Mark Ritson: Zuckerberg’s vision of a new social marketing revolution failed to materialise

In 2007, a young Mark Zuckerberg nervously addressed a room filled with analysts to predict the future. “The next 100 years are going to be different for advertisers starting today,” he announced. “For the last 100 years media has been pushed out to people, but now marketers are going to be a part of the conversation.”


That day, his presentation announced that brands were becoming an official part of the Facebook universe. Users would start to ‘like’ brands on the social network and communicate with and around them; Zuckerberg called this “social ads”. “Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend,” he said. “A trusted referral is the holy grail of advertising.”

His speech ushered in a new era of social media. Agencies sprung up promising client services predicated on Zuckerberg’s vision of a more social, interactive approach to marketing communication. Rather than the traditional one-way model of mass communication, the agencies offered to ‘engage’ with consumers and start ‘conversations’ with them on behalf of clients.

But there were two problems with Zuckerberg’s vision. First, it assumed brands were as interesting as people. In reality, most people used social media as social media (stay with me) and eschewed contact with brands. Second, Facebook made more money offering brands the opportunity to buy audiences rather than developing naturalistic ones. Over time Facebook began to limit the amount of organic reach brands could achieve with their Facebook fans in order to monetise the contact process and drive their advertising model. These two factors ensured that even if social media did have the potential to allow a dialogue between brands and consumers, it was a conversation that only a tiny fraction could hear and an even more tiny proportion would respond to.

“Any marketers who believe they’re having a conversation on Facebook are delusional,” said Forrester Research vice-president Nate Elliott last year. “Facebook’s shift from free organic reach to paid reach…means that Facebook has abandoned the social marketing it always promised brands, to the type of advertising model that brands can already buy on Yahoo, NBC, and elsewhere,” he opined.

And he has a point. Facebook has become another advertising medium – a medium with superior targeting analytics and a better pay per exposure model – but a one-way advertising medium nonetheless. Bold predictions of new paradigms of conversations and engagement disappeared and were replaced with CPM, CPC and all the other remarkably standardised concepts of advertising.

It would be wrong to pick on Facebook as being anything other than at the vanguard of this re-traditionalising of social media. Reports that Twitter is considering a business model in which it monetises tweets viewed by non-users that appear on news feeds or broadcast media tells us all we need to know about the degree to which it has also shifted to an essentially one-way, broadcast approach to pay the bills. The fact that it is also mulling the possibility of launching promoted videos this year that automatically play six-second previews in your Twitter feed to entice you to watch the full video provides even more blatant evidence.

Most social media sites have discovered they might be able to host organic, interactive social activity but they can’t make money out of it. So the interaction becomes the programme content and paid advertising surrounds, invades and precedes it at every point. Social media adherents might call it ‘native’ or ‘social’ advertising or create new terminology such as ‘pre-roll’ and ‘Trueview’ to infer some form of new approach, but these tools are all as old as marketing itself.

Paradoxically, this more traditional model of advertising is very lucrative and does silence strident critics of social media (me) who have been crying wolf about the flagrant ridiculousness of social media’s revolutionary claims of interaction and its overbearing predictions of the death of traditional media. In reality, social media is not going to change marketing, it’s just going to augment the industry with a few more media. Traditional advertising isn’t dead, it’s just got new channels to play with.