The Trouble with Facebook

By Aaron Paitich

12/01/16

First off, let’s restate the obvious. Facebook is a gargantuan media presence that no business can or should ignore. Facebook has a massive global reach, builds brand affinity, drives audience engagement, offers tremendous targeting opportunities and often attracts valuable, loyal customers. Likewise, media marketing companies need to be well armed and versed in how to operate within Facebook’s walled garden: from crafting dynamic posts to creating smart ad campaigns to utilizing Facebook Live video capabilities. At times, however, this fascination can get a little too much and marketers end up sounding like a modern day Jan Brady: “Facebook, Facebook, Facebook!”

If you weren’t yet leery of Facebook overkill, the events of the past few months should have given you serious pause. First, after years of touting its amazing video engagement, Facebook suddenly admitted that it was, in essence, cooking the books on a key metric it provided to advertisers. As this recent Wall Street Journal article noted:

“For the past two years Facebook only counted video views of more than three seconds when calculating its “Average Duration of Video Viewed” metric. Video views of under three seconds were not factored in, thereby inflating the average. Facebook’s new metric, “Average Watch Time,” will reflect video views of any duration. That will replace the earlier metric.”

This admission from this past summer came as a seismic shock to the media and marketing community. According to the Journal, one ad-buying agency was told by Facebook that the average time-watched estimates for its videos were off by an astounding 60% to 80%. Some digital news media outlets, like Mashable, had essentially reorganized their entire company structure around the now-dubious premise that videos were the primary drivers of consumer engagement. Needless to say, an integrity issue of this scale is a wake-up call to anyone who uses the platform to reach consumers.

But wait, there’s more! In the midst of this, Facebook has also been facing an epidemic of fake news propagation. As the 2016 election ramped up, so too did an outbreak of sketchy Facebook sites aimed at virally dispersing phony news stories and memes into the discourse. While urban myths and crank, email forwards certainly preceded this phenomenon (as did many other iterations of myth-propagating platforms going back for generations), Facebook ubiquity incubated and accelerated these fake news pieces at an unprecedented rate.

A post-election BuzzFeed study of engagement on Facebook found a disturbing result. As Election Day approached, fake news stories about the campaign actually outperformed mainstream news articles in Facebook’s News Feed. In some cases, Potemkin ‘news’ sites that hadn’t even existed 10 months ago were enjoying Facebook traffic that surpassed the New York Times or the Washington Post.

When CEO Mark Zuckerberg was confronted with some of this data after the election, his rather dismissive response was alarming: “To think [fake news on Facebook] influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” So, a company that routinely touts its broad audience penetration and deep connectivity to what its users want to see and know is suddenly downplaying its influence as ineffectual?

Even more disturbing, however, were reports like this Gizmodo story. It found that Facebook had known of its fake news problem since May, but failed to address it because of internal squeamishness over political sensibilities.

Facebook is disingenuously trying to have it both ways here. But it can’t proclaim to be a media or marketing company’s best partner when it comes to taking their money for content and ad deals and then duck responsibility when it fails to do its own due diligence on the content or engagement it delivers. Facebook’s integrity has taken a couple of big hits of late, and both consumers and marketers are right to be wary of the promises it makes to them.

The upshot of this is that any company or brand would be foolish to put all their marketing or outreach eggs in Facebook’s basket. That’s generally good advice about any communications platform, of course, but at times Facebook’s size and scope has seemed to defy conventional wisdom. In the end, yes, your Facebook outreach is still important, but it’s good to be reminded that Facebook should also be complementing your other social media platforms, website blog posts, email newsletters, TV/radio ads, or any direct mail/printed messaging. That’s a recipe for a more effective marketing strategy that goes beyond mere “likes.”