File Picture: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC
File Picture: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC

“Time well spent.” Not exactly what you’re thinking after a session on Facebook. Yet this is the direction CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to take the company. It’s quite a leap for a social media platform that seemed hell-bent on wanting as many eyeballs as possible to be glued to screens for as long as possible. And looking at current profits, it’s clear that this has been achieved, if that is your measurement of success.

Zuckerberg started talking about Facebook having to provide “more meaningful social interactions” back in January, co-opting ideas from the Time Well Spent organisation. Set up by Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, Time Well Spent believes technology companies should not design digital platforms simply to maximise users’ time on these to increase advertising revenues. Rather, the benefits of using technology should go to the consumer.

The right tools for the job

For Facebook achieving this might come from an as yet unofficial tool, called “Your Time on Facebook”. It will work with the iOS and Android app to show users the amount of time they’ve spent on the platform per day for the past week. It will also notify them when they have exceeded a self-chosen daily time limit.

Limiting time on Facebook and making time spent as valuable as possible can only be a good thing for the company. For one, it will wrest the narrative away from the media, which has been having a field day thanks to reports of the proliferation of fake news on the platform, Russian interference in the US election and the Cambridge Analytica data-sharing scandal.

Aligning itself with more user-centric ideals could just be the way for Facebook to move forward. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has recently released a feature that tells users when they have scrolled through all new posts of the past 48 hours. Both Facebook and Instagram now also allow for notifications to be turned off for a set amount of time. Small steps these might be – but it has to start somewhere.

Can depression give rise to litigation?

There might be another concern waiting for Facebook. The risk of depression from social media has been receiving much attention recently. Studies about this differ. Some pose the problem of whether causation or correlation is involved; others link only negative social media experiences with a risk in the rise of depression.

One possible outcome might well be a finding that there is adequate indication of use of these platforms being tied to an increase in unhappiness. What this could mean for companies such as Facebook is the possibility of class-action lawsuits. Making sure Facebook usage is not overdone, and that time on it is “well spent”, could just be a way to protect the company from future litigation.

The big take-out

Brands needs to add value to their social media posts to ensure that they are creating engaged audiences.

The important stuff

At the same time, Facebook has realised that the reason for its popularity is not for users to see what brands are busy with, but rather what friends and family are doing. The move to clean up the news feed started in January, with there being more posts from friends and groups at the expense of public posts from brands and media outlets.

For brands, the reduction of the time being spent on the platform and fewer opportunities to pop up in the Facebook news feed must point to stronger, more meaningful engagement with customers. Companies need to wake up to the fact that, while sensation might titillate, it rarely sells.

Are you causing time to be well spent?

The question can be asked whether brands are adding value with their social media engagement or are wasting time by sending us cute cat GIFs. The Q2 2017 Sprout Social Index notes that people are not looking to buy from brands that are cool. Though brand personality counts for a lot and humour is appreciated, it is honesty, helpfulness and friendliness that lead to purchases.

It speaks to the fact that for many users, Facebook and Twitter have become channels of customer support, and let’s face it, complaints. It’s such posts that find their way into the Facebook news feed. It makes one wonder why brands are so quick to take the conversation offline. We know brands and companies sometimes fail. To show an acceptance of when something has gone wrong and a willingness to do right will go a long way towards showing a human side to all the user’s friends and family.

This cuts back to Zuckerberg’s remarks. What are brands doing to add value, to make the Facebook experience “Time well spent”? Are you creating an audience that’s engaged, that espouses the same values as the brand and will buy your product? Or are you simply generating traffic that is there for short-term titillation?

Charlie Stewart is CEO of digital marketing agency Rogerwilco.

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