any given moment, sometimes just by adding fun. It has the ability to connect you with something you need or want at just that time and place when you want or need it most.

The opportunity/challenge is for a brand to be a genuine companion here, which is something substantially more than being a “liked” or “followed” social media member. That two of the most oft-used publishers on mobile -- Facebook and Twitter -- seem to be overlooking so much of that suggests we must look elsewhere for innovation.   

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6 comments about "Let's Hope Facebook and Twitter Are Thinking Harder Than This".
  1. Carolyn Hansen from Hacker Group , March 1, 2012 at 12:11 p.m.
    Facebook users have gotten hysterical over the thought of paying for Facebook. Will they go nuts over seeing ads, too? As a Facebook user, I might be willing to pay to not see ads in my newsfeed. That's a model that Amazon uses for its "with and without offers" versions of the Kindle. The downside is that advertisers might not be as excited about excluding the people who have the financial means to avoid them. It's quite the three-way balance of stakeholders that Facebook must satisfy.
  2. Marty DeAngelo from Digitas Health , March 1, 2012 at 12:20 p.m.
    I see this working the same was a mobile apps - if the service still provides a value and the ads aren't too intrusive, I'll stick with the free app. If the service is valuable but the ads are annoying, I might upgrade to the full version by paying a small fee. But if the value is lower, or the value is impinged by ads (which some paid apps still have), then I'm most likely to stop using the app entirely. In Facebook/Twitter world, that means that I'm MOST likely to simply unlike/unfriend/unfollow any brand that gives me ads with no value. If they force ads on my from other brands, I'll block those or stop using the service - it's that simple. User attrition will make the difference.
  3. Len Stein from Visibility Public Relations , March 1, 2012 at 12:38 p.m.
    here comes the Uninvited - right, can't wait to read those conversational bon mots from advertisers. Watch for the Wrath of the Millennials!
  4. Brian Stoller from Mindshare , March 1, 2012 at 2:16 p.m.
    I just sat through the abridged version of the FMC announcement with Paul Adams (Facebook) who talked long and hard about the philosophy of social marketing and the approach that FB has in inserting ads into the various streams (mobile included). If the FB execs have built the new products to govern themselves the way they present their philosophy, I believe these new advertising products will prove hugely beneficial. To quote the FB guys... 'we have to re-think our approach to targeting.' My concern is that advertisers and FB philosophers may not be able to meet in the middle, and the old ways of thinking about scaleable audiences and targeting will wreak havoc with our news feeds if FB's governors don't work, and advertisers don't embrace interest based targeting, as opposed to our traditional demographic based models.
  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , March 1, 2012 at 2:17 p.m.
    Where the hell are users supposed to go ? Where did they come from and how in heavens name did they ever communicate without twits and FB, goog+ ?
  6. Rick Noel from eBiz ROI, Inc. , March 1, 2012 at 3:19 p.m.
    Nice piece Steve. It will be interesting to see how Facebook and Twitter users react to ads in the newsfeed and whether that will drive more users to Google+. I too am disappointed and even surprised that location awareness for mobile users was absent from both announcements. That's the huge opportunity since for some/many users, mobile access to Facebook and Twitter trumps other screens, and for certain users, access is exclusively from a mobile device. Maybe Google+ will beat them to the punch!