Facebook Is Nobody’s Secret Sauce, but It’s Still a Critical Ingredient

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There was a time when salt, cloves and nutmeg were worth several times their weight in gold. In fact, demand was so great for these rare spices that their trade launched the age of exploration that literally globalized the world economy.

These days, such spices are so common that they disappear into the background of the larger culinary scene. It’s not as though people are any more prepared today to live without salt, for example, than they were in the 17th century. It’s simply that we assume its availability and stock it as the unglorified staple it has become.

The same thing is happening right now when it comes to marketers’ perceptions of Facebook and Instagram. Just as people’s discerning palates have moved on to other, sometimes-spicier gastronomic explorations as items like salt have shown up in every pantry, marketers are actively seeking advertising opportunities beyond the known, increasingly bland staples of these popular social platforms. This perception shift has significant implications for the long-term future of brands’ marketing mixes.

From Exotic to Commoditized 

There was a time, not long ago, when a performance-based Facebook and Instagram strategy was a secret marketing ingredient, particularly in many direct-to-consumer kitchens. In fact, such strategies prompted the very DTC revolution that still dominates the marketing discourse today.

For a time, brand regarded Facebook and Instagram as an exotic spice. Consider Quip, for example—the DTC toothbrush company that spent a small part of its initial $300,000 in funding on Facebook ads—and ended up selling 100,000 brushes in its first year. This is just one example of the many brands that built their businesses through Facebook and Instagram advertising. Glossier, Warby Parker, Everlane—plenty of companies that now enjoy household-name status once used Facebook and Instagram to introduce their products to the world in what at the time was seen as a stroke-of-genius new marketing strategy.

Fast-forward only a few years, and Facebook and Instagram advertising is as common as table salt.

Fast-forward only a few years, and Facebook and Instagram advertising is as common as table salt. It’s foundational to today’s marketing cookbook, yes. But it’s also commoditized. Everyone is using it, and its distinct flavor is quickly losing its appeal.

In Search of the Next Exotic Flavor

No one is bragging about how much money they spend on Facebook anymore. In fact, quite the opposite: They’re bragging about how independent they’ve managed to become from it. Facebook has damaged many of its relationships in recent years—particularly its trust among a large segment of its more-sophisticated customers. As such, it simply doesn’t have the brand cachet that it once had—the cachet with which so many brands initially sought to align.

Now, former Facebook power advertisers are seeking to reduce their dependency on Facebook and Instagram—and they want everyone to know it. Consider beauty brand Glossier, which once relied on Facebook and Instagram to facilitate the majority of its consumer connections. These days, the company’s executive team views these platforms as unfortunate middlemen in the brand’s relationships with customers and is investing heavily in cutting back their roles within the marketing mix.

Ditto for brands like Brooklinen, which once spent up to 75 percent of its ad budget on Facebook. Now the company is “trying to move away from Facebook as fast as we can,” according to founder Rich Fulop.

Do such attitudinal shifts spell the end for Facebook? Of course not. Just as salt is still relied on to elevate the flavor of most dishes, marketers would be hard-pressed to achieve performance at scale without Facebook and Instagram. These platforms still work. They just aren’t going to help brands differentiate themselves all on their own.

There’s been a lot of talk about brands wanting to find an alternative to social platforms in their quest for marketing performance. But that’s a bit misleading. To differentiate themselves in today’s marketing landscape, marketers need to seek new channels for performance marketing. They don’t want to replace Facebook altogether—not any more than they want to wholesale eliminate salt from their cooking.

What marketers really want and need are new venues for differentiation—new spices, in effect—that can layer onto the base and create distinct and compelling flavors. And it is this quest—and the resulting discoveries—that will represent the most exciting marketing success stories in 2020 and beyond.

Heather Macaulay

Head of Marketing & Strategy at Publishers Clearing House

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