Facebook pivots to privacy, pushing brands from native to performance advertising

Zuckerberg declared 'the future is private' at F8 today

Facebook has announced a ‘fundamental shift’ in how it is develops products with privacy in mind, unveiling a series of changes that will likely push brands away from native and display advertising further into a conversational and commerce-driven strategy.

Following the lead of Apple, which has been pushing its own commitment to privacy in commercials since March, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg declared ‘the future is private’ on stage at its F8 conference in San Jose, California, today (30 April).

The founder awkwardly joked that his platform does not “exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly”, following the numerous security breaches of 2018.

So it’s perhaps for brand reputation reasons – or its $3bn+ battle with the Federal Trade Commission – that Facebook is outwardly pivoting to provide users with less of a “town square” to play in, and more with a “living room” they can comfortably share with friends, to borrow Zuckerberg’s on-stage analogy.

“We focused on building Facebook and Instagram into the digital equivalent of the town square where you could do almost everything you want with a lot of people at once,” he said. “But as our world has expanded, we face a new challenge: it can now be hard to find a unique sense of purpose when you’re connected to billions of people at the same time.

“Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves, so it’s no surprise that the fastest ways we’re all communicating online are private messaging and smaller groups and in Stories. We need the digital equivalent of the living room that is just as built out as a platform with all the ways we want to interact privately.”

Products for privacy

Facebook already has a suite of products designed with private conversations in mind, including the end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp and Messenger. Zuckerberg also referenced the ephemeral nature of Instagram Stories as playing into this “living room” ecosystem.

The brand took to the F8 stage to highlight innovations in a number of its products that would foster further consumer use in a private, rather than public sphere. It is introducing a dedicated space where users can share Stories and messages with their closest friends and family only, for instance, while its flagship Facebook product (which, Zuckerberg noted, “isn’t even blue anymore”) will be reconfigured around its upgraded Groups product – emphasizing community from the Newsfeed outwards.

It is even giving users the chance to “explore potential romantic relationships within their own extended circle of friends” through a Secret Crush tool, which will function similarly to Tinder in establishing whether or not “it’s a match!”

On the F8 floor, mPlatform’s global head of social, Kieley Taylor, said the response to the multitude of developer announcements was largely positive among the advertising delegation.

“These feel like positive changes that will give people more useful features to access in a more seamless way,” she said. “I’m encouraged they are thinking about privacy by design across the surfaces, such as Newsfeed and Marketplace, and not just WhatsApp, for example."

Taylor noted that as a user, the pivot to privacy was welcome. But, as an advertiser, she is "focusing on gaining answers to questions around receptivity to adverts, measurement, and brand safety” – questions that Facebook’s walled garden structure already made difficult to answer.

Strategy shifts

“[The changes] will probably lead to a pull back [in organic and native content], if I’m being honest,” said Mike Froggatt, a director at Gartner. “As Facebook pivots to small groups and people-to-people connections, the opportunities for organic engagement within the Facebook walled garden will become even more of a destination where consumers will have to visit brands digitally, and less of an organic or native experience within social platforms.

“This, theoretically, will apply across all of Facebook’s properties, and increase the reliance on paid media to ‘insert’ brands into the native social experiences of users.”

The extent to which Facebook will facilitate brand ‘insertion’ into its new community pushes is currently unclear. The company trialed ads within Groups back in 2016, however never rolled out a dedicated commercial product.

It did announce today, however, the addition of lead generation templates to Ads Manager, which will allow businesses to ‘easily create an ad that drives people to a simple Q&A in Messenger to learn more about their customers’.

An ‘appointment experience’ product has also been rolled out on Messenger, so customers can reserve slots with hair stylists et al via the app, while users will be able to search a new ‘business catalog’ on WhatsApp to chat directly with a company.

“This is going to be especially important for all of the small businesses out there that don’t have a web presence, and that are increasingly using private social platforms is their main way of interacting with their customers,” said Zuckerberg on stage, in a statement encouraging even the smallest of advertisers to move away from native, profile-based advertising and commerce strategies.

One of the headline changes announced before Zuckerberg even to took to the stage was the introduction of Instagram’s highly-awaited in-app shopping feature, which will allow users to buy products directly from social ‘creators’.

Again, this move to push shoppers away from overt, display advertising into a community-based shopping experience guided by influencers will likely divert advertiser budgets from standalone brand profiles into more nuanced influencer marketing streams.

“I think there will be a move to even more organic content from influencers,” said Mae Karwowski, founder and chief executive of influencer marketing agency Obviously.

“For users, it's going to be more about active engagement around what they want to see, the people they want to follow, versus content being served up because Facebook knows all about the user. There is an inevitable move to privacy – most people are creeped out by passive tracking and targeting through multiple data points.”

'Encouraging' changes

In the long run, Facebook’s shift to privacy is unlikely to topple its position as one half of the duopoly. While it may force advertisers to regroup and adjust their media strategy on the platform, the pivot plays into current consumer behaviors online – which, ironically, may have backed away into the “living room” precisely because of Facebook’s omnibus of privacy scares.

“The user behavior is shifting towards sharing more frequently with more curated groups, however, time spent will continue to span all the environments Facebook has built,” noted Taylor. “Some of the other [Facebook] updates focused on establishing more point solutions to enable commerce, customer service, and finding like-minded people, while designing a cleaner user interface with more intuitive design and speed for a more rewarding user experience.

"Privacy being considered for all of these use cases is encouraging.”

Froggatt added: “The shift to privacy is a bid to win back the user. If taken at face value, it can only really help brands: a more trustworthy platform means more opportunities to genuinely engage in a trusted way with consumers.”

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