Sunday, September 25, 2011

Facebook Changes Upend Advertiser and Agency Models

The media is already dissecting yesterday's Facebook event, where the company unveiled major new changes to their platform. Par for the course, really. Drama always accompanies any change to the Facebook site or platform.

But I see drama brewing in a place unaccustomed to it, and involving a different kind of media — the media buying agencies that wield most of the money spent on advertising on the Facebook platform and the companies they represent.

It would seem that the more time consumers spend on Facebook (over 53 billion minutes a month, according to Nielsen), the more the advertising economy would benefit, as more advertising inventory — what Facebook sells and media agencies buy — becomes more plentiful.

But alas, something appears to be broken, or breaking.

The classic, traditional media buying agencies (the big ones, most of them owned by the ad agency holding companies) are used to buying nouns — impressions, commercials, search results, clicks. These are "things" that display once, and then disappear, unless more of them are bought. Publishers have traditionally sold those "things" to them in an environment that operates with fairly little friction. Everything fit on a spreadsheet, or through an ad network. Even when optimizing to a transaction, they do so with tacit knowledge of what each transaction is worth.

One of the most significant new Facebook platform changes emphasizes their move towards making consumers' connections to content and activities more meaningful. Simple and vague "likes" are giving way to "listening to", "read", "hiked", "eating". The Facebook graph is becoming verb- and story-based. It presents a tremendous opportunity for advertisers to create and amplify positive engagements consumers are having with their products, or the lifestyles those products represent.

If all this doesn't sound like something that media agencies do for a living, you're right. Earning, amplifying, and optimizing towards engagement is just not what media agency systems and personnel are meant to support. Technology platforms here and there sprout up to help them do it better, but even those platforms become commodities if engagement-driven efforts are not handled and managed expertly, in an always-on way. Facebook's massive reach and importance to the web at large, and its major engagement-maximizing changes on the horizon, mean engagement-led (and not impression-led) advertising has never been more important.

To make the most of Facebook's changes, brands must:

  • Understand what the value of each kind of consumer engagement is to their business.
  • Be comfortable with the fact that they are generally not actually "managing communities" on Facebook, but rather, programming content and engagement channels.
  • Create experiences that enhance other experiences.
  • Find each and every way to ensure that as many of the right people have those experiences as possible, so they can efficiently affect their short- and long-term business goals.

Engagement across — and through — the Facebook platform will demand that these aspects be managed holistically and be optimized towards engagement. And as Facebook finds its way into other areas of media and our lives, this will become even more important. Siloed agencies don't help make these kinds of things happen. Silos are for storing. And Facebook is about sharing.

Media agencies have always been about breadth, reach and conversion. Advertising in social media should always be working towards a goal of delivering meaningful engagement at scale, and augmenting the value of the media that exists between people. This requires complicated planning, strategy, and execution across disciplines that are not in the wheelhouse of traditional media buying agencies — or in the wheelhouse of many agencies for that matter.

It is not all a loss for the classic media buying agency. As Facebook collects more data, and (likely) eventually begins powering display advertising infused with its data and intelligence, impressions can continue to be bought at scale, helping to deliver a brand message to as many people as possible — which will always be necessary.

But a comprehensive advertising plan now demands an engagement component that complements reach and frequency models. The dawn of the engagement age and agency is near, and the upcoming Facebook platform changes will only bring it about sooner.

Be prepared.

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