Jason Falls recently did a post around Facebook starting to charge brands to increase reach… with their own fan base. He asked if this was ‘blackmail‘.

Richard Metzger, in his post on the same topic in Dangerous Minds asks if this is the ‘biggest bait and switch in history‘!

A comment in Jason’s post seems to take this on a pragmatic level and compares the situation with Twitter. The comment by Cory OBrien goes,

Imagine applying the same measure to Twitter: If your brand has 100,000 followers, do you expect every single one of them to see every single thing you Tweet? Or put another way, if you managed to get an average of 10,000+ users out of 100,000 to see your Tweets, wouldn’t you be happy about that result?

I think the reason people get upset about what Facebook is doing is that Facebook has developed a way for brands to pay to increase their reach, but Facebook does so by keeping old posts alive, which is something that Twitter hasn’t yet figured out a way to do at scale. So we blame Facebook for not giving everyone that privilege, when it would be impossible for them to do so, as a result of how much content is being generated on Facebook as-is. If I followed 100+ pages on Facebook, and each one posted 1 thing per day, that would mean I would have to read through 100+ updates per day, in addition to posts from friends and family, which are likely more important to me.

So while I do wish that every brand post I shared was magically seen by every single person that has liked that page, I’m also realistic about how impossible that task would be, and willing to accept that some brands are able to pay to increase their reach on Facebook, but that it’s similar to brands buying email lists, sponsoring blogs, and all of the other ways to pay for increased reach that not every brand is going to be able to afford.

That’s a solid argument.

But, now that we are comparing Facebook with other services in this specific context, why not also compare it to Gmail, unlike services likes email lists, sponsoring blogs etc. that are pure-play services offered for a fee and not free services intended to sell the user as a commodity? Gmail is more like Facebook where the user is the commodity being sold (since the service if free for users).

On an email list, I pay for the list, not for ensuring that people in the list read or even get my mail. I use the list to communicate something to them and technically, I know that it has ‘gone’ to all the people in the list. What Facebook seems to be asking brands to pay for is a way to ensure that the mail I sent is displayed on top of their email inbox, since they own both the list and the inbox (timeline), in this case.

So, let’s compare this scenario with Gmail.

I sign-up for a free email account with Gmail. There are ads in the background (unlike those ugly, imposing ads on Hotmail and Yahoo) and I like the way it functions. I have an inbox and I have many ways in which I can, personally, rearrange the way new mails are displayed to me in the inbox. I choose the way I see the mails that come to me.

Now, let us add the Facebook equation. Senders with money can ensure that their mail can come on top of my inbox, thereby offering better chance of those mails being seen by me.

For the user, this is disturbing, to put it mildly. Worse, on Facebook, there are no choices for users to customize their timeline as much as Gmail offers inbox customization. And on top of it, Facebook gives undue power, based on money, for some senders (of messages) to stay on top of my inbox (timeline).

If this was a balanced game, I completely see Facebook’s plan in doing this. That is, users have at least some ways to manage their timelines, regardless of how much brands pay for reach. That stays in the best interest of users, the bread and butter of Facebook.

What do users have now? The option to choose between ‘Most recent’ and ‘Top stories’. And a sidebar option to see only ‘Pages Feed’. That is enough? In the context of Facebook, unlike Gmail, that may not seem enough. When you notice that brands can pay their way through better reach that manipulates a user’s timeline, it only seems right that users have the equal power to override paid push of brands, if they want.

That is indeed an advanced setting massively unlike most of Facebook’s other features and Facebook’s average user base traits. But it tells brands that money isn’t everything – content quality still rules even if you pay and users have some way to avoid their push if they feel so, for whatever reason.

But, post IPO, Facebook’s bread and butter destination seems to have shifted to brands, who now perhaps wield undue power if they pay.

To be clear, this is not a question of being fair or unfair – Facebook, post IPO, is a business answerable to shareholders. All I’m saying is that let us agree that Facebook is indeed blackmailing and this is a fantastic bait and switch tactic, in the absence of a legitimate alternative for brands to go to.

Just imagine – what if Gmail devises a way for brands to pay to ensure that the marketing mail sent by them (or their agency) arrives in your inbox instead of your spam box, as you may have previously marked it. I’d consider Facebook doing something similar. You could argue, of course, that email is an essential, bare minimum commodity compared to Facebook, but try telling that to the millions who perhaps consider Facebook to be more essential than email!

Facebook isn’t forcing brands to stay with them – brands have a choice. There is no point cribbing about Facebook being unfair and still staying with them.

It is only users who don’t seem to have much choice.

Bait and switch photo credit – this blog post.