I recently searched the phrase “social media marketing challenges” on Google® and Bing® and got back a low of 44 million hits (Bing®) and 99 million hits (Google®). These results are not at all surprising given the constantly changing social media environment, the diversity of consumers using these platforms, and the overwhelming clutter in this space. There is strenuous debate about which forms of advertising and promotion work best, for example, banners vs. contests vs. native, and how to determine if all of the effort is even working – there are constant changes in measurement and standards to be measured. One of the constants over the last few years is that Facebook® is by far the largest social network and, according to at least one source, is the most popular social media platform in the U.S. with nearly 60% of all visits to social media sites being to Facebook.® (Statista – chart of most popular social media websites in the US in September 2014 based on share of visits http://www.statista.com/statistics/265773/market-share-of-the-most-popular-social-media-websites-in-the-us/).

Given these numbers, branders share the need to be successful on Facebook®, both for building brand awareness and for sales. And for years, Facebook® has been holding out the torch to marketers, urging them to abandon ads in favor of content, especially native/organic sponsored stories. And so followed the faithful, with lots of sponsored stories filling the pages. We’ve all seen them and debated both the ethics and the legality of these sponsored videos and stories, but overall we came to accept them.

Starting in January, we may see some dramatic changes. Two weeks ago, Facebook® announced that it would decrease the effectiveness of brand posts it decides are “too promotional.”  And how is that to be defined? We are given some clues based on the results of “people” Facebook® surveyed (https://www.facebook.com/business/news/update-to-facebook-news-feed):

1. Posts that solely push people to buy a product or install an app
2. Posts that push people to enter promotions and sweepstakes with no real context
3. Posts that reuse the exact same content from ads

While these seem fairly obvious, our friends at Facebook® don’t tell us more, other than giving us the ominous line that “All of this means that Pages that post promotional creative should expect their organic distribution to fall significantly over time.” Note the absence of the word “too” in this warning. While lawyers make their livings arguing over the meaning of words, and mind you I’m not complaining, brands investing in social media marketing on this leading platform need to have more definition. Especially since the arbiter of what is or is not too promotional is an algorithmic exercise. And some marketers are reading this message from Facebook® as telling them that they will have to abandon all of the fans they have been building over the last few years using the kind of content Facebook® is now saying they can’t use. And what about the real consumers who “liked” the kinds of organic stories they were getting from these brands? On the other hand, will this lead, as Facebook® claims it will, to better quality ads and happier consumers or, as others believe, merely to more paid promotion to Facebook® by brands that can’t afford the expense of producing acceptable ads? I’m frankly not advocating one approach or the other; what I do know (see my next post) is that brands need to satisfy consumer demands to be successful, and having a middleperson censor ultimately may not be a win-win-win.