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Opinion / Facebook / Into the Jaws of the Leviathan

by Contagious Team

Is a giant lurking below your brand's fishing hole? Yes, says Contagious North American editor Nick Parish, who argues that brands steering everything social through Facebook will do themselves more harm than good 

In mid-February, IBM's latest game- playing supercomputer, Watson, faced two human champions in their collective specialty: Jeopardy. Like its predecessor, Deep Blue, which bested chessmaster Garry Kasparov in the late '90s, the matchup drew distinctions between cold, technical intellect and human creativity. Kasparov exploited inefficiencies in Deep Blue to create opportunities, but was overwhelmed as the machine's human handlers updated it. Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings met a similar fate; despite one or two glaring flubs, the machine crushed Jennings and another former Jeopardy champ over a three-day series. Facebook amassing unprecedented volumes of data and knowledge leaves brands in a similar eroding position.

As the platform matures, major questions arise. How big will Facebook get? What data should brands be feeding it about their customers? How is it helping brands? At what point does it stop helping? Reactions from marketers and publishers partly mirror consumer reaction; each realising that Facebook's monetisation of information they formerly controlled is the social network's ultimate goal. People and companies are beginning to understand the maxim 'if you aren't paying for the product, you are the product.' Like Silicon Valley, which has begun to view Facebook as a 'frenemy', marketers are stumbling into potential conflicts and acting with appropriate caution. Having pushed to secure a place on the platform, brands find themselves with followers to keep and apps to maintain, but a cloudy endgame.

Shakedown street

Facebook's inflated $50bn valuation is derived partially from its potential to do all the things we initially hoped the internet would do to make money, but in one place: virtual currency control and commerce, advertising and entertainment, contact and communication. Advertising-wise, that's the promise of both serving ads to users and having an intimate portrait of them to make those ads better.

But let's focus on consumer information, forever dear to brands. Active marketers expend major amounts of effort and resources to tease out patterns of intent, action and interaction from people. Given Facebook's massive corpus of data, and top resources available to understand it, the company is on track to develop a flabbergasting portrait of transactional human behaviour. Should brands, major contributors to this pool, be somehow credited or cut in to the deal? It's time for powerful players to ask 'What do we get?', both of themselves and their corporate partners.

In chasing frivolous tokens of esteem, namely Likes, brands have traded away data sovereignty and are leaking an extraordinary amount of information. One high priest of content for a major cable TV network told me his company shuns the Like button on its stories. 'Why would we want Facebook knowing more about our audience than we do?' he asks. The quandary comes when the network's stories get six times more action on the social network than they do at the home site. Users are happy with the Facebook experience, so brands need to have a presence there, but with the goal of taking the best mechanics and interface elements and appropriating them for brand-owned platforms. When we talk about brands becoming like publishers, it's not just in the content. Methods of interacting with customers and understanding how audiences move around what you're publishing matter as much as interesting text and vivid photos. Brands effectively neglecting their own spaces for Facebook are a weak signal things have gone too far - it's what hindsight will point to as a strange choice. Why didn't all companies build their own Facebooks to interact with each other when they had a chance?

Reclamation projects

Contagious' advice? There are still ways to recapture enthusiasm. Never be satisfied with the consumer pathway ending at Facebook; always try to move the interaction along, developing creative content to prod users to where you want them. There are no blockbuster examples, but American fast food brand Jack in the Box was on the right track with its contest to 'Be a Rich Fan'. It added a nickel to a virtual jar whenever someone clicked Like on its page. The brand took basic demographic info (name, zip code, email, phone and birthday) in exchange for eligibility to win the cash. This wasn't enough. Everything needs to push for more data. Drive registration. Introduce advanced design and engagement to CRM (see New Dogs, Old Tricks from Contagious 25 for essential reading on social CRM). Take responsibility, and learn by trying different interfaces and content, seeing what works. Paying for Facebook exposure is problematic too. Reports from Webtrends and comScore attest to the bad performance of Facebook ads, the former detailing how the average click-through rate was half the industry standard. Users clearly aren't there to click ads, as they would be marginally more likely to after a search. So despite inexpensive inventory, it's doubly foolish to advertise to drive traffic to a Like. Meanwhile, it's nearly impossible to take seriously the values some have tried to place on a robust presence. A product called the 'Social Page Evaluator' created by Vitrue put the average annual earned media value of a fan of McDonald's at $259.82, based on Likes. But one look at the Wall comments these valuable fans are contributing and you see a puerile serving of complaints, spam and nonsense.

What is the solution? It's certainly not universal. Way back at 50 million users, Mark Zuckerberg said, 'We're going to help your brands become part of the daily conversations that are happening...through these connections. Nothing interests a person more than recommendation from a trusted friend.' While attempts at the former produced below average results, the latter is as true as ever. Brands should work toward making things worthy of earning attention and creating referrals. People energised by content should be pointed to friendly communities. The end result should never only be a Like. Capture the compulsion Facebook has bred. Reappropriate mechanics ideas from Zynga if you must. Apply the things you've learned about your fans and networks to all sides of your brand, and pull CRM juice from happy visitors. Creative, ground-breaking ideas will always push themselves through the social web, but in terms of everyday maintenance, make sure you understand what data goes to you and what's turning blue.

This article first appeared in Contagious 26, to subscribe visit the Shop.
Illustration: David Procter /