For reasons both personal and not-so-personal, my voyage to yesterday’s first fMC (Facebook Marketing Conference) at the American Museum of Natural History was both a trip into the wayback machine and a look at the future.
Additionally, I had trouble figuring out which one was really the whale: the behemoth that is now Facebook or the huge whale model that has long loomed over the Museum’s Hall of Ocean Life.
No wonder I had trouble sleeping. Time dislocation and looming whales will do that to a girl.
So, let’s take a look at how and why a conference about the future of social marketing on the world’s hottest online property could qualify as a trip into the wayback machine:
It’s 2002, and, within about a week of one another, MSN and AOL hold major events in New York. AOL launches AOL 8 at a massive event at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. The Webcast features not only the requisite AOL and Time Warner execs -- those were the days! -- but is hosted by Dana Carvey, with musical guest Alanis Morissette. For some reason, the thing I remember most is that some of the real members – who had preferred seating along with their real children – literally ran from the venue once Morissette started to play, very, very loudly
Then MSN, at the dawn of its still ongoing butterfly phase, holds a launch event to unveil MSN 8 the very next week in a huge dome planted on top of Wollman Rink in Central Park, featuring Bill Gates, Disney chief Michael Eisner, and musical guest Lenny Kravitz. (You may recall that Kravitz’ hit “Fly Away” was a cornerstone of MSN’s advertising at the time.)
So, there I was yesterday at another storied New York location, as Facebook held its biggest event ever for the marketing community. The dramatis personae this time? Among others, COO Sheryl Sandberg (Mark Zuckerberg only appeared on tape), American Express chairman/CEO Ken Chenault, Walmart CMO Stephen Quinn and musical guest Alicia Keys.
More to the advertising point, one of the key ad program components unveiled at the event was something called the “Reach Generator,” which guarantees that 75% of a brand page’s fans will be reached within a given month with content from the Page (Facebook’s capitalization), which is now being described as “Mission Control” for brand efforts. Advertisers who pay up will no longer have to worry about the truism that even most fans of a brand never visit the page.
The whole reach initiative kinda reminded me that the last time I found myself drinking a glass of wine under the Museum’s giant whale was at a party hosted by my then-employer J. Walter Thompson, back in 19 ought … well I’m not sure any of us wants to know. Let’s just say that it was when reach was really, really big, and when cable’s quantity of it was still pretty small. And when Zuckerberg was soon to graduate… from kindergarten.
Now, let me leave the tongue-in-cheekiness aside. While the comparisons with launches past made for a steady drumbeat in my head yesterday, they are not completely apt. For one, there is no rival with anything close to 845 million users who will, or can, upstage Facebook. Twitter, even if it was a real rival, will not be hosting a launch event next week at an undisclosed New York location, featuring musical guest Lady Gaga.
In its dominance of this moment in time, Facebook stands alone.
Second, the ad programs Facebook unveiled yesterday also scrape away at what I’ve seen as two of its most vexing advertising problems: the ability to leverage reach in a way that is still in keeping with the vibe of the platform, and the ability to, well, steady the Facebook experience for advertisers. To go into greater detail, the Reach Generator is part of the group of services now known as Premium on Facebook, all of which will help advertisers push content more noticeably through the platform. One is through the right-hand side ads that currently pepper the service and which can be targeted to anyone; another is ads that go straight into the News Feed of a brand’s fans, but, as I said above, in such a way that guarantees that more fans of a brand will see its status updates.
These moves go a long way toward what I referred to as “steadying” the experience. As I said in this column about a month ago, some advertisers at our recent Social Media Insider Summit complained that Facebook’s changes to the News Feed several months ago had dropped engagement rates. Facebook itself circumstantially backed up this claim yesterday, when the company said that, on average, Facebook users only see 16% of their News Feed’s content. Facebook’s constant evolution has its benefits, but it also, I’d imagine, makes it a challenging platform for advertisers more accustomed to properties with a more stable flow of content, be it a TV station or a news site. With the guarantees included in Reach Generator, that concern goes away.
The Premium product also addresses mobile, which, if you’ve spent any quality time with Facebook’s S1, is a major concern not just for Facebook, but for advertisers, because about half of users access Facebook from a mobile device each month. The near-term fix is simple: News Feed ads will now run on mobile platforms as well.
And then there’s the Yahoo killer. (I’m returning to tongue-in-cheek mode here.) It’s the oxymoron known as the Logout Experience, which is an optional component of Premium on Facebook, and that, heretofore, has never really been an experience on any platform, ever -- unless, by logging out, you mean dramatically destroying your laptop by throwing it out of a fourth-story window. Now that’s what I call an experience!
Oh, so what is it? It’s essentially a homepage takeover, but one that only shows up on the back door. While many of us, sadly, are not prone to ever logging out of Facebook (or maybe I should speak for myself), the Logout Experience nonetheless takes reach to the most logical extreme that Facebook can take it -- without turning it into, well, Yahoo. Facebook’s most intrusive advertising experience will occur after the Facebooking itself is done.
When all was said, done, and sang yesterday, I liked what I saw. None of it rewrites the world of Facebook advertising, nor should it. But the new ad products guarantee not only impressions and engagement -- but also mean that not advertising on Facebook has just become a much less viable marketing strategy. These are good things.
But I also should point out that Facebook, while keeping an eye on the future, would also be smart to pay some attention to the past. This kind of reflection shouldn’t just be for old-time Internet wonks like me. AOL and MSN were once whales, too, not to mention Alanis Morissette.