Facebook’s “talking about this”

by David Gillespie

So I was sitting in a presentation from a Facebook rep today, a guy who did his best to slaughter everyone in the room by first lulling us all to sleep. He was recapping their recent announcements, nothing you haven’t heard.

While I was sitting there contemplating the swift, gracious death that might be bestowed on me were I more fortunate, I noticed a theme in what the rep was saying.

The first thing was, essentially, “If you want your campaigns to work, spend media dollars on them.” This comes as no surprise, of course they’re going to say that. And in my experience, they’re right. They’re right because they know people actually do not care about your brand one little bit, and if you want to have something decent to show for your campaign spend, you’re going to need to force it in front of people. Funny how new marketing looks a lot like old marketing.

The second thing I realised was they had shifted so quickly to focusing on engagement. Talking about engagement. Talking, in fact about their new metric “talking about this”, where the number of people doing just that kicks off that sentence. Strange, I thought, to have made such a sudden about-face.

And then it hit me: they were running out of road.

Look at the below graph. This is Starbucks’ fan growth over time to its present day.


Now look at this, Starbucks’ average new fans per week:

The growth they continue to experience would be the envy of most brands, but it’s still a shadow of its former self.

So, this is what I think: Facebook realised that all brands, from the smallest upstart to globe-straddling behemoths, would have a natural ceiling on the number of fans they had. Once brands hit that ceiling, it becomes harder for marketers to justify the ad spend because they’re not seeing the growth they’re used to, which in turn would mean they started to seek alternate places to spend their media dollars.

So what do they do? Change the conversation purposefully from being about numbers to “People talking about this“.

Now, I actually think it is the right way to go, number of fans had little more meaning than the number of friends anyone had on MySpace, and smart marketers always knew it was about engagement. But in launching this new metric and focusing as much attention on it as they can muster, Facebook have managed to stave off any apathy that may have been headed their way from marketing managers on post-fan-drive come downs.

The above might strike you as wildly cynical, but look at those graphs again. In an environment that will accept nothing less than significant year-on-year growth in all forms, what other conclusion can you come to?

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