Social virtual reality, a 360-degree camera, and chat bots in case human conversation becomes mundane. These were some of the announcements from Facebook’s (almost) annual developer conference called Facebook F8, named after the company’s tradition to hold eight hour hackathons.

When CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s 10-year plan was to “Give everyone the power to share anything with everyone”, the small print must have read ‘but only if you advertise’. The plans are ambitious, many projects far beyond the remit of a social networking site, but then Facebook isn’t your average social network; their plans to serve Facebook internet via solar-powered drone showed that.

Facebook roadmap

Numerous reputable news sites have dedicated column inches to Facebook’s big announcements. I personally recommend you visit The Guardian and Time for a quick read of the main events. This blog post looks behind the headlines to see what Facebook F8 may mean in the immediate future for internet-savvy organisations.

Balancing money and social experience

From a social engineering perspective, it could be said that Facebook has become a victim of its own success as the sheer volume of content means that organic (non paid-for) reach is in decline. This means increased competition among friends and brand pages for newsfeed coverage as on average 1,500 new posts could appear each time you log into Facebook. So Facebook’s algorithms attempt to show more high-quality content and from connections who you value the most. Remember that old school friend? Probably not, because Facebook has decided you won’t find value in their content.

The more sceptical side of the organic reach-gate debate would say the newsfeed algorithms have primarily been put in place to enhance Facebook Advertising. This would be cynical and entirely true. Whilst Facebook have denied the drop in organic reach is to fuel their advertising network, there is no doubt that this has been the effect of their decision. Facebook is fundamentally an advertising network and brands must be prepared to invest heavily in paid-for activities in the hope to get noticed.

“Our goal is always to provide the best experience for the people that use Facebook. We believe that delivering the best experiences for people also benefits the businesses that use Facebook. If people are more active and engaged with stories that appear in News Feed, they are also more likely to be active and engaged with content from businesses.” — Brian Boland, leader of the Ads Product Marketing team at Facebook.

The latest in-depth analysis of Facebook’s stock price is optimistic, showing the global active user base to be a whopping 1.4 billion people and their plan to reach users outside of the U.S and Europe is working. This is partly a self-serving prophecy due to the natural stock dip before Facebook F8 and it’s no secret that future cash will come from online advertising. To be precise, increased mobile revenues that will be driven by Instagram and WhatsApp, this is also linked to Facebook’s intent to monetise chat bots (we’ll come onto this later).

The latest in-depth analysis of Facebook’s stock price is optimistic, showing the global active user base to be a whopping 1.4 billion people and their plan to reach users outside of the U.S and Europe is working. This is partly a self-serving prophecy due to the expected stock dip before Facebook F8 and it’s no secret that future cash will come from online advertising. To be precise, increased mobile revenues that will be driven by Instagram and WhatsApp, this is also linked to Facebook’s intent to monetise chat bots (we’ll come onto this later).

The question that hasn’t been asked by the mainstream media when analysing Facebook F8 is “What does the future of online advertising look like?”. This is an article for another day but with expectations that online advertising networks may soon have to ask users for their consent before targeting them with Ads, and questions being raised around the fairness of advertising networks using individual people’s mobile data to target them with useless advertising, Facebook’s 10-year plan may have a bumpy ride.

Meeting shareholder expectations and to continue serving the world’s largest active online user base will be tricky.

Monetising conversations

As a past employee at Microsoft I witnessed the sadness first-hand when Microsoft Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger) was laid to rest. The chat programme, alongside Internet Relay Chat (IRC), were my two-ways of communicating in the post-Facebook world. The launch of Facebook Chat in 2008 had a buggy reception but quickly began eating market share from Microsoft, wounding the giant as advertising revenues fell.

It’s widely accepted that if online advertising continues to grow, then it will need to become smarter than banner ads to gain the attention of users. Especially as the use of ad-blocking solutions soar, with Opera browser saying it will build the feature into their next release. This has made “native advertising” a hot topic, but embedded videos and sponsored articles can still become a nuisance and even misleading for user-experience. Only last week did I read a glowing review of the newly release game Quantum Break to find it was actually sponsored by Microsoft — talk about editorial independence! I won’t get those 10 minutes of my life back.

Chat bots aren’t new to the world, it’s essentially what Google Voice and Siri attempt to do with varying success. However, the ability for Facebook to provide a service where organisations and publishers can utilise chat bots to service their own businesses is new. In fact, you could almost call it revolutionary as it provides businesses a new way to service customers. Examples provided at Facebook F8 showed how the service could be effectively used with Uber and KLM to book services.

How long will it be for a financial services company to offer automated advice to customers? Could a chat bot begin showing signs of artificial intelligence as it trains from conversations you are having with it? Facebook’s chat bot announcement has huge opportunities, not least for monetising WhatsApp in a new way. How could your organisation utilise a chat bot?

Let’s hope that the chat bot future doesn’t go the same way as Microsoft’s Tay, Microsoft’s Twitter bot who quickly became “… a Hitler-loving sex robot”.

Microsoft Tay Hitler

360 Video and Virtual Reality (VR)

Currently the fastest watched video on Facebook is the title sequence for TV show, Game of Thrones. Why? It’s been given a 360 video makeover allowing viewers to look around Westeros and Essos. Have a play; it includes clues for Season 6.

360 video is a new way to share real-world experience and it really is immersive, especially if you match it up with a VR headset. If you have a spare £21,000 you should pop out and buy Facebook’s new 360 video camera, Surround 360, offering 3D and easy 360 video creation that can be uploaded to Facebook. It’s a publisher tool that may begin justifying its price if 360 video becomes the gold standard for video creation, rather than a fad.

As competition in the Facebook newsfeed intensifies utilising new features such as 360 video may give organisations a chance to standout. This is another level of storytelling that is really only for organisations who can afford the price tag, but as with all technologies, we can’t be far away from 360 video becoming a mainstream way of sharing social experiences. The lovely people at Pocket Lint have shared a list of cameras currently offering a 360 view of the world; watch these prices over the next year or two.

Instant Articles

By far the biggest announcement for publishers and a sign that Mark Zuckerberg is now seriously taking on News UK, Instant Articles is now open for all publishers (even my little blog). Instant Articles are a way for publishers to host their articles directly into Facebook when they hit publish, giving readers a cleaner experience as they don’t have to wait for an external website to load. For publishers this means that they can benefit from an article receiving the traffic from their own website and the reach from Facebook (with a massive caveat around advertising). However, this does also mean Facebook ends up hosting some of the most valuable written content from around the world — potentially devastating for publishers’ own advertising efforts.

Facebook Instant Articles

This announcement was technically made before Facebook F8 but has still managed to continue making the headlines. Increased engagement is claimed and of course, the ability to add in a spot of branded content. Over a 1,000 publishers have joined up and this number will inevitably only go up as Facebook have smartly offered an easy WordPress integration.

What else?

Many more features were announced at Facebook F8, but the ones explored in this article feel the most valuable for me in the immediate future. Facebook’s 10-year roadmap is ambitious and we remain to see if some of their innovative announcements can be monetised in time by pioneering businesses to make the investments worthwhile. Other announcements such as 360-video and improving video quality are safe bets, social virtual reality is fun but currently experimental.

We should all keep our eyes on Facebook’s mysterious building 8 led by Regina Dugan, former Director of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), just to make sure Skynet remains fantasy.

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