Meta-morphosis: A Facebook coming of age story

Meta – fresh off its 18th birthday – has already been thrust into adulthood, amidst the controversy of this week’s threat to pull services rather than comply with the recent Schrems II ruling. The parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp has come up against its fair share of controversy in the past but still remains the leading social network across the globe, with over 2 billion people actively engaging with their apps and services every day.

We thought we’d take a moment to reflect on how far it’s come since it’s college campus birth all those years ago. Think of it as a slightly tamer version of that 18th birthday speech by your best friend who’s on his fifth Smirnoff Ice (I haven’t had a drink – it’s 10am). There have been highlights, misjudgments, experiments, multi-billion-dollar acquisitions, growth spurts and growing pains – all of which have culminated in an identity change and bold(er) ambitions for the future.

Who would have thought that 18 years ago a couple of privileged college kids looking to create a comparison site for female attractiveness would end up building a social network that would change the future of global communication? Well, it happened (for more insight into that side of things, I recommend you watch “The Social Network”).

Facebook has hit so many milestones since then. It was mid-childhood when the tech giant really ramped things up, including – but not limited to – the introduction of Facebook Timeline, a partnership with Skype to include video chat, the acquisition of Instagram and reaching 1 billion active users. Perhaps the biggest development of all, that has driven such a massive industry – and kept me in a job – was the design of mobile-only ads in 2012. This opened a world of opportunities for advertisers. The subsequent redesign of their newsfeed and the functionality to move from classified-style, right-hand column ads to much more prominent newsfeed ads was a revelation.

Another major milestone was the acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014, which meant that Facebook had now built a very lucrative family of apps, with a global influence over community-building, visual story-telling and private messaging.

Although the company’s birthday falls just short of Valentine’s Day, it hasn’t been all roses. Facebook has always been a trailblazer in the industry and with this comes the pushing of boundaries, which are a lot more giving in a sector where regulation struggles to keep up with rapid developments. One example was the introduction of Facebook Beacon – an advertisement system that sent data from external websites to Facebook to allow targeted advertisements and give users the ability to share their activities with their friends. Third-party data capture occurred even when users were not connected to Facebook and users weren’t given the option to block information from being sent to Facebook. Upon reflection this seems criminal, and indeed it was; becoming the target of a class-action lawsuit and being shut down within 2 years.

Since then, there have been a few experiments that didn’t get off the ground (Facebook Paper) as well as some controversy (Cambridge Analytica), but all these challenges have pushed the platform to temper its rapid growth with more consideration, transparency and consumer choice.

Jump to the present day and the launch of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency prompt across all apps in 2021, allowing users to opt out of being tracked across associated platforms and websites. With this, Facebook’s advertising arm came up against one of its biggest obstacles since its inception, forcing the platform to make many adjustments to its optimisation, tracking, audience building and reporting. Now the perceived rebellious teenager – without much discipline – faced much more resilient boundaries than the fluid ones it has enjoyed for much of its life.

This, along with the introduction of Special Ad Categories (preventing discrimination in Housing, Employment, Credit and Socio-political advertising), has meant advertisers have had to act fast in educating clients, supporting changes in their business structures, and demonstrating what success looks like under these new guidelines.

From a Special Ad Categories point of view, the declaration of campaigns under this governance has impacted advertisers’ targeting options and areas of data capture. This has resulted in quite a significant broadening of audiences from an age and geographic point of view, but we’re seeing some positive results in the wake of this decision. This has required us to put more faith into the platform’s algorithms and double-down on variables we can control, such as working more first-party data, employing creative testing, and delivering varied messaging to appeal to different segments in our broader audiences.

On the performance tracking side, our focus is on helping clients implement Conversions API integrations and strengthening the signals that give greater reporting visibility now – and in anticipation of the changes to third party cookies. All-in-all, there’s plenty to be getting on with on a platform that has been a significant asset to our clients in terms of building communities and empowering customers.

When Facebook announced the introduction of parent brand – Meta – in November 2021, it was hard to tell just how customer/ advertiser facing the name would be. When Google underwent a similar change – with Alphabet – we didn’t see much impact, but it has become clear in the last week that Meta are committed to a big overhaul in communications, platform and product naming to reflect this change. That’s a lot of “find and replace” going on there, and this will no doubt continue until the only mention left of “Facebook” will be the name of the website itself and the app that millions of people’s fingers gravitate towards on their phone screen first thing in the morning and last thing at night.