As Facebook celebrates its 20th birthday, I am struggling to think of a single product that has had as much impact in the 21st Century. Marketing, communications, friendship, advertising, politics, recruitment, shopping, education, mental health and community engagement have all been massively impacted by something dreamt up in a Harvard dorm room back in 2004.
No Facebook, no Trump or indeed Obama. No Facebook no Arab Spring. No Facebook, no mass connectivity. No Facebook, no Like Share Comment. No Facebook, no social media industry.
In many ways, Facebook was part of a communications revolution facilitated through increasing access to the internet. Like with all revolutions, it heralded untold freedoms where mere individuals or SMEs could become publishers or broadcasters just like the mainstream media or major brands.
This significantly levelled the playing field for small businesses who could, by building up a network of engaged fans, reach new customers for very little effort and virtually no investment.
As with all revolutions though, once the dust settles normal life resumes and the status quo reasserts itself. So it is with Facebook. Partly to filter the vast amounts of content which was being posted on the site (particularly once it became a mobile-first platform) and partly so it could
commercialise its offering, the news feed was born.
Algorithmically driven and using thousands of different variables, what appeared on the site was now not down to individuals, SMEs or brands but a complex mathematical formula. The only way to get around this was if you wanted to pay, you had a pre-existing fan base (like Taylor Swift) or you could create incredibly engaging content.
This is a pattern which has now been repeated by every other social network, from LinkedIn to TikTok via Instagram, X, Pinterest and Snap. So much so that I would argue Facebook not only invented what we refer to social media, but it also killed it off.
Today’s Facebook is more akin to a high sophisticated online magazine serving up a combination of reels, videos, articles and updates – mostly curated or paid for by brands eager for reach. Gone are the days when you can see pictures of your girlfriend’s cat or updates from your mates on a stag weekend in Malaga. These conversations have moved to WhatsApp (obviously owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta), Telegram or even Slack.
So where does this leave Facebook, particularly when its core user group is now well into their 40s, 50s or older? Meta clearly needs to reach out to Millennials and Gen Zs who have either deserted the site or never used it (“Urgh, my grandparents are on there!”).
It is placing lots of emphasis in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in an attempt to move beyond screens. At the same time, it hasn’t entirely abandoned moving into the Metaverse.
In terms of SMEs, Meta is still a vital communications and sales channel. There is a huge amount of networking activity within Groups while even low cost ad campaigns can deliver great return on ad spend (ROAS).
As with everything else, it is a case of understanding your audience(s), creating the sort of content they will engage with, allocating some form of paid media budget and ensuring you have a smooth and simple customer journey.