Social media sites pay heed…

Social media sites pay heed…

ISBA’s Bob Wootton was dismayed when Facebook started showing decapitation videos again. Why does the social media giant continue to antagonise advertisers by directly refusing to give them safe passage on their channel?

I had intended my second Newsline column to be about transparency – an increasingly hot topic which would rather neatly coincide with ISBA’s first Agency Commercial Issues event today (5th November). But that was until I learned via the BBC last month that Facebook had re-relaxed its rules concerning offensive/upsetting material on its pages.

As a result of this relaxation, a video originating from Mexico, purportedly showing a human decapitation, had appeared without warning. Some advertising for brands, including Zipcar, had also appeared alongside the video. Nissan, one of a number of major advertisers that suspended activity on Facebook in April after its ads had appeared in unacceptable surroundings, had subsequently returned to Facebook only to find themselves in the thick of things once again.

Within a day, even the Prime Minster David Cameron had weighed in, branding Facebook’s policy “irresponsible”. The next day, Facebook was reported to have capitulated and reinstated tighter rules.

This incident resurfaced a number of hot issues:

– The legitimate notion that a medium, particularly a social medium, should be a channel for free speech and expression.

– The responsibility and accountability, both to users and, where relevant, paying advertiser customers, which that freedom carries. “Hey, we’re just a pipe” is simply not good enough.

– Recognition that these channels are global and that the audience within might have different standards, points of view, thresholds of offence and disgust and so on.

– The concept of advertiser ‘safety’, which I’ll return to.

– And the way tech companies do business and deal with issues.

As the Facebook incident is the stimulus for this piece, most of my comments relate to it, though they also apply to other ad-funded tech companies.

Advertising follows audience. Advertisers seek to put their brands in places that will reach and persuade their target customers, existing or new. In most cases, those advertisers have invested enormous amounts of money over long periods of time to establish those brands and their values, whatever those might be.

Whilst there are a few advertisers who court controversy because it can be a cheaper, if also riskier, way of getting mass media coverage than buying it – think Ryanair or Paddy Power, for example – I’ve never met an advertiser who actively looks to appear in extremely contentious environments.

By contentious, I don’t mean ‘page three’ or lads’ mags, but seriously offensive/distressing things like hard porn, incitements to violence, rape, snuff…

There’s a damn good reason for this. It’s very bad for their brands.

The nature of internet advertising means that ads can be targeted and served in real time to individual users through some amazing tech. There are now literally billions of individual ad transactions going on every day.

Facebook has been in the midst of undertaking a review of its processes but it’s very cagey on how this review is going. Could it be filibustering?”

In display this can lead and has led to some very unfortunate ad placements, which is why ISBA got together, initially under the IASH (Internet Advertising Sales Houses) initiative and latterly under the auspices of the Digital Trading Standards Group, to stem this where ever possible.

In the ad-funded social media like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter et al, this is a yet greater challenge because not only are the commercial messages being served atomically and in real time, but the content is being created thus as well.

The opportunity for slips when the transactions are in their billions means that an error rate of zero is probably impossible.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t be pressing the tech companies that have developed incredibly swift and clever algorithms and business models to serve their users and monetise the resultant audiences to repurpose these to protect their advertiser customers’ brands.

Indeed, ISBA has been pressing Facebook and others to do so for some time. Characteristic of tech companies based (and setting policy) far away, and sometimes from a different starting perspective, it’s been tough to engage. Only when certain advertisers got their fingers burnt and withdrew support was their attention really drawn.

Facebook has been in the midst of undertaking a review of its processes since July but it’s very cagey on how this review is going. Could it be filibustering?

And then it decided to relax the rules it had previously tightened and what did we get? Decapitation. What does Facebook think it’s up to? There are only two ways this can go – the slow way and the quicker way.

The slow way involves disenfranchising users so much that they migrate elsewhere. Carrying such distressing content might be ‘edgy’ to some, but it will likely be deterrent to many more. If audiences leave, the advertising model is depleted and a media company’s value is destroyed. But as I say, this is a relatively slow process.

The (much) quicker road to ruin is to antagonise advertisers directly by refusing to give them safe passage in your channel, and that’s what seems to be happening here.

Almost the entirety of Facebook’s revenues comes from advertising in some form or other. That means the company’s valuation is critically dependent on advertising revenues and prospects.

In this context, advertiser skittishness (what a polite word!) is something that should be avoided at all costs. The online social players should grasp this before it’s too late, and the newcomers should learn from their elders’ mistakes lest they too fall foul of it.

Until next time, when I promise transparency will be back on the agenda.

Bob Wootton is director of media & advertising at ISBA.

@bobwootton / @ISBAsays

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