Why marketers misunderstand Facebook

We are experiencing the sixth great communication transformation brought about by new technology. Each transformation dramatically changed our perception of our world, and each was initially misunderstood. With each transformation, people made the same mistake. They looked at the new medium, and applied their ways of working with existing media to the new medium.

The first transformation was the invention of the alphabet, roughly 3500 years ago, which led to writing. This profoundly changed communication as for the first time, there were permanent records of information. Prior to the alphabet, everything was spoken and the only record of transactions was memory and good faith. It also made people much more aware of what they were saying, and made people much more aware of what they said. When people first used the alphabet, they wrote as if they were speaking to a person or audience. For example legal documents often started with “Oh! all ye who have heard this…” and often ended with “Goodbye!”. The alphabet was met with scorn from many leading thinkers of the time. Plato and Socrates (who refused to write anything down) lamented that once people could write, they wouldn’t bother to remember anything.

The second transformation was the invention of the printing press. The printing press made replication and dissemination of data possible, leading to the Renaissance, the Reformation and the birth of science. Print also made documentation stable as people could trust that what they were looking at was the same as what other people were looking at. The printing press also brought something new – for the first time, people were faced with too much information. This prospect led many to declare that print would lead to disorder in society. People were scared at the prospect of the printing press. They were worried that anything they wrote down could be copied, and copied, and could spread across the world.

The third transformation was the invention of the telegraph, roughly 150 years ago, which allowed people to communicate with people thousands of miles away, in close to real-time. This was a revelation. Information that just two years earlier had taken days to arrive at its destination could now be there in seconds. The telegraph also changed the understanding of what a message contained. Prior to the telegraph, a message was always a physical object. The telegraph forced people to think about a message as an abstract concept and it was also misunderstood. The telegraph led people to believe that the death of newspapers was imminent, as the telegraph would contradict their false claims as fast as they were published.

The fourth was the telephone, which allowed people to talk with others no matter where they were in the world, but that’s not how people first thought of it. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell traveled across the country proclaiming that his new invention was a new broadcast device, for broadcasting music and sermons. Businesses, when considering the telephone alongside the telegraph, dismissed it as a toy, because it did not leave a permanent record of conversations, and because it appealed to emotions rather than the letters and numbers of the telegraph.

The pattern of misunderstanding continued. The first television shows (and the fifth transformation) were screenings of plays, and the first television ads were a single shot of a man reading out a radio ad script.

We’re seeing the same pattern with the sixth transformation – the web - and it’s being exacerbated with the shift to the social web. Remember that the web is in it’s infancy, and the social web we’re seeing emerge now will simply be the web in a short number of years. The web is not a broadcast medium, it’s not a platform for interrupting people. It’s an interactive medium. In fact, the social web is very close to offline interaction. You wouldn’t interrupt people in the middle of a telephone conversation with an ad, so why do the same thing on Facebook? If you saw two people having an intimate chat at a party, you wouldn’t go over and suddenly interrupt them, to tell them something that is not related to their conversation. The social web requires marketers to build relationships with customers. This requires one to one attention. It requires responding to every post or comment that people leave you. More importantly, people are looking for short term wins on a platform built for long term relationships. Relationships take time, and are formed from many sequential interactions. Too many marketers are currently approaching Facebook by trying to close on the first date. And even if they succeed, it’s unlikely to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

What you know about advertising on TV, or in print, does not apply on Facebook. It’s a completely new, and transformational medium. It took our ancestors many years, at times decades, to understand the new technology that faced them. Let’s not make the same mistake. Don’t apply how you work with existing media to a new transformational medium. Think about the properties of the medium, and figure out the new ways of working that will be required: Patience, time, one-to-one attention.

// This post was inspired by the book I’m currently reading: The Information. //

Disclaimer: As always, the thoughts here are my own and not those of my employer.


  1. Surely you forgot the printing press?

  2. Another example is how the print media has adapted to the Internet. Just trying to create electronic editions of their products. Using the traditional business model of charging for subscription.

  3. @Matt – Yes! Somehow in the editing process I accidentally left that out. I found an earlier draft and added it back in!

    @Fernando – Great example. When the web first appeared, businesses simply copied and pasted their print marketing materials online, without understanding the new media.

  4. I recently wrote a post about how i think the social media/sharing needs to be ad free http://mayanksideas.blogspot.com/2011/12/measuring-social-sharing-and-disrupting.html

    Do you think that online social sharing can someday become ad free and can it ever model the real world social engagement or do you think of online social sharing as something that will never become close to realworld social interation

  5. I think the point about each media being misunderstood is well made. But I feel that the vision of the web is too traditional website focused. Firstly, the internet is bigger than the web, in fact ironically facebook itself is not a traditional website, large elements of it (thanks to bigpipe) are a javascript/json app. There are many internet ‘apps’ that are similarly not traditional websites and some are important e.g. twitter. Secondly, not all the internet is interactive rather than broadcast. A good deal of twitter communication for example isn’t interactive. It’s not that there isn’t a good deal of behavior that conforms to what you are describing. I just think it is expressed with excessive generality.

  6. Great post. I count the “waves” slightly differently – and have an entire blog dedicated to the transformations brought about by the latest (see link below)…

    Once you’re done with The Information, you might try The Creation of the Media, by Paul Starr. It stops short of the last wave – the digital revolution, that is, ours – but it’s probably the best read on the transition to mass media.

  7. The interesting thing is the mind-shift this will require in the Marketing profession. It requires an approach that is completely opposite the thinking current amongst many people I have worked with in Marketing (admittedly some are more ahead of the game here than others).
    Even among those who are adpoting social networks for marketing purposes, many seem to view it as a broadcast platform rather then a two-way communication channel which provides opportunity to build a genuine relationship with a customer.

  8. [...] his post, Why marketers misunderstand Facebook, he speaks about how each innovation was met with skepticism and, in some cases, [...]

  9. The idea that social media sites should be without ads is a nice fantasy, but it will never happen. It’s the only way they can pay for and maintain them. Without ads, they become ‘subscription-based’ which nobody in this new world is willing to pay for.

  10. [...] Via Paul Adams——Why marketers misunderstand Facebook [...]

  11. All of this sounds a lot like Macluhan’s Understanding Media, also …

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  16. [...] only way to understand a new type of media is to spend time embedded in it. The future of your business probably depends on it. Stop [...]

  17. Thank you for this article. I am completely sure the social web will simply be the “web” in a short number of years. I agree that with the idea of long-term relationship built of subsequent actions and I can say, that this is really misunderstaned by companies and their marketers right know. I see they are much more likely oriented to short and empty goals such as enormous amount of fans regardless of the target group.

    But I would argue about Facebook Ads. I do not think that Facebook Ads interrupt somebody in the middle of conversation as long as they are not placed into timeline or private chat. Anyway, thank you again for the article, I will share it :)

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  20. What should retailers understand about Facebook to turn around f-commerce? Is there something that JCPenney or The Gap neglected or overlooked, or some consumer interaction they should have focused on instead?

  21. Great information. It’s important to stay updated in the world of internet marketing.

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