I’ve been looking for an excuse to #deletefacebook since day 1 of Sustainable Summer as an organization. Conventional wisdom among marketers is that Facebook is an essential platform for customer acquisition. As an organization that works with the high school demographic, this is perhaps doubly true for us.
So, begrudgingly, one of the first things I did when founding Sustainable Summer was to setup a Facebook page. Since I don’t personally have a Facebook page, I used my wife’s account to set it up and manage, typically spending maybe an hour or two per year on FB matters by relying on automation to push content to our page. Otherwise, the page largely just sat there on the back-burner doing pretty much nothing for us as an organization, until I finally relented to the request from our enrolled students to use Facebook Groups as a means to connect with other participants before and after a program. That was in 2015.
I dabbled a bit with Facebook advertising for the first time in 2016, when we launched our new Cuba program. I’ve adopted the Yvonne Chouinard (Patagonia founder) philosophy of advertising, which is to spend no more than one-half of one percent of operating revenue on advertising. That translates to around $3500 for us, which is a pittance compared to most organizations in our competitive space. I thought that a product campaign leveraging the American public’s growing interest in travel to Cuba would be an interesting experiment to test our FB’s value as an advertising platform and carved off $1500 of our meager advertising budget for Facebook and Instagram. It yielded a single enrollment for us, a student that happened to need financial assistance to participate in the program. Our return on investment was effectively negative. So much for Facebook advertising. With a larger budget and a product with broader crowd appeal, I can definitely see how FB delivers for advertisers. It just wasn’t a good fit for us without changing our program offerings and/or spending more money, most likely a lot more money.
Many of the organizations in our competitive space spend six or seven figure sums on advertising every year. They also have tens of thousands of Facebook followers. I’m sure they paid for the vast majority of them, and I’m sure that many of them aren’t actually real people, but bots or click farms in Bangalore. But, I can certainly understand how all of those likes help to establish credibility with prospective customers. If 100,000 people like this organization on Facebook, they have to be doing something right, one must think. It’s herd mentality.
Establishing credibility in our competitive space is not easy. We compete for students with Ivy League Universities and student travel companies that have been around for half a century. Many of our families find out about us through word of mouth, but others find us because they’re searching online for an environmental leadership program or something similar. Do those prospective families take a look at our Facebook page as part of their vetting process before they call or apply? I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out. I do have some concerns that deleting Facebook could make for some lost prospects, but we’re going to follow the lead of some other, much more notable brands, like Tesla, that have deleted Facebook, because no marketing concern associated with that action can rival the concern I have for user privacy.
It is one of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the tech industry that if the product is free then the customer is actually what is for sale. Lots of people – billions of them – are fine with that proposition. I have personally never been one of them. But the choices I make as a consumer are necessarily separate from the decisions I make as the Executive Director of this organization. Facebook was and remains a place for our students, parents, educators, and other stakeholders interact with each other and with brands. Logically and strategically, we – Sustainable Summer – should be a part of that conversation. However, I can’t in good conscience continue to be party to a corporation that has shown such extraordinary disrespect to its users, shirking some of the most basic responsibilities it has to protect their private information while simultaneously enabling the spread of misinformation and propaganda. We’re not interested in the FB platform without significant changes that elevate the interests of users above that of advertisers and shareholders.