Savvy brands will seize the opportunity to swear off banner advertising in favor of building engagement with users on Facebook’s platform.
By Todd Copilevitz - Digital Strategist, IQ
Facebook has established itself as a powerhouse of marketing for brands around the world. But it has provided brands relatively few tools to build meaningful connection with the more than 845 million users. Ad formats are small with minimal room for branding and measurement is restricted to a few metrics that Facebook opts to report.
To date, most of the innovation demonstrated by brands on Facebook has come from adapting formats and tools created for fans wanting to share the source of their enthusiasm. That is changing now as Facebook brings its new timeline format to brands. Indeed, the very nature of the new timeline format provides platform for brands to build powerful new ties with their advocates and reach out to new fans.
Readying your brand to embrace the new format goes well beyond finding new images for the bold new look. It helps to start understanding Facebook’s mission, connecting everyone on the face of the planet with one another. It's not about providing tools to connect people, like cell phones, but rather Facebook sees itself building the means and encouragement for people to build connections with others. And helping brands is just a fortunate by-product.
“We think a more open and connected world will help create a stronger economy with more authentic businesses that build better products and services,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote to potential investors earlier this year. “As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.”
Indeed, with every development Facebook announces, it moves further away from the highly inefficient world of banner ads. Timelines, as the latest major innovation is likely to be the worst thing that has happened to traditional advertisers since the DVR. But it will be the best thing to happen to brands. That’s because it focuses on a customer’s sustained relationship with a product or service, rather than just pushing out a monologue of advertising. Brands that are in tune with their customers will recognize that Facebook is opening a huge channel where they can showcase those rich connections with customers.
However, gaining this connection will take a focused effort, not just spending media budgets.
What is timeline
Let's start with an understanding of what the timeline is and why Facebook is rushing headlong into this sweeping change. Until now, Facebook's 845+ million users have been all about the here and now. They post status updates about what they're doing, pictures of what just happened and sharing where they are. But Facebook wants to be much deeper in its users' lives.
Timeline is an effort to portray the full sweep of its users' lives, from birth to now, literally. The format offers a running timeline that encourages users to add all the milestones of their lives, education, jobs, relationships, births, trips, and accomplishments. For some users, it will come as a bit of a shock to find that all their status updates going back to their first days on Facebook are once again on display on their profile. While conversion to the format has been optional so far, Facebook has been clear that eventually everyone will be converted.
For brands the change started Feb. 29th and will be mandatory by the end of March. Like the user timelines, brand pages will incorporate a big cover photo. The larger photo is meant to be a canvass for the brand, an attempt to tell the brand story in 258,000 pixels. Already users have taken on the challenge with gusto, using sweeping panoramas from their trips, tender photos of their children, and more than a little whimsy.
Further down the page, the changes are equally sweeping. Now there are two columns, with status updates, uploaded photos and the usual interactions on the left. The top of the right column is content from the apps the user picks or posts they’ve flagged as important. So now they can keep that darling shot of cats hiding in boxes right there for visitors to enjoy, forever.
And lastly, Facebook has responded to pleas of brand managers everywhere by creating the means for a brand to communicate with followers one-to-one through private messages. So complaints can be sent and responded to privately.
Engagement in real-time
All of this would be relatively meaningless if it weren’t accompanied by big changes on the newsfeed page, where users spend the majority of their time. How much time? The average user is on Facebook 405 minutes a month according to Comscore. Facebook says its newsfeed garners 100 billion page views a day. Think about that, and no two users see the same news feed.
Facebook is making the brand pages a command center for engaging users across the site. Of course anything posted on the brand page will show up in the newsfeed of users who like the page. But new ad formats will allow brands to buy their way onto the newsfeed of friends of friends. So the more fans a brand has, the more reach it can generate.
This networking approach to marketing on Facebook can pay real dividends. The service says brands that have experimented with the new tools have generated from 3x to 10x ROI.
Once a brand connects with a user it will have a broader vocabulary for reflecting that engagement on the user’s wall. Gone are the days of chasing Likes. Now brands are defining their own verbs when users engage with their apps, creating a more natural lexicon. Users who have linked Pinterest are pinning content. Spotify users show what tracks they’re listening to now. And the Washington Post reader app shows what your friends have just read.
Some apps, like Good Reads, are working with Facebook to secure special display status on a user’s timeline. But any brand can create apps that report activity in a more natural context, hopefully reducing a user’s hesitance to grant apps access to their wall.
How to prepare for timeline
Brands have a month to embrace the changes before Facebook forces the issue. So now’s the time to start planning. Here’s a handy guide of what your brand should be doing now to prepare for the jump to timelines.
- Start by considering how your brand page will look. What will be the profile picture that shows up in the news feed? What will be the cover photo? Look beyond simple brand imagery and focus on designs that present a broad canvass of your brand’s value. Give prospective customers a visual shortcut to understand what the brand will mean for them.
- Boil down the brand’s history so you can map it on the timeline. When was the brand started? What were the milestones? Are there historic commercials worth posting?
- Scour your creative for assets that users can share on their own profile pages. Delta offered this picture recently that people could use for their cover photo.
- Re-evaluate what apps you can provide. Look for utility you can provide users while remaining consistent with the value of your brand. Think through how the app will report activity on the newsfeed. Remember too that nearly half of Facebook sessions are now via mobile phones. So think about value you can deliver to users on the go.
- Commit to integrating Facebook’s social graph toolbox on your own site. It not only encourages people to share your content, but also lets you show visitors what their friends have found useful.
And then realize that’s just the beginning. Facebook engagement requires maintaining a pipeline of relevant content for users. Recent studies indicate that even the best content has a lifespan of only three hours. That doesn’t mean hitting users three times a day with brand messages. Sometimes it’s a simple comment on a current event that demonstrates the involvement of real people behind the posts. Other times it will mean thanking users for their comments on your page, good or bad.
Just keep in mind that the overarching goal here is to provide users something of value and in turn empower them to tell their friends about what your brand is making possible. It doesn’t require big budgets to succeed in this new environment, just willingness to understand your customers and a desire to keep them happy.