When is a company's Facebook post not an ad?

Facebook has decided to exert more control over posts that it deems "overly promotional." Ultimately, though, isn't every Facebook post by a company promotional?

Chris Matyszczyk
6 min read

Are the people Facebook is putting first its users? Or is the profit motive too hard to resist? James Martin/CNET

How human are corporations?

This thought has been niggling at me like a dyspeptic cornerback all weekend. I've been thinking, you see, about Facebook suddenly deciding to curtail companies' enthusiasm for posting overly commercial messages to the site.

The pain, so Facebook says, is felt by the users, who don't want to see too many corporate messages. The pain, so I suspect, is felt by Facebook, which realizes that there's a lot more money to be made from companies.

Now it'll be harder for brands to post "overly promotional" messages. Well, it'll be easy to do it. It's just that Facebook may easily make these posts disappear into its algorithmic ether, where commercial messages float in a nothingness and have only each other to talk to.

It's odd to think that brands would be on Facebook for any other reason than to be promotional. Altruism is rarely at the heart of a brand's mission statement. (Yes, even Facebook's.)

Facebook's true purpose in this latest move -- a wild guess, this -- is to get brands to pay more money for "conventional" ads. Given that the company says Facebookers won't suddenly see more ads, the price of those ads to corporations will surely rise.

The company's new delineation of which posts will be deemed overly promotional and which ones won't is curious. As my colleague Ian Sherr describes, it includes: "ones that encourage people to buy a product, install an app, sign up for sweepstakes or reuse the content from an ad."

What possible reason could there be for a company to post something to Facebook, other than to encourage people to buy its product? Every corporate post on Facebook is, in some sense, advertising.

If a brand posts information about a charity it's supporting, it's advertising that it's the sort of brand that cares about more than profit (so feel good about us and about buying our products). If a brand mentions a new product, a new factory, a new CEO, even its local sports team this is all designed to enhance the feelings you might have toward the brand. They used to call that corporate advertising. It's supposed to make you buy more.

One person's promotion is another person's inspiration

I had a fascinating philosophical discussion with Microsoft on this very topic on Friday. The company had posted to its Facebook page an excellent video of an orchestra of New York buskers, digitally connected via Skype, playing together. All the laptops in the video were MacBooks.

To me, this was an ad and a very good one. It showed that the new Microsoft was prepared to think beyond its narrow ecosystem and embrace the way real people use hardware and software. There were all those MacBooks on Microsoft's Facebook page presented in a positive light, in concert with Skype.

No, no, said Microsoft. A company spokesman told me that it was merely promoting the video.

However, the original video included no reference to Skype at all. Its director, Chris Shimojima told me: "It was a concept that my partners and I came up with and did out of our own pocket with no corporate involvement. Otherwise we would have put their logos up, or something to the likes of 'Skype presents.'"

Microsoft's post described it like this: "The world's first digital orchestra stays in sync with Skype." So there suddenly was the brand, inserted by Microsoft.

Shimojima told me that he had no idea Microsoft was even going to promote his video, though he'd initially approached Skype to show it his work. He also gave it an interview for the Skype blog. One can imagine that an interview might offer good publicity and, who knows, perhaps even secure future production work from the company. Some might say he deserves it.

Microsoft's contention was that its post wasn't an ad because the company hadn't pre-conceived the video, nor had it paid for it. Therefore, it wasn't endorsing every element of the video. Who would think that Microsoft would endorse MacBooks? How silly.

But this is a world where content is constantly borrowed and re-purposed for all sorts of commercial ends -- by deities like Kanye and mortal brands alike.

This is a world in which companies are peddling (overly or subtly) promotional messages non-stop, because they feel they have to feed the beast. (We are the beast.)

Though Microsoft insisted it was simply "inspired" by the ad, the real reason it posted it was surely to highlight Skype's involvement in it.

There's nothing wrong with that. Brands ought to find new ways of showing their products in action. Facebook may be a fine place in which to do it. You might want to call that relationship marketing. You might want to call that PR. Whatever your words, it's still selling Microsoft and Skype. It's also completely in line with new CEO Satya Nadella's view that Microsoft wants to be "the tools provider, the platform provider."

It's courageous, too. Shimojima told me he'd also approached people at Apple through connections, but without success.

If selling Skype was the only reason for posting the video, this would seem to fall under Facebook's concept of "promotional." But does it fall under "overly promotional"? Wasn't it, at heart, trying to get you to download Skype and use it, even on your MacBook? If Microsoft had added "download Skype now," would that have fallen foul of Facebook's new rules? That's possible and quite odd.

No Facebook post is free advertising

Our new socially networked world demands constant attention, constant action and constant interaction. A brand's every utterance, every self-exposition is, in some way, promotional.

A Facebook post isn't free, either. Companies pay people -- and sometimes specialist outsiders -- to maintain their social media pages, craft messages and put them out there. This is advertising -- sometimes very good and subtle advertising.

To declare a social media post a promotional ad may seem uncomfortable to some companies. Somehow, they hope that their social media posts will seem more pure, more personal and, um, more free. Like Microsoft, perhaps they feel that they can post things they find merely "inspirational."

But how is the Facebook fan or the Twitter follower supposed to parse such things? In the Microsoft case, the company had complete control over what was posted. It didn't say: "Hey, we don't approve of MacBooks, but this video is sooo inspirational." The viewer surely looked at the post and thought: "Microsoft is showcasing the use of Skype on MacBooks, or whatever laptop. OK."

Social media posts by entities are promotional. Even if it's "We love Miley Cyrus." (They're appealing to teens, don't you see?)

In yesterday's mayoral elections in Vancouver, candidates and their campaigns were banned from social media. The election commission used a simple argument: social media posts are advertising. They're candidates promoting their cause.

In the past, I've had discussions with various brands that objected to YouTube videos being described as "ads." No, no. These were "promotional videos," or "viral videos." As if their intention was anything other than to make the brand and/or product appeal to more people, more often and in more interesting ways --so that people would buy the product.

What if Facebook began charging for all brand posts?

Facebook, in attempting to muddle its way through a definition of a post that's "overly promotional" may be overly complicating things. (Surprise.) Just as Microsoft seems to prefer its own definition of what part of a post is promotional and what part is merely inspirational, Facebook believes it can disappear ads it finds too, well, what? Distasteful?

Would there be anything wrong with Facebook deciding that anything and everything posted by a brand is, by definition, an ad? That way, it could charge for every single corporate post, as well as for more conventional types of advertising. Brands would then have to choose which felt more cost-effective to them.

At least that would be clearer than leaving things to its mysterious, confidential algorithm that acts like a magician to make certain posts go "poof."

There's something slightly dystopian about Facebook's head of product marketing, Brian Boland, telling the New York Times that the goal of the company's new rules is to ensure people only see "great content."

"Who's to say what's great?" seems a question as appropriate as "Who's to say what's an overly promotional ad?"

Some of those who represent advertisers are unhappy with Facebook's new stance. Jordan Bitterman, chief strategy officer of media company Mindshare, sniffed to the Times: "Facebook is basically saying that their algorithm will be the arbiter of what's promotion and what's not promotion."

But isn't it all promotion? Facebook is merely choosing which promotions it likes and which it doesn't.

You see, companies are just like people.

After all, aren't we all on Facebook to advertise ourselves too?