The New Oprah? Facebook Takes the Transparent Route Instead

Posted on July 21st 2014

The New Oprah? Facebook Takes the Transparent Route Instead

One of the dirty little secrets of shows like Oprah Winfrey’s former talk show, as well as Ellen DeGeneres’ syndicated program, is that many of the brands and products featured in episodes about the host’s favorite gifts and other product giveaways are included because companies paid for it.

That’s right. For the uninitiated out there: it’s pay for play – sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Of course, if you work in PR, you were already aware of this.

"Pay-for-play is PR prostitution,” said longtime PR pro Jason Michael with Barokas Public Relations in Denver. “The metrics are nice but you're taking a shower after you send the coverage report. When you're sitting around a table exchanging Jaws-like placement stories and someone talks about how they placed a client on Oprah, Ellen, Martha Stewart, Dr. Oz, you know it wasn't a result of the type of relationship-building, strong writing and clever campaigning that normally have us beating our chests. It's because a client with deep pockets signed a $100,000 check.”

Keep in mind, however, that not all of the products seen on Rachael Ray or Steve Harvey – particularly not Steve’s glorious mustache – are paid for.

“There are different levels,” said a longtime daytime talk show guest booker who asked to remain anonymous. “If the products make sense in terms of content, sometimes we’ll reach out and integrate them on our own. But sure, most of the shows now have a department focused on branded integration and the bigger give-awayw, where a brand is actually giving money or there’s a charitable tie, those are generally pay-for-play.”

The upside – and why brands are willing to stroke a healthy check – is the practice creates the perception that a beloved television icon has endorsed your product. It’s money well spent from an ROI perspective, as most viewers of these shows haven’t a clue. They simply think that Oprah, Ellen, and the other hosts they adore just love that Shake Weight or the 25th Anniversary Blu-Ray collection of “The Love Boat.”

Sure, the viewing public is duped, but for the most part it’s a victimless crime. Clearly the practice lacks any notion of ethical transparency, but Ellen’s dancing, well, that’s enough for most of us (I’m an unabashed fan of anything she does).

What’s interesting about the talk show ruse, however, is that the world’s most popular social media platform is essentially now employing the same model, with a twist.

As those who follow the social media space are aware, this year Facebook changed its guidelines regarding the reach of posts by brands and organizations within its platform.  There have been ongoing algorithmic tweaks over the years, but posts from brands and consumers alike used to reach a majority of people who subscribed to your Page or profile in their Facebook News Feed. Today, however, if you are a brand with some 5 million Facebook followers, to have one of your compelling and rich posts reach more than 50,000 consumers in their News Feed, the brand must pay a variable amount to boost the content.

“Brands and companies have been upset about the decline in organic reach of their Facebook posts, but we just see it as a time to reevaluate our content efforts in channels to deliver on brand objectives,” said Lisa Keller, a senior social media strategist at Purina. “Does it make sense for us to spend time creating 1-3 posts/day if no one is seeing it? No. It makes more sense for us to critically look at our brand objectives and create a post or two a week directly related to objectives and promote them to our target audiences. Spend budget on limited key content, but still use always-on community management to engage your resulting audience.”

Jason Falls, the accomplished social media consultant and speaker who last year went in-house at CafePress as their vice president of digital strategy, believes Facebook simply doesn’t think brands understand how to create content that speak to their followers.

"While I would agree most brands aren't very good at creating compelling content that would naturally fare well in Facebook's algorithm, some are, and they're being penalized as well,” he said. “You hope Facebook finds a way to fairly reward great organic brand content, but we haven't seen many signals that the network is really interested in not being evil to some degree."

But why did Facebook make this relatively monumental swtich? Quite simply, revenue. With the financial pressures as a now-publicly traded entity, much like the airline industry has done in forcing travelers to pay for checked luggage, Mark Zuckerberg & Co. have done what any savvy business would do. Facebook is simply creating new revenue streams within the confines of formerly free-to-use posting-reach for brand pages, and they are generating a mint.

The net result has been that consumers are seeing fewer organic brand posts but more paid posts, which sounds like it would be a net win for consumers, although I’m personally becoming more aggravated as my news stream becomes further filled with ads for colon cleansing therapeutics.

There is one significant point of differentiation of note in Facebook’s evolution into the Oprah model – transparency.

As media continues to evolve at breakneck speed and old-world channels seek to compete with their younger brethren, transparency has become invaluable currency in the eyes of today’s younger, self-righteous consumer. Thus, while Facebook is clearly losing mind-share to Twitter and Instagram – which also have clearly delineated sponsored posts – at least consumers can differentiate the hookers from the hotties when comparing Facebook at daytime talkshows.

Of course, we can't turn a blind eye towards Facebook’s other transparency transgressions. Whether it’s user posts being “public” by default on the light end of the platform’s indiscretions, to the more devious psychological testing performed in 2012 by Facebook’s Data Science team on some 700,000 users – Facebook is not innocent and crosses the line regularly.

However, Zuck can take solace in any comparisons to the generally-idolized Oprah and Ellen in terms of product placement transparency. So the next time some talk show host calls out Facebook because some 44-year-old man married a 17-year-old girl that he met through the platform, let’s just ask them whether or not they really loved” that solar-powered pillow that always stays cool on both sides.

Aaron Perlut

Aaron Perlut

Partner, Elasticity

A 20-year media and marketing veteran, Aaron Perlut is founder of digital marketing and PR firm Elasticity, the crowdfunding and crowdsourcing platform Rally Saint Louis, and startups conference StartupVoodoo

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