Facebook dangles a sword of Damocles

The social network giant wants to host mainstream media owners' content within its platform and encourage agencies to spend more of their clients' ad dollars within this closed shop.

One of the main driving forces behind the growth in PR and communications is the explosion in branded content and the distribution of said content on social media platforms such as Facebook.

In-house teams and agencies alike need to understand how to navigate these channels and utilize them effectively for their brands, corporations, and clients. The power of social media behemoths such as Facebook is usurping television, radio, and print as one of the foremost distribution channels of mass media.

Facebook had 1.4 billion active users in the month of December 2014. It has immense power and it knows how to use it to squeeze the maximum amount of revenue from its platform.

PR agencies that had carefully built hundreds of communities for brands to operate on the platform in a semi-owned media environment were stymied last year when Facebook moved the goalposts and pretty much neutralized organic reach.

Marketers had spent huge time and effort building up impressive followings on Facebook, and helping to expand the platform in the process, only to be told they would need to pay for ads to get exposure to the people who liked their pages.

That’s Facebook’s prerogative: It’s their platform and they can do what they want with it – hence the observation above that it is only semi-owned. Facebook is the real media owner here. Or social utility as it prefers to call itself.

This left a plethora of confused marketers with the choice of abandoning the platform, and some have done so, or digging into their budgets to allocate paid elements to their social campaigns. It opened up opportunities for PR agencies to further specialize in paid digital media as well as earned and owned, and in-house and agency teams have been ramping up their skill sets to conduct this new type of business.

This week, Facebook also rolled out a new education program for agencies and brands wanting to optimize their campaigns and better engage the enormous Facebook community through paid advertising. At the moment it is mainly testing in beta with media and digital agencies, but there is just as much potential in there for PR firms.

Paid media sits alongside other skills PR pros are increasingly expected to possess that we identified in our Marketing 2.0 issue in February, such as SEO, data and analytics, content production, marketing cloud services, programmatic, and so on. As our Agency Business Report in May will show, it’s driving much of the growth at the progressive firms in the marketplace.

Now Facebook has set its sights on media owners. According to The New York Times, it is hooking up with media owners including The Gray Lady itself, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic to host content inside Facebook’s environment. Users won’t need to shell out to an external website, and the media owners will get a share of advertising sold around the content in return.

Anyone who has skimmed through their Facebook feed on a cellphone will appreciate the greater speed such an arrangement would bring to the process. And embattled media owners desperate for new revenue streams to replace their disappearing print and broadcast advertising cannot be criticized for licking their lips in anticipation of getting their hands on a slice of the Facebook pie.

Some media owners are already pot-committed to Facebook. BuzzFeed prioritized it in building its traffic, rather than focusing on Twitter, and expanded incredibly fast as a result. Vox News is already publishing content directly to Facebook and reaping fantastic rewards from it. Here at PRWeek, we also get incredible engagement from our Facebook channel.

But I believe it is a veritable sword of Damocles for the media owners and agencies, as the example quoted above with building brand communities illustrates.

They should think long and hard before accepting what could turn out to be a similarly poisoned chalice. They should at least be careful not to place all their eggs in one basket – because this basket has a habit of morphing into something completely different at very short notice.

The next phase of media navel-gazing is going to revolve around channels and platforms rather than the actual content being delivered through them – and it’s going to evolve really fast in some interesting and unusual ways. It’s a journey that PR pros will need to follow avidly, to best understand how to tell their stories, and which platforms to prioritize in channeling those stories.

Media owners: Buckle up and prepare for another crazy ride. Agencies: You need to be as expert in the ‘P’ in PESO – paid media – as you are with the other three elements.

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