“My guess is that all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough.” That was Mark Zuckerberg’s reported response to the July-long boycott of his platform by big advertisers, including Unilever, Coca-Cola and Starbucks, who object to Facebook’s role in propagating hate speech.
It might not be a bad guess, either. Because for all Facebook’s shortcomings as an ethical tech giant – the Observer, which recently likened the company to a rogue state, faults it for facilitating genocide, US election tampering and the live-streaming of a massacre – it is still the world’s best advertising platform. CMOs can’t afford to boycott market-leading ad performance forever, even with such weighty principles at stake. As with so many ethical choices, financial self-interest tends to win in the end.
Facebook’s dependence on big brands is also easily overestimated. In reality, the main contributors to its $70bn annual revenues are small advertisers who simply need online ads that work, all moral debates aside. Presumably most of them would love to buy them from a dominant digital media owner who wasn’t haplessly stoking all the evils of the world – but what choice do they have?
This is the point on which the wider online advertising community needs to focus. The only way Facebook will lose market share in the long term is if smaller rivals can somehow match the quality of the platform’s ad offering.
So, what makes Facebook so good? In the briefest terms, it delivers advertising effectiveness by excelling in the three fundamental components of digital advertising: it delivers great formats on slick apps and with the highest-quality audience targeting. What the world needs, therefore, isn’t just a boycott – it’s equally world-beating data, inventory and formats. These are the three fronts on which we must continue the fight.
All around, we see promising evidence of such efforts. While other networks might lack Facebook’s maturity, breadth and scale, they are borrowing its tricks. Snapchat and TikTok, for instance, have both combined a highly immersive user experience with strong targeting and excellent, integrated formats, and both have identified brand safety as a priority.
Others have learned well, too. Picnic’s own technology owes an unabashed debt to the social media standards Facebook and Instagram have helped to set. Our aim has always been to bring the high-quality ad experiences of social media to the open web, and we deliver proprietary social formats like Sponsored Stories and Posts mid-article on web pages that are as slick and fast as Instagram.
Elsewhere on the open web, news sites such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian have built well-constructed ad experiences alongside considered editorial policies, compared to Facebook’s ‘neutral’ – yet demonstrably harmful – network of clickbait and malicious falsehood.
They are working on the data pillar too: the New York Times is developing a proprietary first-party data platform based around 45 initial audience segments and from next year will no longer use third-party data to target ads. The Washington Post, the Guardian and others are also working on strengthening their ad products with first-party data plans. Confronted with products that perform as well as those of the problematic social giant, marketing directors might well feel free to leave Facebook behind for good.
Google may not be everyone’s idea of an antidote to Facebook – between the two of them, they share 80% of the digital advertising market – but the search colossus is also contributing important work in improving the quality of web inventory. Its Google AMP technology puts user experience at its heart and has sped up large sections of the mobile web, while the new Web Vitals initiative focuses on performance metrics with the aim of helping site owners assess the quality of the UX they deliver.
These examples, scattered across the web, don’t add up to a Goliath-slaying solution any more than a big-brand boycott does. But they are steps in the right direction, and all advertisers who are truly troubled by Facebook’s footprint should feel inspired to try these embryonic alternatives, if they want to prevent a return to familiar, problematic ways at the end of July.