The $7 mistake

Facebook announced recently that individuals with personal profiles now have an option that previously had been available only to administrators of business pages. That is, people can now pay to “promote” a specific post to their friends. Acknowledging that only a small percentage of friends will see any specific post one might make (estimates vary, but Facebook claims just over 15%) the new option allows people to pay US$7 to promote their post, guaranteeing that a wider circle of friends will see it. Sounds tempting, right? If you’re going to go to the trouble of posting something, you’d like people to see it. Facebook certainly isn’t forcing you to pay to promote the post. You can still post to your wall the “old-fashioned” way (“old-fashioned” in social media time, so what we’ve been doing for the past six years or so). But, Facebook is playing with fire.

One of the central appeals of Facebook for its vast community of members is that it’s a free service. The business model has been predicated on the fact that Facebook would earn its income from advertisers eager to reach a large and growing audience. IPO and stock fluctuations left aside for a moment, you would have to admit that Facebook has delivered on its side of the bargain, building an astonishingly large community of active users in just six years that now exceeds a billion people around the world. 

In turn, business owners such as hotels and hotel brands have had access to this huge audience through various means — some free and some not. Pages have been free to create, but businesses have had the option of expanding their fan base with advertising on Facebook for years. More recently, Facebook provided options for businesses to promote the posts on their pages in order to reach a wider audience among their fans. That seems appropriate. After all, if companies are going to try to make money, build brand loyalty (to help make money later), offer customer service (to make money later) or increase awareness (see previous) on Facebook, it’s to be expected they may have to pay for the opportunity.

So, what’s wrong with expanding this option to individuals? In short, it’s a road that may lead to diminishing the very audience that advertisers are paying for now.  People like Facebook for many reasons, including the ability to stay in touch and share news with friends and family, to find entertainment, deals or information quickly — the list is long, and each of us could add a dozen other reasons. But Facebook’s audience has grown because all of this could be accomplished for free, for individuals at least. When Facebook tells people that the company can help them reach more of their friends for US$7 per post, they’re sending an opposing message (inadvertently or not) at the same time. “If I don’t pay to promote my posts, and my friends do,” people will ask themselves, “will my posts just get buried?” It’s a slippery slope. If just a few promoted posts add up to the cost of sending a Fed-Ex, how soon will it be before a percentage of users begin to look for other platforms or cut back on their engagement with Facebook.  This affects the businesses looking to Facebook as a means to engage with users (which is why I felt free to vent about this on this blog). Facebook is “testing” this new option, and I’m hoping it judges the test a failure in the end. 

I’d love to hear what you think.