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Why it's time to stop thinking about Facebook as just a social network

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By Jerry Daykin, global digital partner

April 15, 2016 | 7 min read

Mark Zuckerberg had a pretty clear message when he took to the stage at Facebook's annual F8 Developer Conference this week: it's time to stop thinking about it as just a social network and start seeing the full range of platforms and technologies now under its roof. It's a powerful story which could step change how valuable Facebook Inc is to marketers, if it manages to avoid alienating and confusing them all along the way.

The biggest announcements from a marketing perspective were the launch of the Messenger Platform Beta, and the Live Video API. Messenger was widely discussed in advance but signifies the launch of Facebook's 'bot store' where you can start conversations with a weather obsessed cat, or check in to your next KLM flight with just a 'Like'.

In breakout sessions it was keen to stress this wasn't a purely text based 'command line' interface, but actually a hybrid which includes clickable options and information cards. The Live API was more of a surprise and is indicative of how rapidly Live Video has shot to the very top of Facebook's priorities. In just a matter of weeks it has developed the platform to largely have parity with Twitter's more established Periscope offering, and now by directly embedding into other services it looks to go well beyond that, all with the added benefit of its vast existing scale.

It's all very impressive stuff but as Facebook looks to diversify itself in these new ways there's a big watch out that simplicity has always been its friend. Arguably its true break-through with marketers came when it managed to reduce a range of complex ad products into a simple promoted post offering (text, photo or eventually video) that everyone could understand.

Some confusion has already started to creep in this year as advanced options like Carousel, 360 and lately Canvas have come into the mix and sales presentations have accordingly struggled slightly even to contain this narrative. Whilst it looks like the official line on Instagram advertising is to think about it very much the same as Facebook's, there's no disguising that Messenger and eventually Oculus will need quite different approaches.

In contrast, complexity has been one of Google's biggest challenges for a while now. Blessed with a handful of billion+ user platforms, the challenge of simultaneously selling in search, YouTube, Android, Gmail and more has never been an easy one. At the end of the day marketers are just people, and people have limited bandwidth and time to think about, let alone understand, a range of different ecosystems.

Marketers will no doubt be keen to try out these new launches but as ever it's worth a note of caution. It's not complete hyperbole to say that bot stores may one day be as big as app stores but it will take some time for users to really get used to them, or for the bots to truly become sophisticated enough to be useful. Even then not every brand will need a bot, just like not every brand needs an app today.

Those who can truly add value or improve their customer service offering through messaging will likely be the long term benefactors, but there's no doubt some buzz and attention to be earned before we get there - just as the iPint was once the must-have app to show off your new iPhone, there's a gap for an iBartender so that people can show off the virtual banter they can now have.

For now, the big opportunity is for brands who can get people to opt into their conversations, primarily those who already have direct CRM conversations or customer interactions. Although not widely reported, Messenger's product management director Frerk-Malte Feller did however also reveal that they've begun very limited trials of promoted messages where consumers don't have to initiate the dialogue.

In the long run it's likely that such a product will allow marketers to share content or encourage a direct response in much the same way Facebook posts allow today, easily reaching hundreds of millions of Messenger users. There's a caution here that Facebook should avoid making the same mistake of encouraging and overselling 1:1 direct interaction and engagement at the cost of delivering the mass scale which has time and again proven to be the real key to digital channels delivering value. Similarly let's not build up any false expectations of free organic reach, however successful any early tactics are.

In much the same way, whilst Live will no doubt lead to some bold brand stunts and interaction, its greatest benefit might actually just be that it helps keep users engaged and open to receiving more traditional ad messaging. It's important for brands to understand that whilst some of the attraction of Live is its immediacy, its authenticity and its sociability, one of its biggest advantages is its forgettability, that once it's over you can forget about it. In the same way that Snapchat's self-destructing messages remove the intense pressure of sharing a perfect Instagram photo, Live too opens doors to very casual and raw sharing.

For brands that's always a hard thing to take on board, especially if there aren't real personalities at the helm, and well-polished brand broadcasts might ultimately miss the point of the format unless they can truly create talkable moments. Such live streaming has technically been possible for years through technology like Google+ Hangouts or Periscope and truthfully it's always been notoriously difficult to attract a meaningful live audience; the sheer scale of Facebook may start to move that needle a little.

The one dark cloud that's hanging over Facebook at the moment is recent reports that users' sharing of their own original content has started sharply declining. Execs at the event admitted this was something they kept a close eye on but dismissed it as something to truly worry about - pointing out that content consumption was still on the rise and that much of this sharing was simply shifting to other channels (notably Messenger and WhatsApp) as our sophistication with such services increases.

Facebook seems to have an impressive road map ahead of it, but the challenge will fall back on marketers and their creative partners to truly maximise these new opportunities, and not to waste their efforts chasing any false hopes created by them.

Jerry Daykin is global digital partner at Carat. He attended Facebook's F8 Developer Conference earlier this week, you can follow him on Twitter at @jdaykin.

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