In our 12+ years of managing brands on social media platforms, we have never seen the level of volatility that we have experienced over the past few months. You have probably all heard about the call to boycott Facebook advertising over the company's decision not to remove content that is perceived by many as offensive and promotes violence. A number of major brands have responded by pulling their ads from Facebook (at least temporarily) and we expect to see more follow if Facebook does not take immediate steps to address this.
There has always been a love/hate relationship with Facebook and there have been movements to boycott the social media platform before. However, this one is different as it comes at such a pivotal moment for our country.
One of Facebook's guiding principles is to give its users freedom of speech and to censor content only when absolutely necessary. Facebook is also hesitant to ban users based on their political and cultural views and groups they are associated with. These seem like reasonable guidelines under normal circumstances and have contributed to the success of the platform through the years.
However, it seems that users and groups that are associated with white supremacy and other hate groups also like to use Facebook as a place to spread their misguided views and activist groups are saying they are not doing enough to stop the hateful dialogue. While Facebook is currently examining its policies and trying to find WHERE to draw the line, several major brands have decided to pause their ads.
So- should small-medium size businesses follow the example of major brands like Levis, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Unilever and others? We're asking ourselves this very question and the answer is (as usual) it depends. Here's what we know:
"The highest-spending 100 brands accounted for $4.2 billion in Facebook advertising last year, according to Pathmatics data, or about 6% of the platform's ad revenue. Topping the list were Home Depot (HD), Walmart (WMT), Microsoft (MSFT), AT&T (T) (which owns WarnerMedia, CNN's parent company) and Disney (DIS). Much of the rest of Facebook's ad revenue comes from small and medium-sized businesses, ad executives say. It would likely take tens of thousands of them, acting over a significant period of time, to put a big dent in Facebook's bottom line.'- CNN
"Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, on Friday announced plans on a live stream to prohibit hate speech in ads and better protect groups such as immigrants from attacks. He also said the group would label posts that violate its policies but would remain published because the platform deemed it “in the public interest”, citing certain speech by politicians as an example." - Financial Times
"...many small businesses, which make up the bulk of Facebook’s advertisers, likely can’t afford to pause spending on the social network, their main online outpost for reaching local customers — a sign of the company’s strength in the digital ad market. 'We deeply respect any brand’s decision, and remain focused on the important work of removing hate speech and providing critical voting information,' said Carolyn Everson, vice president of Facebook’s Global Business Group." - Financial Post
This puts small businesses in a no-win situation, especially e-commerce businesses. On one hand, Facebook and Instagram advertising is affordable and effective, making it the perfect advertising medium for businesses that don't have the super-budgets that larger brands have. Many small businesses do not have the resources to pivot to other marketing platforms as quickly and efficiently as the large brands can. On the other hand, small businesses don't want to be tone-deaf or insensitive to the significant events and call for change that has occurred over the last few months.
The major brands that are pulling their ads are getting a level of publicity that has as much, if more value than Facebook ads do and they will be just fine. Small businesses don't have that power, unfortunately.
The bottom line is small businesses are going to have to make the decision for themselves.
If you decide to join other brands and pull your Facebook ads, your ad campaigns can probably be revived down the road, but they could lose existing momentum. If you go this route, we strongly advise making it short term (like a few weeks) and make sure you have a plan in place so you can pick up where you started when you do resume. You may also want to consider announcing your decision by writing a blog post, newsletter, or yes, even a Facebook page post so people know about your action.
If you decide to keep your ad campaigns going, you will likely have lower costs since you are not competing with the major brands, but there is the risk of angering Facebook users who see your ads. If you DO decide to keep your ad campaigns going, watch very carefully for comments and be prepared with a thoughtful statement.
We are disappointed that social media platforms like Facebook have not done more to curb misinformation and hate groups that have weaponized our social media platforms in recent years. We are hopeful that the amount of media attention, public pressure, and loss of ad revenue from the larger brands will be enough for Facebook and the other social networks to do better because at the end of the day- it's the small businesses that rely on the exposure and engagement they receive on Facebook and Instagram platforms that will be hurt the most by this latest failure on their part to meet the demands of their users.