[L/M NET] Drew Neisser: Brands Need An Alternative to Facebook

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While the rest of the industry hailed the announcement of Facebook Timeline as a great leap forward, I can’t help but wonder if Zuckerberg & Co. have pulled a fast one on brands and their fans.  In the pre-Timeline days, brands might have felt they actually owned their fans or at least had some control over the relationship.  In the post-Timeline era, it is now clear that Facebook owns these fans and brands can rent them if they want to pay for them.  And while I have no problem with Facebook “monetizing” its network, after all it needs to make the post-IPO math work, it still seems a little shocking that brands have so little control on their part in the social network.

You have 5 more days to become a visual storyteller
Pithy posts may have carried the day on the old Facebook, but Timeline puts a particular premium on images and videos. Not only is there an enlarged photo “cover” on the landing page, but photo albums are featured more prominently. Brands can also “star” images, allowing them to expand across an entire page. And while all of these changes should increase engagement, brands without an arsenal of images will need to assemble one mighty quick. (Ready or not, Facebook will convert all brands to Timeline on March 30th, 2012)

Fan acquisition costs are rising
One of the beauties of the old Facebook was that any brand could build up a following at little to no out-of-pocket expense.  Add some compelling content, throw up a “fan gate,” and you could watch those Likes rise like the national debt.  With Timeline, Facebook seems to favor paying advertisers at every turn. Sure – “fan gates” are back as of late last week after Facebook fixed a technical problem, but you can only drive traffic directly to these pages if you pay to do so or link to them via a post.  Otherwise, the default landing page is your Timeline home page and the fan gate will be on one of your secondary “tabs.”

Fan engagement costs are rising too
Prior to Timeline, brand communications were filtered through Facebook’s mysterious algorithm to an unknown subset of fans. Well, that mystery is no more. Facebook announced that marketers will be able to reach only 16% of their fan base for free. If you want to reach more fans, you’ll need to pay to do so via the “reach generator,” which enriches Facebook but not necessarily the brands that support it. A number of brands have already seen their engagement rates drop substantially after making the switch to Timeline.

If you don’t have a history, you have a few days to make one up
For illustrious brands like the New York Times and Coca-Cola with long and well-chronicled histories, Timeline is a dream come true. These brands can now publish “milestones” as far back as they want, adding a rich texture to their Facebook presence. For new and younger brands, Timeline will take a lot more creativity. Perhaps these folks will hearken back not just to the inception of the business idea, but to the conception of the founders themselves!

Pin your hopes on the weekly pinned post
With the cover photo now taking up so much prime-time real estate, much of a brand’s content will now fall below the typical screen viewing area. To help address this, brands will now be able to “pin” one particular post to the mid-left side for an entire week. Deciding what to pin will become a weekly ritual — but one that perhaps belabors a minor issue, since so few people actually return to a fan page after their first visit.

Engage - or else everyone will know you’re not
Facebook is so serious about pushing brands to become engaging storytellers that they will now make it easier for everyone to see how you’re doing. A quick click on the Likes box just below the cover photo reveals not just the number of Likes and “people talking about this” but also the most popular week, most popular city and most popular age group. A nifty little graph tracks new Likes and “people talking about this,” accenting the probable correlation between engaging content and fan growth.

The good news: managing complaints just got a lot easier
Most brands will welcome the fact that Timeline includes an optional Message tab that allows consumers to contact them directly and privately rather than just post a complaint publicly. In theory, this will help weed out the whiners who broadcast their complaints from those genuinely seeking immediate assistance. Taking unpleasant conversations “offline” is a customer service department dream come true – and should hasten the integration of social and service-related activities.  (It also appears that brands can avoid unpleasant posts altogether but electing to approve them in advance.  This sounds good but could lead to complaints escalating in other venues so brands will want to try to be as transparent as possible dealing with complaints.)

Bottom line: it’s time to develop a Plan B
Time will tell whether the new Timeline actually improves a brand’s ability to engage with its fans via Facebook. What we do know is that the cost of engagement with all your fans just went up, and that Facebook will not hesitate to impose its will upon your efforts. So while few brands can afford to be without a Facebook presence, given how much time consumers spend there, this is as good a time as any to start thinking about how you can engage YOUR fans in other less dictatorial arenas.

FYI, Renegade converted to Timeline two weeks ago.  The process is relatively easy although digging up all the old content to fill in timeline is indeed time consuming.  If you have yet to make this conversion for your company, Facebook will do it for you on March 30th!

Drew is the CEO of Renegade, the digital & guerrilla marketing agency from New York City that helps clients make more out of less by transforming communications into "Marketing as Service." Twitter: @DrewNeisser