Would Facebook Users Pay For An Ad-Free Experience?


Image: IMDB

If you’ve ever seen the movie Idiocracy, you get a sense for how I see Facebook these days.

In Mike Judge’s 2006 peek at a dystopian future, advertising has literally taken over every facet of life. Everything that can be seen, heard, felt, smelled or tasted involves a product promotion of some kind; even the President of the United States and other high-ranking officials are decked out in head-to-toe branding like NASCAR drivers.

When I log onto Facebook lately, the experience feels closer and closer to a scene out of Idiocracy. What used to be a friendly place to catch up with friends, family and, yes, a few trusted brands has turned into a cacophonous Grand Central Station of advertising, my once-cozy News Feed now infested with pushy promos from companies I’ve never heard of.

Of course, Facebook has been offering brands the ability to hawk their products and services for years. And as long as those advertisements were confined to the right-hand column, all was still right with the world.

Then came the IPO.

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And Sponsored Posts.

And Suggested Pages.

When we users started having to pick through our News Feeds to find posts we actually cared to see, the rush to Idiocracy was on.

With its recent announcement of the new Story Bumping and Last Actor updates, Facebook is promising a more relevant experience. And while I believe they’re sincere, I’m not holding my breath.

Yes, I get the whole profit thing. Facebook is now a publicly traded company that needs to keep its stockholders happy. Simply turning a profit is no longer enough; it needs to show increasing profitability from quarter to quarter, which currently means catering harder and harder to advertisers.

So here’s an idea for you, Facebook. Why not adopt the Pandora model and offer an ad-free experience for a small monthly fee?

Offering freedom from ads in exchange for cash on the barrel is certainly not a new concept. Online publications have long since figured out that they can put a price tag on an ad-free experience and rake in a tidy sum.

What would offering ad-free subscriptions accomplish?

It opens up a new revenue model.

Facebook is dealing with a classic publisher’s dilemma: to increase profits, you increase advertising, which turns off your readers, which decreases readership, which makes it harder to attract advertisers. Offering paid ad-free subscriptions opens up a new revenue stream without adding to the ad deluge. Free users are happy (well, at least not ticked off) because the level of advertising remains steady. Premium subscribers are happy because they have to see none of it. And Facebook is happy because the dollars keep flowing in.

And face it (pun intended), Facebook will eventually reach a point where everyone who was going to advertise is already doing it. Where do you go from there?

It throws a much-needed bone to disgruntled users.

Had it not been for the fact that most of my friends, colleagues and family members are on Facebook, I’d have abandoned it for Google+ a long time ago. Offering relief from the barrage of ads and promotions, even at a price, would extend a much-needed olive branch to those who still use the service but often find themselves loathing every minute of it.

So, who would pay for it?

All that being said, I would probably not be among those willing to shell out a few bucks a month for an ad-free Facebook experience. But I’m hardly a typical user. While I do visit the site daily, my social attention is pretty evenly spread across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and a few other networks.

But diehard Facebook users — well, how long will they remain diehard Facebook users if the ad barrage continues and even (in pursuit of those all-important quarterly numbers) accelerates? A tipping point will eventually be reached (MySpace, anyone?), and those users will begin tapering off or even seek their interaction elsewhere.

If the powers-that-be at Facebook are smart — and I see no evidence that they aren’t — they won’t let it get to that point. Offering a paid ad-free subscription option alleviates the tension between the two interests of “increasing profits” and “attracting and retaining users,” allowing the undisputed alpha dog of social media to accomplish both goals while keeping all stakeholders happy.

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