Former [PIAS] Head of Digital Marketing Darren Hemmings has been busy of late. Having founded new strategic digital marketing agency Motive Unknown he is also working with Infectious Music and clothing brand Fly53 among others, whilst continuing to retain PIAS as a client too. Not content with that though, he will also be running a new blog for Music Ally called With Teeth, where he and other industry insiders will be providing analysis and opinions on key industry issues. This is his first post:

There can be no question that post-F8, the music industry has seen a healthy jump in revenues from streaming music services. In a matter of days, Spotify gained a million new users, and those users in turn streamed music which can only have hiked the payouts to labels.

But what of Facebook as a marketing platform for bands? The logic was simple: there are 800 million people on Facebook, over 50% of whom visit daily, all with an average of around 130 friends. So, engage your fans and you could have them sharing to friends via their News Feed, spreading word and extending the reach of your artist. It is the classic marketing funnel: capture a high number of users and engage them in a bid to convert a percentage to paying consumers.

Prior to the F8 announcements, some cracks in the value proposition were arguably starting to show. A Pagelever report claimed that only 3-7.5% of posts from Pages were being seen by fans. This came as a blow to some, who thought that communicating to your audience meant that 100% of them read and digested your message. For artists with good reach on Facebook though, the hard numbers were still compelling enough. If Rihanna posts an update to her 47.3 million fans, having around 3.3 million of them seeing your update is still a great result.

However, with F8 came the dawn of supposedly “frictionless” sharing, wherein content providers such as Spotify or The Guardian could provide apps which detailed every interaction you had with their site or service onto your friends’ News Feeds. The theory here was that this spared you the aggravation of opting to share each article/album/media-of-whatever-kind and it encouraged your friends to also engage with that content.

Here is where the problems began. As both Molly Wood and Anil Dash recently pointed out, these apps are getting preferential treatment. Other content is being pushed down on a user’s News Feed, meaning sites not using these apps are not getting the same chance of being seen. In amongst this, posts from artists must also compete for eyeballs and attention. Logic would suggest therefore, that the 3-7.5% of views pre-F8 can only have reduced further as Page posts from bands appear halfway down a users’ feed and quickly descend out of sight.

Now factor in the nature of frictionless sharing. Spotify’s app is an excellent example: qualitative recommendation is foregone in favour of sheer quantity. Every track your friends play through the app is – unless they’ve turned off the feature or enabled Private Mode – piped through the ticker on the right. Combined plays (e.g. two or more of your friends playing the same album) becomes a News Feed post and, as it is a frictionless sharing app, it will get pride of place at the top of your feed.

That is just Spotify. If your friends are using apps for The Guardian, Wall Street Journal or any of the other participants, the same thing happens. Net result? A congested News Feed where these new apps take pride of place at the top by default, churning more info of arguably lower quality. This in turn makes it harder to see a balanced feed of your actual interests as opposed to your interests shot through the prism of Facebook’s weighting system around apps.

On any social network, the quality of content each user sees will at some point present a problem unless it is tightly controlled. In my opinion Facebook’s error here has been to presume that sharing everything is good. It isn’t, of course; sharing is nuanced and simply firehosing data to users will never create an environment of value. The speed at which your News Feed churns stories and updates is increasing – and as it does, getting your band’s message seen will become harder and harder.

But what about the Facebook Pages themselves? People still visit those in droves, right? Well… not exactly. In the same Pagelever report referenced above, Pages were found to have an even worse view rate: 3% for Pages with less than 100 fans, dropping to 0.15% for those with more than 1m fans. Again, that report was pre-F8, when the various changes impaired the point of Pages even more. As others have pointed out, with filtering via smart lists and no need to click Like to interact with the page, the value of those communities and numbers we held so dear might well be up for question.

So how can this problem be remedied? For the marketeer, I’d argue it presents an opportunity to re-think how we are engaging the fans. Rather than rely on Facebook’s Pages and an ongoing strategy of engagement over the months of a campaign, look to create experiences which might still utilise the platform, but in new and interesting ways. Anyone who saw the amazing Take This Lollipop site won’t forget it anytime soon, and it racked up 10m Likes in a matter of days. People want experiences and we should capitalise on that. Pages aside, Facebook still represents a massive userbase and if you can get something going viral across that, even to a tiny extent, it will still get a huge amount of attention.

What this doesn’t change, however, is the fact that as things stand Pages seem somewhat questionable in terms of ROI. Social media takes time and effort to get it right. The question now is whether that time (and cost, as someone’s time inevitably results in that) is worthwhile.

If I was working with bands that already had a large fanbase on Facebook, would I continue to focus on it? Absolutely; it still has some value and if you have any database you should look to utilise it as best you can. If I had a new band would I put as much time into Facebook Pages as I have before? As things stand, potentially not; I might well opt to focus on delivering something I felt may carry higher value at this time.

As I see it, Facebook’s current problem to solve is the quality of data flowing through the News Feed in particular. If users have more simple, intuitive means to create a qualitative experience, the value of a Page’s posts may yet rise again. Aggressively pushing the “share everything” agenda might well backfire as users get increasingly tired of weighted feeds that require too much effort to manage properly. Until then though, one would do well to question the assumption that developing a large number of fans on your artist’s Page is worthwhile.

Facebook themselves would be wise to look over their shoulder too, as Google in particular is building what looks to be some formidable competition in the combined form of Google+, Google Music and the new-look YouTube with its far more TV-like experience. Could they yet win the social war? Don’t rule it out.

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