Seven ways Facebook ruined marketing

December 28, 2021 by Fourdozen

Seven ways Facebook ruined marketing

December 28, 2021 by Fourdozen

Facebook was supposed to be a marketer’s dream, but it turned out to be a nightmare.

Facebook isn’t having the best year. From recent revelations that they failed to act (for years) after they discovered their products curated anorexia and negative self image in young women and girls, to a flood of reports about how the Facebook algorithm radicalizes their users and acts as an accelerator for conspiracy theories, we can certainly imagine that the Facebook PR team is being kept on the very tips of their toes. With all that in mind, an article about how Facebook also ruined marketing could be seen as beating a dead horse.

But we’re ok with that. Especially when the horse in question has shown little to no will to address their problems (bad horse!) but still remains a business necessity for most of the world. As people who care deeply about marketing, and treating online communities with respect, our gripe with Facebook is both aesthetic and moral. Here are 7 ways that Facebook is toxic to effective, creative marketing.

1. The Emperor has no friends

Facebook didn’t just turn the word “friend” into a verb, it also changed it to mean “person I maybe know a little, maybe.” In the early days of Facebook, friend counts were one of the first manifestations of clout-measuring on the platform. Users were explicitly encouraged to add and invite as many friends as possible, because that helped extend Facebook’s network effect. And, of course, it made you look cool and popular. Who doesn’t want that?

When Facebook rolled out business pages, the message was just the same. More followers was better. More accounts following your page meant that more people cared about your business, and products. Small business owners and social media managers kept an eye on that follower count, writing calls to action and offering giveaways all in the hopes of pushing that number ever higher. But do you know what you can buy with 10,000 followers? Nothing much at all. A satisfied smile, and a cup of coffee (you gotta steal the coffee, though).

Facebook emphasized follower volume instead of real connections because they knew that the dopamine hit we all get from watching the number tick up is real. But it’s built upon a lie—99 times out of 100, those followers you’ve gathered will never see another post from your business again. Worse yet, Facebook incentivizes users to spend real money building a list of vanity followers that the algorithm will never let them communicate with again. The Facebook “Like campaign” ad type, when used by itself, is the chief offender here. We can’t tell you how many business owners we’ve worked with who have invested thousands of dollars building followers through ads, only to see their reach stuck at a fraction of a percent.

Facebook ruined marketing by focusing on bogus followers, and the illusion of clout.

2. Provocation and the race to the bottom

It’s become relatively common knowledge that social media platforms surf a wave of outrage and grievance. This isn’t unique to Facebook—watch YouTube for long enough and you’ll likely end up in some dark places. But few other platforms have embraced outrage and vitriol the way Facebook has.

These days, it can be tempting to think that content that makes us feel angry, threatened or disgusted spreads quickly because online communities are simply terrible. But these are not the natural shapes that these communities take—they have been actively pushed in that direction by Facebook’s engineers. Did you know that on Facebook, a post with just two “angry” emoji responses is considered more successful than another post with 9 likes? That is by design, because Facebook engineers built an algorithm that gives angry responses five times the weight of positive ones.

This results in a whole host of bad marketing techniques. Social media managers who are conditioned to aim for engagement and the reach it brings race each other to the bottom, trying to create something—anything—that will provoke engagement. This results in posts that mistake meanness for humor, and knee-jerk-reactions for connection. Take a recent campaign from a local Italian franchise here in Hanoi that gave women discounts based on how much younger their male companion was. Good for a momentary, dark chuckle, maybe. But not the kind of message that respects women, or men, or… just people.

A few of the more savvy local Vietnamese businesses have simply leaned-in to the brokenness of this system, flooding their posts with enraged responses from an army of bots. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a sandwich that somehow managed to piss off 113 people, that’s why. Kudos to those marketers for cracking the code, we guess. But we’d rather just delete it.

Facebook ruined marketing by building a system that values anger, and trains us to be smaller than we actually are.

3. People as Products

The first cliché born of the 21st century is: “If you’re not paying for it, you are the product.” We’re not breaking any news here when we tell you that users pay when they use Facebook, and that personal data is the currency.

The problem for marketers is that this applies doubly to you. Think back to when you first started your business page and entered their funnel. We’d be willing to guess that within a span of hours, you started getting your first marketing messages from Facebook encouraging you to give them your money. Every “Boost Post” button is a call to action for you to add your few drops to the river of advertising revenue flowing into Facebook. Will the ads, and boosts, be good for your business? Who cares! When an ad fails (as they often do), Facebook can always blame your creatives, your targeting, your ad optimization. But never fear, for an additional spend you can always run more ads. Practice makes profit.

Don’t get us wrong—we’re not saying that ads are bad. But a system that treats people (including and especially you) as products is a system that is bad for marketers. It’s also bad for the increasingly alienated audience that is used to seeing (and ignoring) a constant storm of disingenuous ads from marketers chasing likes and follows.

Facebook ruined marketing by treating users as products.

4. Rise of the bots

Flashback to the end of the 20th century, when artificial intelligence and machine overlords became the collective obsession of our popular mythology. Who could have guessed that the machines would indeed rise, but they’d just be here for the lols and to rile up the olds.

