Note: This is the first in a series of posts intended to help businesses evaluate their social media engagement options. All social media technology is not created equal, and different channels require different approaches. By understanding the benefits and limitations of each, businesses will be in a better position to choose the ones that best fit their budgets and abilities.
Why focus on Facebook?
As my grandpa was fond of saying, the best place to fish is where the fish are. In the case of social media, the most populous pond is clearly Facebook. With more than 400 million active users, a vibrant developer ecosystem, integrations across the social media spectrum, and myriad brand engagement opportunities, businesses would be well-advised to make Facebook a focal point of their social media strategies. If your target customers aren’t on Facebook, the chances are they’re not easily accessible through other social media channels. But sheer numbers aren’t the only reason businesses should make Facebook a cornerstone of their social media efforts.
1. Facebook has a functional, trusted social architecture
In early 2006, I was hired as a consultant on a social networking platform development project. When I first met with the company’s co-founder, he told me “We want to build the next MySpace,” to which I responded, “Why on earth would you want to do that?” I explained that MySpace had a dysfunctional social architecture. Anemic profile data and search functionality made it virtually impossible to find like-minded peers. Communication tools were severely lacking. Visually assaulting page layouts made for a nightmarish user experience. Proprietary applications stifled innovation, created unnecessary competition with other social media technologies, and confined users within MySpace’s “walled garden”. “It’s an anti-social network,” I told him. Given the massive success and popularity of MySpace up to that point, I was going out on a limb by pointing out its many flaws. When Mashable’s Pete Cashmore declared MySpace’s unassailable dominance and Rupert Murdoch shelled out $580 million to acquire the site, I’m sure everyone was second guessing their decision to listen to me.
And then came Facebook. What began as a closed social site for students at Harvard eventually expanded to include other universities, then select businesses before finally opening up to the general public in September of 2006. Over the next 6 months, Facebook’s membership doubled, then doubled again only months later. By December of 2008, Facebook surpassed MySpace in terms of monthly unique visitors from the U.S. There are many reasons for Facebook’s meteoric rise to prominence, but none is more important than the fact that they got social right. Facebook allows users to connect with real people, to rekindle friendships lost to time & distance, and to build meaningful relationships online. “Friends” on MySpace were little more than numbers, and high friend counts merely status symbols. Whereas MySpace’s version of “community” was monolithic and dedifferentiated, Facebook’s networks – based on regions, workplaces, and schools – make community a pivotal point of social organization on the site. Facebook’s News Feed pulls the UX focus away from our own profile pages and shifts it to the activities and interests of our friends, and Comments and Likes on News Feed content introduce us to their friends. Pages and Groups (don’t get me started on Facebook’s Group problem) allow users to connect with strangers over shared interests and form affinity-based communities. Even the shift from an exclusive club to an open society included measures to preserve the privacy and security of existing users and communities. Privacy controls allow users to determine the extent of their publicity, and to control what they share and with whom (Facebook’s recent privacy row notwithstanding, but that’s beyond the scope of this post, and a subject for another). Authenticity, shared affinity, trust and autonomy are all prerequisites to functional, meaningful communities, whether online or in the real world. And as Facebook’s eclipse of MySpace demonstrates, a functional social architecture is a prerequisite to success for online social networks. As long as users are invested in these meaningful relationships and communities, they’ll remain active on Facebook.
Aside from the fact that Facebook’s social architecture means the site is likely to remain vibrant and vital, why should businesses care about the quality of online social experiences? Simply put, relationships are the heart of social media. Technology enables content generation and sharing, but relationships are the reason we adopt and use social technologies. Social media works when it inspires us to connect, create, and share. Participation and investment go hand in hand. For businesses to tap into the enormous potential of social media, they must look first toward the platforms and applications that foster real relationships. Following from this, businesses should make Facebook a primary point of social media engagement because the site engages users as real people. For the most part, Facebook users don’t hide behind aliases and fake personae. They are real people – friends, family, colleagues, citizens, comrades, and importantly, consumers – able to express their real interests and affinities, and encouraged to explore and expand all aspects of their multidimensional identities. For businesses, this means an opportunity to engage with customers in an environment that mirrors their real world experiences, including consumer activities. Facebook users share ratings and reviews, seek out recommendations and advice, and transform themselves into brand advocates – and vocal critics. Keeping with the fishing metaphor, Facebook users are the blue fin tuna of the social media universe. The coveted social graph – the global mapping of all Facebook users and their interrelationships – is especially valuable because the rich profile data Facebook records for each user – not just demographic data, but interests, affiliations, likes and dislikes – provides businesses with an in-depth perspective on consumer behavior they’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Think of it as the largest, most detailed focus group ever assembled. The benefits to be gained from engaging this particular universe of users are incalculably huge.
2. Facebook’s open API’s foster innovation and integration
One of the most significant developments in social media was the introduction of Facebook’s open API’s (Application Programming Interfaces), which allow developers to tap into the social activity of the site to create integrated applications, simplify third-party authentication, and import Facebook data to third-party sites. Unlike MySpace, which adopted a proprietary development philosophy designed to maintain control over applications and features, Facebook’s approach has resulted in a robust developer ecosystem, innovative applications for users, and interconnectivity with other websites. For businesses, this approach allows for innovation and experimentation with novel user engagement strategies. While I’m not the biggest fan of Facebook Pages (no pun intended) as they’re currently constituted and executed – engagement is often thin, the interface is flat, and value to users is rarely added – all of the essential pieces are in place to make them truly engaging interactive brand experiences. Given Facebook’s willingness to allow developer-initiated innovation, there is an opportunity for forward-thinking brands to take the lead and push these novel advertising spaces toward their full potential. Because the developer ecosystem operates in a fairly autonomous fashion, leading edge brands can team up with developers of popular applications to introduce branded versions or components.
