In a blog post heard ‘round the advertising world, Mark Zuckerberg recently announced “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking”. In the post, Zuckerberg lays out the possibilities for a social networking ecosystem that centers on the uses of private communications and yet still leaves them at the periphery, where people interact with one another out of public view and without the fear or inhibition of their past posts and content changing tone or coming back to haunt them.
Despite the media commentary about the influence of Facebook’s recent scandals and this new strategy, Facebook is at its heart sustained by its ability to connect brands and advertisers with consumers. This vision represents a watershed moment for how Facebook adapts to the changing communications landscape, but furthermore one in how brands will connect with consumers for the foreseeable future.
What is the root of this change at Facebook?
Zuckerberg puts the root of this change very simply in his blog post on the topic:
“Over the last 15 years, Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square. But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room. As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.”
People are behaving differently in their digital lives for a variety of reasons, but it seems like Mark Zuckerberg, the guy who basically invented, owns and runs Facebook – who understands this subject matter more deeply than anyone else – sees a fundamental shift taking place and feels the need to adapt to it.
Facebook and its properties have thrived by creating public spaces, but the next transformational shift in consumer behaviour seems to be coming from private ones, and the whole company, along with its business model, needs to adapt and be geared towards new ways to fundamentally empower brands and advertisers to better engage their target audience.
Could this be happening for other reasons?
Facebook has had a lot to answer for in the eyes of the media, politicians and the public at large. Given the difficulty with which any entity could satisfy the questions with which Facebook has been scandalized, a fundamentally new vision for the platform and its associated platforms is required for it to charge forward.
A Bloomberg article characterized this move as one framed by user choice, but in a context in which Facebook could address privacy concerns and the spread of malicious content, though pointed out that it could also enable the spread of said malicious content in new ways. The Verge characterized this as a reversal from collecting data to sell targeted advertising, but made no mention of the ways in which Facebook intends to allow advertisers and brands to interact within these private spaces.
The New York Times, interestingly enough, did not treat Facebook with as much suspicion, but instead pointed out that the social media giant has already been “playing catch-up to how people are already communicating digitally”. The Times further pointed out that in many ways the strategy emulated one popularized by Tencent, Chinese maker of WeChat, “the de facto portal to the rest of the internet for Chinese citizens”.
And in that there rests a crucial insight – people rely on messaging more than ever, that’s where their trust lies. This is playing out across different markets and cultures in a variety of ways, but in many cases the first generation of messaging didn’t live up to the hype because brands only integrated payments and services in limited ways.
What Facebook is proposing, much as it may be brought on by privacy concerns, actually promises to fully realize the deep involvement that messaging can have in our day to day lives – not just for people, but for brands as well. This vision was announced on March 6th, and by March 14th major leadership changes were announced at both Facebook and WhatsApp. This was by all accounts due to the new focus on building an encrypted, interoperable messaging network. This isn’t just validation that there is actual commitment to this strategy and its technical requirements at the highest level.
It’s also reminiscent of previous smaller pivots, like Facebook’s shift to video nearly five years ago, which has led to them controlling nearly 87% of social video spending, and 24.5% of online video advertising overall. Facebook isn’t without its false starts, but often where Facebook goes, brands must follow, and this particular shift is as big as any yet.
What this change will look like for Brands
The way in which this vision will play out is conditioned, in Zuckerberg’s post, on the particular use cases Facebook wants to leverage and the ability of those use cases (as he terms them) to synchronize between one another, including across Facebook-owned properties like instagram and WhatsApp.
The use cases Zuckerberg calls out specifically are messaging, calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce and essentially any possible private service in the future. Interoperability refers to the ability to have end-to-end encrypted continuity between all of these use cases – no matter the channel, as in the case of merging Facebook Messenger, Instagram Direct and WhatsApp.
This combined approach is meant to create more privacy and security for consumers, but also offers a variety of potential scenarios in which consumers and brands become even closer and more interconnected.
