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Forrester’s Facebook conclusion is wrong, but their argument is right

The unhelpful distraction that is ‘organic reach’ on Facebook is once again bubbling to the top of the marketing agenda. After Facebook themselves confirmed their algorithm will start trying to hide overly promotional posts (you know, the ones you ignore if they do make it into your newsfeed?) Forrester has now published a damning new report, the headlines from which suggest marketers are wasting their money on the platform.

Forester argues that brands’ attempts to start “conversations” and “relationships” on the platform are a waste of time, and that ultimately “You don’t really have a social relationship with your customers.”

The report’s author Nate Elliott goes on to say: “It’s clear that Facebook and Twitter don’t offer the relationships that marketing leaders crave. Yet most brands still use these sites as the centerpiece of their social efforts — thereby wasting significant financial, technological, and human resources on social networks that don’t deliver value. It’s time for marketers to start building social relationship strategies around sites that can deliver value.”

Eliot makes a powerful point, consumers are indeed fickle and rarely have the personal dedication to brands that marketers would like to read – Dr Byron Sharp’s ‘How Brands Grow’ is a pretty thorough dismissal of this concept. Big brands are brands which persuade really broad audiences to buy their products occasionally, not brands with hugely dedicate core fan bases. Nate is very right to caution against this approach on Facebook, but the suggestion that brands should turn to their own websites or smaller platforms instead seems even more misguided given the further lack of scale they inevitably have. Reaching a bigger percentage of a smaller number of people still means reaching a small number of people.

Brands which devote a lot of resources to producing content and community managing an organic fan base on Facebook are wasting their time. Even when a slightly larger percentage of fans saw their content this was still the case. The truth of course was that under this model, despite the headlines, big brands were investing relatively small budgets into the platform – certainly compared to TV or other traditional media. Two years’ ago you’d have struggled to find a global brand spending 20 per cent of its total media budget on the platform, today that isn’t necessarily the case.

Since Facebook opened up richer media options, and the opportunity to directly get branded content in front of millions of people, this is changing. It is a MUCH bigger opportunity for most brands to be able to target and reach a broad audience of millions of consumers than to build up a small audience of a few thousand. Social media platforms can offer rapid, scalable reach, detailed targeting and often even frequency capping which is a TV planner’s dream.

Marketers do need to apply some common sense when approaching social media marketing, and there are plenty of confusing messages from agencies, startups, measurement firms and other vested parties. At the end of the day you need to first make social and digital channels work by the same rules as your traditional media channels; only then should you start exploring what makes them different – personalised content at scale, sequential storytelling, clever retargeting loops, and opportunities for deeper further engagement.

Mondelēz ‘Storytelling at Scale’ approach adopted these reach & content principles nearly two years ago and has seen them accelerate their Facebook spend as time and again they’re able to see the impact and ROI it drives. Reckitt Benckiser, some of the most ruthless number crunchers out there, also signed a nine figure partnership this year, based on the ROI they were seeing on internal studies of high scale campaign, not based on a dream of consumer conversation.

Forrester is right that marketers should be wary of the emperor’s new clothes of social marketing, but there’s never been a better time to invest in Facebook as a digital platform. The same can be said for YouTube, Twitter and the other big players able to offer brands meaningful scale.

Jerry Daykin is global digital director for Mondelez at Carat/Dentsu Aegis Network.