Roo Reynolds, Head of Emerging Platforms at W+K London, writes…
Brands always want to be where the consumers are. Consumers, for their part, seem willing to accept brands into their social online spaces. Indeed, they increasingly expect them to be there.
Many brands recognise that their customers will will vent about them in public if they're unhappy, so customer service teams are using social media to pay active attention to their consumers, nipping problems in the bud and turning issues around as fast as possible in order to reduce complaints and traditional support calls. When consumers are also fans, they can help spread the word about your new product features among their friends. If people will talk about you anyway, it makes sense to be proactively involved in shaping those conversations, giving people something interesting to talk about and offering them something they'll find valuable in return for their attention.
What people value varies, but it's probably more than just having somewhere to talk about you. They could do that anyway. Perhaps your fans are looking for coupons, or early access to news about new products. Perhaps you could even involve them in shaping future products. Just listening to their opinions and, importantly, showing that you're listening, is quite novel. Ten years ago you'd have killed for the opportunity to get such useful free insights.
What's not valuable, and never has been, is collecting fans for the sake of it and then ignoring them. Understanding why your consumers are fans, and giving them something valuable, is an exciting chance to be closer to your consumers and build a useful relationship with them that recognises your role in their lives.
Facebook's newly designed Timeline feature will get a lot of attention in the next few days as people get used to a new design. Personally, as a user, I think it's great. The ability to quickly and easily browse through the stream into the distant past means I can now easily navigate back to what I was doing 6 years ago. Nostalgia, here we come.
But despite being the most visible difference, the new Timeline is actually the least interesting of Facebook's recent changes. There's a lot more happening below the surface. The new Open Graph changes are significant, and worth taking some time to understand.
Facebook's 'social graph' model is made up of the interconnections between people, and the other things those people care about. Previously, this was managed entirely by Facebook. For example, you could add (and 'like' and comment on) photos and other content, and you could 'like' Facebook pages. In 2010, that model was extended into what they called the Open Graph, which allowed web pages outside Facebook to similarly be liked and connected to the social graph; i.e. shared with friends. The recent changes take this a lot further, allowing developers to integrate any arbitrary objects and actions from 3rd party apps.
The first to get involved have been media organisations, allowing their content to be read in new Facebook apps which, in turn, publish details about what the users are consuming using Open Graph, helping it spread to their friends via the News Feed (showing users the most relevant updates) and the new Ticker (showing the most recent updates, in real-time).
In fact, the possibilities for Open Graph are now endless. Made a recipe from a supermarket's online recipe site? With a relatively straightforward bit of Facebook integration, that site could be telling all your Facebook friends what you've cooked. Ordered a takeaway to be delivered to your door? That's an activity that could be published into your individual Facebook Timeline, and of course to your friends' News Feeds and real time Tickers.
The most controversial recent change is the notion of "frictionless sharing". Once you've allowed an app to publish your activity, don't expect it to keep asking you that each activity is really something you want to share. Everything you do in the app will be silently added to your timeline and the real-time Ticker. It's controversial. Is "frictionless sharing" killing taste? Will it mean the end of guilty pleasures? Are new apps too spammy? Are even more fine-grained controls needed to give users the choices they want? The debate will continue to rage.
It remains to be seen whether Facebook's attempt at "frictionless sharing" will be successful. Certainly, bypassing manual and intentional choice seems to water down the value of sharing something. It also dilutes the benefit of the new Ticker, with the real-time feed prone to being flooded by automatic updates from noisy apps. These could prove unwelcome and unpopular.
"Zuckerberg's law", that each year people will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before, represents an ambitious desire to shift public behaviour; Facebook is at the forefront of an ongoing experiment in testing and exploring public expectations around privacy. These recent changes represent a potential risk for brands wanting to be involved with the cutting edge social sharing features of Facebook. Being seen to encourage users to automatically and passively share information in a new breed of Facebook enabled apps (I read this, I listened to that, I did the other…), of which they would previously have chosen to share a limited subset manually, is big step and not one to be taken lightly for any brand. New apps will need to make it clear exactly what will be shared, with whom, and when, and how to opt out.
Facebook wants more real-world things (movies, sports teams, celebrities, restaurants and, well, everything) to be represented in Facebook. No surprise there. There are two questions brands and agencies should be asking themselves before making a Facebook app though. First, are you comfortable sharing your company's data? (I'd say the old cliche "if you're not paying for it, you're not the customer, you're the product" goes for marketers as well as users.) And second, will consumers actually find value in interacting with you, and do they already have a relationship with you?
With increasing amounts of content on Facebook, brands wanting to compete for attention will have a tough job and need to focus on being relevant and interesting as they attempt to cut through the 'clutter'. That clutter is also known as the social lives of their consumers, so let's not dismiss it. We should look for ways to creatively involve ourselves in their lives, in ways they cherish.
The recent changes to Facebook represent more than just a way to better target your ads and Sponsored Stories. We have an opportunity to make it easier for users to share updates about their relationship with your brand, as part of the ongoing story of their lives they share with their friends. But if you're not already part of their lives then a Facebook app is probably not the way you're going to win them round.