Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Facebook Is Still Figuring It Out. Will Advertisers and Investors Wait Around?

There are a bunch of ways to explain away GM’s decision to stop spending ad dollars on Facebook. We’ll get to those.

But there’s one thing that even the most ardent Facebook fan can’t argue with: Facebook advertising is very much a work in progress.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Facebook itself: “We believe that most advertisers are still learning and experimenting with the best ways to leverage Facebook to create more social and valuable ads,” the company says in its IPO filing.

If you’re a Facebook bull, those words sound reassuring. Facebook sold $3 billion worth of ads last year, and it’s just getting started. Imagine what happens when things really kick in.

But if you’re a skeptic, and there are lots of them, that uncertainity is a real problem. When Google went public in 2004, it had already built AdWords, the search ad engine that still generates the majority of its revenue today. Facebook doesn’t have an AdWords, so it doesn’t have a tried-and-true plan it can present to advertisers: Put dollars in here, see results over there.

Instead, Facebook marketers try different things over time. A few years back, they were all building Facebook apps. Then they started concentrating on amassing fans/followers. Now, digital marketing people tell me with confidence that all of that thinking is outmoded, and that the real Facebook pros are the ones who create “engaging content” on the site, then buy ads to “amplify” that message.

Facebook’s challenge gets even tougher because instead of search ads, whose success and failure are easy for advertisers to evaluate — Did someone click on my search ad? If they did, did they buy something or fill out a form once they got to my site? — Facebook aspires to the big branding dollars that advertisers spend on TV. And those are much harder to score. So convincing GM or anyone else to move big money from traditional ads, which marketers are at least comfortable with, to the wild world of social, requires a lot of work.

The good news for Facebook is that it’s so big that it might succeed even if it never cracks the social ad code. Any Web site with 900 million users and counting, who spend a ton of time there, is going to pull in a lot of ad dollars through sheer force of gravity. If Facebook can keep its users happy, it may get away with muddling through on the ad part.

But being a big, lumbering giant that attracts ad dollars without knowing what it’s doing isn’t the message Facebook wants to sell to advertisers. Or to investors.

OK, on to the “this isn’t that big of a deal” arguments. I’ve heard a bunch, all of which come from (different) people who don’t want to be quoted.

  • Obviously there’s a backstory here. If GM didn’t want to keep advertising on Facebook, it didn’t have to announce that three days before an IPO.
  • Big Fuel, GM’s social media ad agency, didn’t do a good job. That’s why GM fired them in December. For the record, here’s a quote from a Big Fuel rep: “GM never seemed persuaded of the value of social media in general and Facebook likes in particular. In a sales-driven culture, it is very hard to wrap your head around putting money in places where you don’t see immediate results in an uptick in sales.”
  • Starcom, GM’s media buying agency, didn’t do a good job. That’s why GM fired them in January.
  • How the heck did GM spend $3 on Facebook “content management” for every $1 it spent on Facebook ads, as the WSJ reports? That’s a sure sign that someone was doing something wrong.
  • Ford loves Facebook.
  • GM is pulling $10 million out of Facebook. Facebook did more than $3 billion in ads last year.

Again, all of those may be valid points.* But if Facebook really wants to allay outsiders’ fears, it needs to be able to prove conclusively that its ads work, in a scalable way, for a wide variety of advertisers. It can’t do that yet.

*I’m totally amazed by the $3-to-$1 ratio, and am wondering if it’s not to late to pivot myself into a “Facebook content creation consultant.” Those numbers also remind me very much of the late 90s, when companies like Organic went public based on the fact that they knew how to build Web sites and their clients didn’t, and they could charge accordingly. That didn’t last long.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik