Major social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have recently banned advertising for cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (ICOs), whilst Google will introduce similar regulations in June 2018. Facebook came first saying that such ads are related to ‘deceptive promotional practices’ and setting a precedent for other social media giants that have taken similar action towards crypto and ICO-related advertising.
The blanket bans have certainly done some damage to the market. Not only has it deprived industry players of certain promotional tools, but also contributed to the stigmatization of cryptocurrencies as a whole. However, there’s always a bright side: some experts argue that the crackdown might actually lead to legitimization of the industry.
Timeline of bans on crypto ads
On Jan. 30 Facebook issued a blog post announcing that it will prohibit ads that use “misleading or deceptive promotional practices,” referring specifically to ICOs and cryptocurrencies. Rob Leathern, Product Management Director at Facebook, explained:
“We want people to continue to discover and learn about new products and services through Facebook ads without fear of scams or deception. That said, there are many companies who are advertising binary options, ICOs and cryptocurrencies that are not currently operating in good faith.”
The ban was “intentionally broad”, meaning that the social media giant decided to ban all cryptocurrency ads on its platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Audience networks) first, and then find out how to pick out ones that are actually “deceptive”. Some sources in the industry suggest that Facebook will wait for US regulatory bodies to roll out definite policies, which might take months.
Indeed, Facebook’s move seemed to coincide with US Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) public announcement regarding crypto-related investments and ICOs that was issued in Dec. 2017. In that statement, SEC chairman Jay Clayton suggested that there is a growing trend for “fraud and manipulation” in the cryptocurrency and ICO markets due to their rising popularity. Clayton also warned investors that there were no ICOs registered with SEC.
Essentially, Facebook has set a precedent for other big tech companies, as Google was next to follow. On March 14, soon after reports from crypto advertisers regarding suspensions and account terminations on Adwords (which Google denied at the time) emerged, the company announced that it will ban all cryptocurrency-related advertising of all types (ICOs, exchanges, wallets etc.) in June 2018. The policy will apply to Google search, Google-owned platforms including YouTube and display-advertising on third-party sites. The company also announced it is pulling cryptocurrency mining extensions from its Chrome Web Store this week.
Explaining the decision to ban cryptocurrency-related advertising, Scott Spencer, the Director of Sustainable Ads at Google, told CNBC:
"We don't have a crystal ball to know where the future is going to go with cryptocurrencies, but we've seen enough consumer harm or potential for consumer harm that it's an area that we want to approach with extreme caution.”
On March 26, Twitter confirmed rumors that the social media giant would follow Facebook and Google in clamping down on crypto-related advertising. The ban covered advertising for ICOs and token sales only. In addition, the policy also included bans on cryptocurrency exchanges and wallet services, unless they are public companies and are listed on major stock exchanges.
“We know that this type of content is often associated with deception and fraud, both organic and paid, and we are proactively implementing several signals to prevent these types of accounts from engaging with others in a deceptive manner,” the company explained to Bloomberg.
Recent reports also confirmed that Snap Inc., the company behind Snapchat, has been silently restricting ads for token sales since February, whilst its future plans on the rest of crypto ads types remain unclear.
At this point, all major social media platforms have announced (or have already implemented) restrictions on cryptocurrency and ICO advertising. It’s worth noting that Facebook and Twitter control about 60-70 percent of the online advertising market.
Cryptocurrency and ICO ads bans take toll on markets
Although soon after the Facebook’s announcement Jan. 30 Bitcoin took a hit and collapsed from roughly $10,166 to $6,914 by Feb. 5, it managed to come back even stronger: by Feb. 20 the price rallied to $11,228.
On March 14, after the news of Google plans to crackdown on crypto and ICO ads, Bitcoin rapidly fell below $8,000, losing about 9 percent of its value.
Closer to the end of March, soon after the Twitter ban announcement on March 26, Bitcoin took another hit. its value fell below $7500 on March 29, resulting in the steep sell-off and another depressing week for traders.
“Death cross”: mainstream media and public reaction
Some mainstream media including CNBC dubbed the price drops with the scary-sounding label “death cross”, implying that Bitcoin’s short-term movement average was about to cross below its long-term average. That contributed to obligatory public freakouts, although Reddit users kept their cool, even when the “death cross” actually happened on March 30. There was a number of sarcastic comments like “Yes, we crossed it. Now we're all dead”, while others discussed the matter more seriously: many agreed that it was merely a lagging indicator. Some users noticed that Bitcoin had passed the so-called “death crosses” three times before the recent price drop.
Users also directly addressed Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, who argued that Bitcoin will become world’s single currency within a decade just a week before introducing the ban on his social media platform: “I recently read an article that you believe in Bitcoin and fully support it. Then why you're following Facebook's steps and you're now planning to ban cryptocurrencies and ICO-related ads?”
John Ratcliff, a game developer, software engineer and prominent cryptocurrency blogger, also claimed that the price drop has nothing to do “with Bitcoin’s network, which has literally never been stronger or more healthy”. Instead, he blamed “ICOs and alt bag-holders cashing out to fiat”, as well as panic-sellers.
Industry sources remain positive despite the looming potential for new lows, with various players anticipating the launch of the Lightning Network which might potentially strengthen Bitcoin’s position.
ICOs have been additionally stigmatized rather than actually affected
Rosemary O'Neill, CEO of Narrative, a Blockchain-based social network that has just finished its ICO, told Cointelegraph that token sale projects don’t actually rely on major social media platforms that much:
“Most ICO projects are already much more focused on the ICO directory sites, niche email newsletters, Telegram channels, and Discord rooms than big social. You always want to go where your audience is hanging out, and (sorry Facebook), the crypto crowd isn’t really focused there”.
However, according to O’Neill, the process of finding the right clientele has indeed been affected by the recent bans, although to a small degree:
“In the cryptocurrency/Blockchain project world, you typically have a two-phased audience…targeting crypto investors or alt coin enthusiasts for the token sale, and then shifting to the target audience for your actual platform or product post-token sale. The recent advertising bans really only make it a bit more difficult to cast a wide net in the first phase”
O’Neill claims that her company did not experience a significant loss in terms of token sale participants, although the recent bans seem to enforce the stigma of cryptocurrencies, which certainly doesn’t help: “It has a psychological impact on the way the average person views cryptocurrencies, and we’ve already heard people say, ‘well, Google’s not allowing it, it must be bad’ referring to all cryptocurrencies, which just isn’t true. It’s really unfortunate”.
Ben Noble, a founding partner of a marketing and PR company called MarketBlok, suggests that after the Google ban, the market will never be the same. “The mere suggestion of a Google ban shrank the market significantly. Much of the damage is already done. However, the ban will further create market attrition among companies that can't fit into a new organic marketing paradigm. Good technology generally speaks for itself. But clever marketing will put a select few Blockchain companies on a pedestal”.
According to Noble, companies have shifted their resources from paid advertisements to direct marketing, public relations, brand journalism and search engine optimization (SEO). “With paid platforms dwindling, Blockchain companies need to make more calculated decisions with their marketing budget. Unfortunately, the sudden crackdowns have thrown the market off balance. Journalists are drowning in a cacophony of pitches, and bots and spam posting on social channels has accelerated”.
Noam Cohen, executive at Fusion, confirms the existence of growing stigma provoked by the big tech’s clampdown. “It is of course related to an increasing number of scams that have been surfacing in ICOs, and the increasing difficulty to ascertain to what degree is a new venture "scammy" - I think that public perception is becoming more negative of this space”.
The ever-growing number of various ICOs has even reached the point of becoming meme-worthy, Cohen adds:
“At face value, all ICOs now look the same - website design, countdown clocks, KYC [know your customer] and capping methodology - So similar that humorous memes have appeared mocking the template for a successful ICO. This 'winning template' has been so widely adopted that, for much of the public who is not tech-savvy enough to read white papers it becomes even more difficult to distinguish a good project from a scam; And the default attitude towards new projects is that of extreme skepticism”.
That, in turn, rushed the social media platforms to protect their customers. “In this atmosphere, one might imagine that any advertising of such new projects creates a liability for the media/channel, of being perceived as aiding and abetting fraud, and hence, the new policy.”, he says.
O’Neill confirms that assumption. She also adds that while it is not wrong to protect your consumers from bad actors, the action could have been more delicate to legitimate businesses:
“We feel the blanket ban is a knee-jerk response that ultimately dampens enthusiasm for what will be a world-changing technology of blockchain and cryptocurrency. The good news is that advertising bans are not going to stop that technology from happening; it’s like trying to stop the tide with a bucket”.
Noble warns that an investor shouldn't evaluate a company solely on the platform used for promotion. “I'd be more concerned with the message of the advertisements. If an advertisement is pushing moon Lambos and unrealistic expectations for ROI, bail”.
A significant percentage of scams tend to stand out in comparison to legitimate ICOs. “The perpetrators of scams are looking for a quick buck and often rely on volume of outreach rather than quality of message. They tend to leave obvious holes in logic. Rule of thumb is: if you don't understand what a company does, don't invest.”, Noble adds.
The ICO team’s online presence should always be investigated, too. As Jonathan Hobbs, author of “The Crypto Portfolio: a Commonsense Approach to Cryptocurrency Investing”, puts it: “If you can’t find information about them on Google or Linkedin, they probably don’t exist”.
There are other factors besides social media marketing of ICOs, too: Hobbs highlights two particularly important ones: the strength of the ICO project team and the so-called ‘token economics’.
“Token economics encompass various metrics on how the ICO investment is structured to determine the potential value to the investor. A simple metric to consider here, for example, would be the price of the token at ICO relative the total supply of coins, and the traction the project team already has in achieving the goals set out in their roadmap”.
How the ban might actually legitimize the ICO industry
Hobbs believes that the regulatory crackdown is not necessarily harmful for the ICO market in the long term:
“The banning of ICO advertisements by companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter may not seem like the best thing to some, but it could help further legitimize the ICO industry in the coming years. By restricting their ability to advertise, it’s harder for scammers to find unsuspecting retail investors to buy into their projects.”
He also pinpoints that mainstream stock companies don’t promote their services to the public through paid advertising as it would be a “regulatory nightmare”. Hobbs believes that “If cryptocurrencies and ICOs are to be taken more seriously by large institutional investors (big banks, pension funds, asset managers and so on), then they should do the same”.