Facebook’s Paywall Test is an Unpaid Advertisement for Marketing Strategy

The Guardian reported yesterday that Facebook was running a test in small national markets that created two news feeds, one that had posts from friends and another secondary feed that had posts from pages users had “liked.” The catch was that promoted content – the posts page administrators had paid to get to an audience – showed up in the former feed. This meant that organic, non-paid content was unlikely to reach its target audience, and many pages saw their non-promoted content reach drop by as much as two thirds with no warning.

Most who heard of this assumed that Facebook was testing something many marketers have long feared, which is a full pay-to-play barrier between brands and Facebook users. This isn’t a new concept – most advertising throughout history has required marketers to pay for all access to an audience – but for organizations that depend on organic Facebook content for their marketing reach the implications were sobering. Left in place, this change would have completely rewritten marketing plans and budgets, as well as the ROI calculations for all the work those organizations had done to build their organic Facebook followings.

fb-artIn response, Facebook assured us all that there was nothing to see here. “There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries or to charge pages on Facebook to pay for all their distribution in News Feed or Explore,” Facebook’s Adam Mosseri wrote in an official blog post.

Whether or not this is the future of Facebook specifically and social media marketing in general – and I personally do think that it will continue to get harder to reach audiences on social media without paying for the privilege, now that they’ve got us where they want us – this is a blunt reminder for many marketers and those who employ them. It’s a case study for the core strategic marketing and communications concept that the best way to navigate a changing tactical landscape is to have guiding strategic direction and process that provide consistent direction regardless of changes to the landscape.

“Strategy” is an overused and oft-abused word that means different things to different people. As I broadly use it, strategy involves defining goals, identifying the objectives that much be reached to achieve those goals, determining which tactics will be of value in accomplishing those objectives and allocating the necessary resources to execute those tactics. In short, it’s how you decide what you want to accomplish and then figure out what you need to do, how you’re going to do it and what you’ll need to have to make it happen.

For marketers without a strong strategic plan, it’s certainly possible to have a valuable tactical success such as a broad and cost-effective organic Facebook reach. But while it’s important to measure such metrics, it’s even more important not to confuse a tactical victory such as success on a marketing metric with a strategic goal. Something like Facebook reach is a means to an end. Strategic goals are ends that advance an organization’s mission such as policies implemented, fundraising or sales targets reached, membership grown and the like.

Good strategic marketing and communications professionals will take something like Facebook’s “No, seriously, we’re not going to try to get more money out of you, we promise” news feed test and incorporate it into their planning process. It will change the value of some tactics, it will modify the resource budgeting equation and potentially shift spending, it may shift timelines or even potential audiences.  But when the focus is on the strategic goals and not on tactical setbacks, on ends and not the means, even massive changes to important channels can be navigated without ending progress toward an organization’s mission.

Edit: And cartoonist Matt Inman at “The Oatmeal” nailed it. (NSFW language.)

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