This isn’t the first mention of bots in our list. Recent estimates suggest that there could be as many as 90 million automated, fake accounts on Facebook. The problem is particularly rife in Vietnam, where any user with command of the google search bar can find a bot-army for hire. We think bots are terrible because they are ultimately counterproductive (not to mention dishonest). But we don’t fault the bot programmers as much as you’d think. 

That’s because the problem with bots is the natural result of a social media environment that is disingenuous to its core. In the end, what is the real difference between a follow that someone who has given to you in passing (the Facebook “page like” ad type makes it look on a quick glance like you’re just liking a post—and so often social media scrolling is nothing more than quick glances) and a follow from a bot? Thanks to the algorithm, neither the real human nor the bot will ever go on to see or interact with your content again. And the result of both actions is the same—a single digit, added to a larger number, and the brief little dopamine boost that results. This is compounded by the fact that bot armies can be directed for as little as 5% the cost of equivalent engagement through ads. These bot programmers saw a system where truth didn’t exist, and simply leaned into it.

Facebook ruined marketing by failing to control bots, and by creating a world where they were almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

5. Microtargeting, and the death of creativity

Since the first days of Facebook ads, targeting has been their unique selling point. Have a marketing message that you only want to show to women between the ages of 24 and 32 in Hai Phong, who are planning a wedding, and who are obsessed with Pokemon? You can do that.

At first this was met with much rejoicing. What a boon for marketers that they could show their messages to just the small segment of the audience that is interested in what they are selling. But an unexpected consequence of hyper-specific targeting has been a proliferation of boring, lazy, entirely uncreative marketing. To understand why, think about television ads. While you might not be in the market to buy Old Spice, everyone regardless of their demographics can appreciate the creativity and Isaiah Mustafa’s magnetic performance in these classic Old Spice ads that ran on network television a decade ago. 

That’s because the Old Spice marketing team knew that they would be speaking to a broad audience, and couldn’t get away with saying: “Hey, we sell deodorant.” But if, on the other hand, you know that your ad will only be shown to users who have searched for your product, then saying: “Hey, buy it here maybe,” just might cut it. The problem has gotten worse as Facebook advertising opened up to include anyone with a pulse and a credit card, flooding the zone with garbage and training the audience to ignore almost everything they see.

Facebook ruined marketing by swapping creativity for digital eavesdropping.

6. The Creep factor

While we’re on the subject of tracking, we can’t forget the effect it has on the audience. While Facebook executives cast real-time ad relevance as “convenient” for shoppers, how many of us have had the experience where we see an ad and our first thought is to wonder: “How the hell does Facebook even know that?”

A lot has been written about how the personalized advertising experience on Facebook can often feel more creepy than relevant. It puts the extent to which we have surrendered our data to this behemoth of a corporation front and center. And it makes us distrustful of a platform, and by extension the marketers, who would use information that still feels private to us to try and sell us stuff. Vietnam, which has a slightly later start on Facebook than the rest of the world, hasn’t yet reached the tipping point where the general audience reacts with distrust to a hyper-targeted ad. But believe us, that time is coming.

Facebook ruined marketing by making audiences feel uneasy, and spied upon.

7. Just plain ugly and unusable

If you’re anything like us, you got into a creative field because you enjoy beautiful things. Maybe it’s honest, emotive storytelling. Maybe it’s lush design. Maybe it’s an elegant UX where there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.

You won’t find any of that in late-stage Facebook. The company’s mad rush to absorb competitors and roll out duplicate features to put more creative upstarts out of business has resulted in a website that is, for lack of a better word, ugly as hell. Sure, you can post stories, broadcast your yoga routine live, have group voice chats, manage orders and products for your business, schedule events, set a virtual premier for your video, create photo albums, and fight with your uncle about public health policy. But in the real world, these are not naturally things that happen in the same place, or context. 

Facebook crammed everything into one place, leaving you always somehow 7 clicks away from where you want to go, and always finding that it looks a mess when you finally get there. This makes it fundamentally hard to do good, creative marketing on Facebook. Like trying to hang a beautiful painting in a room that’s filled with garbage, a bunch of noisy drunks who are fighting with each other, and a herd of creepy functionaries watching everything you do and taking notes.

Facebook ruined marketing by letting their platform, their product, become ugly and unusable.

Unruining Marketing

Facebook will not be here forever. We know that, and for all of their thrashing, they know it, too. But for the time being, it remains a business necessity—especially in markets like Vietnam. So no, the thesis of our list is not to delete Facebook. But the question remains: How, in a world like this, can we do good work?

The answer is deceptively simple: to simply do it. You probably noticed from the list above that we’re using the words “encourage” and “incentivize” a whole bunch. Remember that for all its flaws, there is nothing inherent in the Facebook platform that keeps you from respecting your audience. You are not required to chase likes and zombie follows, or to make content that you don’t believe in simply to appease the algorithm.

For most of our clients (and we’re guessing that for you, too), bigger is not always better.  A small audience who gets what you are doing, and is passionate about it, is worth a million strangers who scroll past your micro-targeted ad only to say: “Huh.”

Remember that when you market, you create culture. It’s possible to create culture that aligns your values anywhere. Even on Facebook.

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