Making sense of Facebook’s evolution

Jason Mander, chief research officer at GlobalWebIndex, considers Facebook’s intention to transform itself into a privacy focused platform.
For advertisers and agencies alike, Mark Zuckerberg’s recent declaration of intent to transform Facebook into a ‘privacy focused platform’ will raise an eyebrow or two. The proposal, which places emphasis on encrypted direct messaging as the company’s future, could drastically change the platform’s ability to make money through targeted ads.

So why has Zuckerberg taken such a bold step? There are many contributing factors. Certainly the move is in line with efforts started around the same time last year to overhaul privacy tools, making it easier for people to find and edit personal information held by the company.

However, another factor could well be any prospective legislation yet to be brought to bear on social media platforms. Alongside the huge advancement in the levels of data these companies are able to collect, lawmakers have been applying pressure on companies, including Facebook, to tighten up on the content that is shared in what Zuckerberg himself has described as ‘the digital equivalent of a town square.’

Becoming more privacy focused is an effective way to appease both data and content concerns in one swoop. Importantly though, these explanations skip one vital factor – Facebook’s mission statement; to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. Assessing how the company moves through this lens yields another, more poignant motive.

Facebook is a responsive company
Facebook was built first and foremost to serve people. If you look at how users are engaging with Facebook, actions such as messaging friends, updating statuses or posting photos are still prominent – 44 per cent of Facebook users express they comment on a friend’s status updates or photos or videos every month, while 80 per cent are “liking” or “reacting” to things. However, more “passive” behaviours such as watching videos and reading articles have also become prominent.

Facebook still comes top of the pile when we ask people which social platforms theyve used in the last month, so its still got the most eyeballs – which is crucial for attracting ad-spend. However, while it was once the one-stop-shop for all things social, in recent years its role has matured in line with the development of the wider social media ecosystem.

Its become more of a hub where people are more likely to be engaging with content posted by others (whether thats by friends or brands) than posting things themselves. In part, thats because other platforms have emerged, which are arguably better positioned to facilitate one-to-one messaging in a more enclosed and private setting, not least Facebooks other platforms of Messenger and WhatsApp.

The rise of dark social
These so-called ‘dark social’ platforms – private messaging apps that can’t be accurately tracked – are where the most sharing takes place, ahead of social media and word-of-mouth. Think about it: you find an interesting article, you simply copy and paste the link into a messaging app and hit send. Millions of people do this every day.

In fact, 22 per cent of UK internet users share only via dark social (private messaging, email or SMS), with WhatsApp and Facebook the go-to services. Among the main drivers of this behaviour appears to be travel and holiday planning, with this sector topping the categories of content shared via dark social, and the likelihood of sharing is high among all age groups.

It follows that consumers are far more likely to be comfortable “being themselves” when sharing privately, compared to sharing publicly to a news feed of followers. This more comfortable feeling leads to greater confidence in going through to purchase – three in 10 internet users say they have gone on to purchase something through a link that’s been shared through a private messaging service.

This presents a real business opportunity but it’s one that must be used in a very sensitive fashion. According to André van Loon, research and insight director at We Are Social: “Travel brands can make life easier for their potential customers by giving them more relevant, shareable content. Tracking shares will reveal what kind of content is of most appeal, whether it’s inspirational blog posts, lists of things to do and see, or booking options. If you know what your customers are sharing privately with their connections, you can make more of this, or promote it so it reaches a wider audience.”

Is Facebook set to consolidate?
For Facebook, this presents a real business opportunity, and bringing the content-sharing function closer to direct messaging is a sensible evolution of the platform for its advertiser base. It’s unknown at this point exactly how Zuckerberg might want to evolve Facebook and WhatsApp’s roles in future, but it’s clear that Facebook must tread carefully and considerately.

The fact that WhatsApp is designed first and foremost for messaging with close contacts in a secure, encrypted environment has seen a lot of messaging behaviours migrate towards it, and prompted new expectations and standards in terms of what people want when they go to communicate with friends.

To complement this, Facebook must continue reacting to what its users ultimately want; its still by far the most popular destination for interacting with content, and the move towards private communication is no doubt intended to boost its perceived credentials when it comes to some of the behaviours which have shifted to other platfor