Aside from developing interactive applications native to the Facebook platform, businesses can leverage Facebook’s API’s to improve consumer engagement experiences on their own websites, and across the Web. Facebook Connect, which allowed users to use their Facebook username and password to login to sites and applications across the Web, massively improved registration conversions for third-party sites (it’s recently been abandoned in favor of OAuth 2.o, an open source authentication protocol, but the basic idea – simplified authentication – remains unchanged). Facebook’s Graph API allows developers to “read and write data to Facebook…(and) provides a simple and consistent view of the social graph, uniformly representing objects (like people, photos, events, and pages) and the connections between them (like friendships, likes, and photo tags).” When users connect to third-party sites via their Facebook profile, those sites have access to any publicly available user data – from favorite foods to favorite books – and will be able to take that into account to provide tailored offers and unique consumer experiences. Social Plugins, like the recently introduced portable “Like” button, “make it easy for users to see information from or about their Facebook friends, share things with their friends without leaving a site or going through a time-consuming login process.” One of the most important ways that businesses can improve online interactive experiences for users is to simplify and streamline the engagement process, and with Facebook’s open API’s, there is no quicker and easier way to do just that.
3. Facebook provides a variety of consumer engagement opportunities
For those businesses that aren’t quite ready to undertake a full-blown integration strategy, the vast universe of Facebook Applications provide ready-made user engagement tools and toys. Games, quizzes, virtual gifts, and even mobile applications can be dropped into Facebook Pages to provide instant entertainment for visitors. Coupled with videos, blog posts, discussion boards and other brand-centric content, these applications allow even the smallest of businesses to create rich interactive experiences (caveat: unless you’re a top interactive agency of Fortune 500 brand with a sizable social media budget, forget what I said about the problems with Pages – they’re still one of the best social marketing opportunities around). For businesses taking their initial steps into the social media arena, Facebook offers a wide variety of consumer engagement options that can be deployed with minimal effort. Pages, targeted ads, customized social games, and brandable applications allow brands to test engagement tactics before committing significant resources.
To demonstrate the potential of Facebook Pages, consider the example of Starbucks. In their July 2009 report, Engagement db: Ranking the Top 100 Global Brands, the Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li and Wetpaint’s Ben Elowitz gave Starbucks the highest social media engagement score among the top 100 brands. One of the keys to Starbucks’ success is an awareness of the different dimensions of engagement offered by each social media channel. On Facebook, Starbucks has grown their community of fans from about 200,000 when they initiated engagement efforts in October of 2008, to 3.5 million as of the publication of the Engagement db report, to nearly 8.1 million as of today. Chris Bruzzo, Starbucks VP of Brand, Content and Online, attributes this phenomenal growth to user-initiated interactions unique to the Facebook platform: “Recently, we found that for every four people that interacted with a particular news item, another three people added virally as friends of these people.” What Starbucks discovered is that Facebook is not only about messaging to their fans, but also “allowing fans to talk with each other about their love for the product and experience.” To facilitate user-initiated interactions, Starbucks developed branded applications utilizing Facebook’s API’s. The Starbucks Card application allows users to manage their card balance, view their rewards, and will eventually allow users to surprise friends by reloading their Starbucks cards. The Starbucks Around The World application invites users to share their passion for coffee with users from across the globe. The Starbucks Instant Story application lets users create MadLibs-style status updates – and earn a dollar off their next purchase of Starbucks VIA instant coffee. In addition to these customized branded applications, the Starbucks Page includes off-the-shelf applications, including videos, notes (the functional equivalent of a blog), discussions, polls, links, and even product reviews. There’s no shortage of interactive opportunities for users, and 3,950% growth over the past 23 months certainly demonstrates the success of their approach.
Importantly, Starbucks’ Facebook success is also a result of their unique perspective on social media engagement. As Bruzzo explains, “If we had approached it not from ‘what you know and love about Starbucks’ but as a marketing channel, we would have taken this down a path that would have been very different…This was not [built as a] marketing channel, but as a consumer relationship-building environment.” The success of this approach is not only reflected in the tremendous growth of their following on Facebook (and other social media channels), but also in the company’s bottom-line revenue. After suffering through a disastrous first half of 2008, during which sales and traffic slipped for the first time in the company’s history, “Starbucks posted its first U.S. same-store sales gain in two years for the last quarter during a time when the company relied on digital and social-media promotions instead of what had become an annual TV blitz.” The critical lesson here is not that social media engagement can translate into measurable financial success, although the Starbucks experience certainly counters this frequently heard complaint from social media skeptics; rather, it is that Starbucks properly understands the differences between social media engagement and traditional marketing strategies. As Bruzzo continues, “It’s not like we started our Facebook community, got to a million people and started pushing offers at them. We built up a community of people who enjoy engaging with our photo albums from our trip to Rwanda, who loved to have these shared moments around their favorite drinks.” Then, fans started asking the company what was going on, and how they could be included. Although Starbucks results may be difficult for other brands to replicate, their experience provides a solid blueprint for businesses venturing into the Facebook space.
4. Facebook still has room to grow
As I said earlier, the Facebook platform is not without its drawbacks. The recent privacy fiasco illustrates the need for brands to tread lightly when it comes to utilizing user data. Although the user interface is light years ahead of MySpace, it doesn’t exactly push the envelope of UX possibilities. The structure and organization of Groups just plain sucks. As the Starbucks examples demonstrates, Pages can be done extremely well, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and it takes some effort and ingenuity. Still, Facebook is one of the more promising social media channels for businesses. And as businesses deepen their investment in the site, they will have an opportunity to steer future development in directions that enhance consumer engagement even further. As such, a commitment to the Facebook platform is likely to provide both short-term and long-term returns for forward-thinking businesses.