Consider, again, what Zuckerberg states as such potential scenarios for brands:
“For example, lots of people selling items on Marketplace list their phone number so people can message them about buying it. That’s not ideal, because you’re giving strangers your phone number. With interoperability, you’d be able to use WhatsApp to receive messages sent to your Facebook account without sharing your phone number — and the buyer wouldn’t have to worry about whether you prefer to be messaged on one network or the other.”
“a person discovers a business on Instagram and easily transitions to their preferred messaging app for secure payments and customer support”
“another person wants to catch up with a friend and can send them a message that goes to their preferred app without having to think about where that person prefers to be reached”
“you simply post a story from your day across both Facebook and Instagram and can get all the replies from your friends in one place”
From a technical perspective, all these imagined cases and many more yet-imagined ones can consider users and consumers, brands and businesses, buyers and sellers as individual operators interacting with one another in an infinite array of conversations, exchanges and transactions. This means that brands will have to consider what interactions – and transactions – suit their consumers best, and how to provide them before competitors do.
What can brands do to adapt?
This is likely to serve as a bigger shift in communications than anything yet, and with Facebook already bringing 2.7 billion users to bear, the idea of their significant resources being devoted to driving more one-to-one interactions represents a shift that brands cannot afford to miss out on.
Brands need to get used to the idea of a messaging-first world, and fast. Post-first, ad-first or sale-first may be the way of thinking that has worked in communicating with past consumers, but consumers of the future will expect a brand to have messaging capabilities that are responsive to them at all times and in all possible places is critical to influencing their buying decisions and experiences.
Small and challenger brands, in many cases, may do this more easily than their larger, established competitors. They can more easily adapt to change, field inbound requests, questions and needs for insight, move staff around and adapt to these requirements, and limit their costs while more rapidly adapting their offerings to the consumer insights they generate.
For the world’s leading brands, however, this will never be enough. Established companies in any space – retail, CPG, automotive, financial services, media, and on and on – need to be able to meet these challenges at scale, and this can only be done with powerful Conversational AI. Established brands can always dominate the “town hall”, taking up major real estate with broad-based messaging that resonates, but to enter the “living room”, these same brands need to create one-to-one conversations that produce meaningful engagement, insight and sales.
In cases where brands may not be ready to index themselves towards the clear trend that’s already forming around messaging, inaction may prove even worse for them. Without the data and learning generated from initial Conversational AI investments, brands will be caught on their back foot as companies like Facebook and Google – who effectively control many of the ways in which they reach their consumers – start unveiling new direct messaging capabilities that will allow more pioneering brands to leverage their existing data and insights at an even larger scale.
How are others handling this change?
Facebook has made this decision in part due to its leadership in behavioural advertising – leadership that has now come under fire and driven them to change focus. A transition to a private, encrypted messaging-based advertising model can be understood when placed on the back of Facebook’s already massive social reach, but they aren’t the only members of the digital advertising duopoly to shift to one-to-one messaging as a new modality for advertisers.
For example, Google’s AdLingo incubator, developer of Conversational Display Advertising, has already deployed this new product with major brands to great success (Automat also offers Conversational Display Advertising with AdLingo). Messaging is on the whole the stickiest app we have in this digital life of ours – the ones that get most used and least-deleted from our devices, and the ones we’re looking to for answers and insights from those closest to us.
Both Google and Facebook have recognized the opportunity behind one-to-one conversations, but it’s up to brands to realize the urgency behind this new form of consumer interaction. Mass media messaging and broad-based advertising have too many faults to keep up with consumer expectations on their own, and brands need to start building solutions that can adapt to the privacy, flexibility and scale that all their consumers are coming to expect. What’s more, they need to consider technology partners who are fully equipped to take advantage of every incremental opportunity within this new paradigm.
Much as the “town square” has dominated the last 15 years of the development in social networks, this “living room” paradigm will dominate the development of social networks – and change and growth in brand advertising – for the next 15 years. Brands need only think and equip themselves in the modes – calls, video chats, groups, stories, payments, commerce and scalable messaging – that follow suit.