A new Facebook initiative has turned down the heat a notch for companies that get a flood of negative comments on their home pages but, in the process, may create new challenges for users.
A recent revamp by the social media giant has quietly changed the game by collapsing users' comments so that they no longer are readily visible on corporate pages. Rather, members have to click an icon to view them or look down the left-hand side of the page.
The tweak provides some relief to chains such as Lululemon Athletica Inc. or Target Corp.'s Canadian division, whose missteps have prompted considerable customer wrath in Facebook comments over the past couple of years.
Still, the changes go against the grain of open dialogue that Facebook has encouraged between companies and consumers and risk turning off consumers, some industry watchers say.
"It's detrimental because it defeats the whole primary purpose of Facebook, which is to engage the audience," said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of retail consultancy Shikatani Lacroix Design Inc. "It's making it harder for consumers to engage with their brands."
The revamp earlier this year underscores the challenges that companies face in grappling with harsh feedback about their initiatives on social media and elsewhere on the Internet. As Facebook courts firms to advertise, it is making moves that could minimize public criticism of companies. But the efforts threaten to dissuade consumers from heading to their pages.
Facebook spokeswoman Meg Sinclair said it collapsed the comment posts because "it creates a better experience for people" especially as more members shift to using the site on mobile devices. The change was not made in response to requests from brands, she said.
On corporate pages, the potential audience "is everyone in the world who likes that page" while on personal profiles – where comments are more visible – the audience is mutual friends or acquaintances; "therefore, comments are likely to be more relevant," she said.
"We always try to show only the most relevant content to people, especially in prime real estate like the News feed," she said.
Companies still get negative comments on Facebook and some, such as fast-food chain McDonald's Canada, have dropped the column of comments from the left-hand side of their page.
McDonald's, which has run its own campaign to respond to questions about its food, will monitor on Facebook "the level of engagement, feedback and sentiment we see as a result of this change," spokeswoman Jeanette Jones said.
Already the chain's digital agency, Tribal DDB, has found that McDonald's and its other clients have received fewer comments following the change, although it had no data on the decline, she said. She added McDonald's uses other forums to engage with Canadians and "we are always looking for new ways and opportunities to hear from them."
Lululemon faced a rising tide of complaints on its Facebook page in 2013 when it suffered major product-quality problems. Today, the luxury retailer faces consumers calling for it to stop using down in its coats, although these complaints on its Facebook page aren't nearly as conspicuous as previously. Lululemon declined to comment.
Target Canada, which is pulling out of this country, struggled with massive pushback on its Facebook page about complaints of overly high prices and empty shelves.
The changes come amid other overhauls that Facebook has made for businesses using its site as it tries to shore up its advertising revenue.
In November, Facebook started to reduce the amount of brand-page content that shows up in the news feeds of its 1.3 billion users, essentially forcing companies to pay for marketing.
Facebook now requires that brands pay to "boost" a post if they want users to see it, although in return it allows a company to better target paid posts to people according to location, age, language and other demographics.
The changes "created a big outcry among brands," said Dave Fleet, senior vice president of communications firm Edelman Digital. "Facebook told them to build their organic communities, and then Facebook changed its strategy. It is a bit of reality to the platform: Facebook's a public company, they have to make money."
Mr. Lacroix said Facebook's initiatives are aimed at increasing its ad revenues. They help Facebook make companies' pages more attractive partly by de-emphasizing users' negative comments, he said. "Having a lot of negativity on their pages isn't so good for their brand."
Added Mario Zelaya, founder of digital marketer Majestic Media: "You don't want your brand to be bombarded with negative sentiment or have customer-service issues at the top of the page. If I were a brand, I would be happy with the change."