Facebook of the Dead: Are You Marketing to an Unreachable Audience?


FarmVille: Gail Glasbury likes this.”

Really? She’s Facebooking from the grave?

It was almost two years ago that I learned – via Facebook, no less – that Gail (not her real name) had died unexpectedly in her sleep at the age of 50. Since then, every so often, I get an ad like this on the right upper corner of my Facebook page.  Creeps me the F out.

And then there’s “People You May Know: Long-Since Dead Guy Who Socialized with Several of Your Facebook Friends (or LSDG for short).” I was at the bar where he used to hang out on the night the news broke that he had died (also unexpectedly, in his sleep, at far too young an age). I might have met LSDG once in passing, no pun intended. Judging from the outpouring of grief from his friends, he must have been a great guy. But that was several years ago, so he will never be among the “people I may know.” Unless, of course, there’s an afterlife and we meet up after my own clock runs out. (Thanks for the eternal friend suggestion, Facebook, but I’m far from ready to meet up with LSDG.)

According to a guy named Nathan Lustig, 580,000 US-based Facebook users, and 2.89 million worldwide, will have died by the end of this year. As the co-founder of Entrustet, which helps people access, transfer and delete online accounts after someone dies, Lustig has gained a reputation as an expert on the topic of cyberspace and death, having been featured in The New York Times, The Economist, TechCrunch, Mashable, Forbes, BBC and hundreds of others. Although Entrustet was acquired by SecureSafe earlier this year, he still receives requests from morbidly curious media types to update his grim data.

According to Lustig, he and his Entrustet partner, Jesse Davis, arrive at their ghoulish calculations from user data provided by Facebook and death rates by the Centers for Disease Control.

“It’s a growing number and a growing problem that both Facebook and its users will have to deal with now and increasingly in the future,” Lustig wrote on his blog earlier this year. “… It’ll be interesting to see how these numbers keep accelerating as Facebook continues to grow and its users continue to get older.”

Last March, social media specialist Walter Thompson was quoted on readwrite.com as saying that there are some 30 million Facebook accounts for people who had died. Facebook’s current policy is to memorialize the account of the deceased. “In order to protect the privacy of the deceased person, we cannot provide login information for the account,” the policy reads. “However, once it has been memorialized, we take measures to secure the account. …Verified immediate family members may [also] request the removal of a loved one’s account from the site.”

In the same readwrite.com article, Jed Brubaker, a doctoral candidate in informatics at the University of California at Irvine, explained how the dead keep showing up on our news feeds.

“Facebook takes reactions from the first group – the people who are engaging with and memorializing the dead person – and broadcasting it into the group of the second,” Brubaker is quoted as saying. “You can see an interesting contextualizing of these messages that are inside of what would otherwise be the day-to-day mundane list of announcements, things that seem to be in a different context than what we’re used to doing with death.”

Given the growing significance of social marketing, it all begs the question: Are brands wasting a healthy portion of their ad budgets trying to gain the loyalty of people whose health has taken a turn for the worst? Lustig doesn’t think so.

“As far as I know, the affect should be minimal on advertising,” Lustig told Adotas via email. “Advertising is charged on clicks on the ad, which dead people won’t do, and page views by the person, which dead people won’t do. You might have very, very minimal page views by someone who might have access to a dead person’s account, but the number should be extremely tiny. I would guess less than $1,000 per year over all of Facebook and maybe even smaller.

“The one place where it could be interesting is on Facebook fan pages,” he continued. “There could be lots of companies that have dead people as their fans, adding to their total. This doesn’t cost them any advertising spending, though.”

So if you’re wondering why a certain portion of your social audience seems perpetually disengaged, perhaps it’s because many of your fans have since had their names added to the Facebook of the Dead.

Will your boss buy that line of reasoning? Heaven only knows…



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