“Let there be light” … so goes the sentiment around Facebook putting the kibosh on dark posts—those ads invisible to all but the advertiser’s highly segmented and selected recipients.
Analysis of the announcement was swift, while everyone with skin in the social ad game scrambled to assess what this meant for their strategy and bottom line.
Is this new policy bad or good? Let’s consider with some context.
Regulation: For better or worse?
From clickbait ads lurking under articles masquerading as “recommended content,” to the recent shady political ads from unknown groups in Russia, attempts to police the wild west of internet advertising have always been a game of cat-and-mouse.
Ad rules are largely designed to protect and benefit consumers—as they should. Yet, some express concern that stricter oversight can sow unintended consequences upon social networks and the larger internet.
With dark posts, Congressional pressure largely forced Facebook’s hand, so it’s natural for the social network to fear that the end of dark posts will kill some of its ad business and revenue. Advertisers will also lose the benefit of being able to test ads with targeted segments without tipping their hand to the entire world, which, in theory, can help contain larger blowback from tone deaf ads like Nivea’s “White Is Purity” earlier this year.
So, is this ad policy change within one of the world’s largest arenas of captive audiences bad or good? Despite what advertisers and the networks might “lose,” I say it’s the latter. In fact, it’s not only good: It’s the biggest catalyst for explosive growth in social advertising, with net positive benefits not only for consumers, but for advertisers and the social networks. Here’s why.
One step forward, one back
First, some additional context. 20 years ago, I worked in TV advertising doing media planning for a large consumer-packaged-goods brand. We planned and controlled our ad reach and share of voice because gross rating points and spend of competitors in TV advertising is public. Often, our brands’ media spends would be far higher than what optimizing reach would dictate, simply because competition was spending far more—and we knew it. With TV, however, the ability to gauge audience reaction to your ad in real time was absent.
Then came social. Suddenly, brands could instantly see how their content (both their own and competitors’) resonated with consumers through public comments, likes, shares and, today, emoticons. This became true for TV ads, too, as brands can post their TV spots on social even before they run on TV, as is common with Super Bowl ads.
However, while advertisers gained instant engagement metrics with social media, they simultaneously lost something: the luxury of seeing how their ad spend and strategy stacked up against their competitors. The ability to microtarget consumers in a black box was powerful, but also dangerous—as the Russian political ads ordeal brought to light. So, what’s the benefit of ending dark posts besides obvious transparency?
Unlocking competitive forces
Applying TV ad buying models to social media is a (so far unrealized) key to unlocking competitive forces in social ad spend, which have to date remained shackled. The social media ecosystem continues to move more toward paid ad models, and the social networks continue to dial back organic reach to prompt more brand spending.
However, social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and even Snapchat may be missing their largest growth opportunity yet by not fast-tracking ways to create an ecosystem where the data of what competitors spend on ads becomes more public. Why?
It’s simple: Visibility drives desire. Desire drives competitive spending. An analogy: The ability for eBay users to see what others are bidding can drive up the price of an item. The end result is win-win-win. The boldest bidder gets the item, the seller makes more money and so does eBay.
Based on these factors, eliminating dark posts on social media signals the best days ahead for the ecosystem. It’s a huge step toward advertisers regaining what was lost with social media (transparency and visibility to what others are doing), while also reaping the benefits of social media’s real-time resonance measures. Additionally, it’s a huge potential financial boon for Facebook and other social networks as brands are driven to advertise more.
Facebook is testing this in Canada and plans to roll it out to the U.S. by next summer, ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. I suspect and believe that a company with resources like Facebook can and should implement this as fast as possible in all regions. There is no reason for them to wring their hands over the end of dark posts. Conversely, they should push forward posthaste, pun intended.