Would You Let These People Friend You?

Half the Biz Is Jumping on Facebook Fanwagon, for 'Research,' of Course

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Want to send Julie Roehm a virtual beer or lychee martini? Need to connect with Tom Ajello, star of the ill-fated Subway viral-video pitch and famous fist-bumper? Or give Stuart Elliott a "poke"?
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One of the benefits of working in the communications business is that all manner of new-media dawdling can be justified as research, so it's tough to separate out just how much is business-business, how much is business-social and how much is social-social.

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Then it's time to join the ad hordes who have been crowding Facebook this summer, helping to spike the average age and income level of the social network once limited to college kids. This ain't about selling stuff for clients. Not since the advent of blogging four years ago have ad and media types so jumped on a new-media bandwagon for their own communications and networking purposes.

It's as though the ad business, frustrated with voyeuristically looking on at the rampant growth of younger-skewing sites such as MySpace, finally has a network of its own and has responded with an eruption of self-expression. And unlike the very serious LinkedIn, the industry's previous network of choice, Facebook is spewing a strange blend of content, part high-minded engagement with marketing topics of the day -- such as consumer-generated media and, natch, social networks -- and part dillydallying with mundane exercises such as the microblog Twitter and games such as Food Fight that are almost Beckettian in their embrace of pointlessness.

Explosion
Newsmakers such as Ms. Roehm, the former Chrysler Group and Wal-Mart executive, are there. Groups organized around marketing topics are proliferating. Networks created by agencies, marketers and media companies are spreading. Procter & Gamble's network -- open only to folks with P&G e-mail accounts -- is more than 6,400 strong. Unilever's has more than 5,300 members -- not counting the separate "Hot Unilever Interns" group, with 18 members, most of them Middle Eastern men. There's even a MySpace network.

Why the sudden rush to a platform that's been open for some time? "A lot of marketing people felt they were too late on blogosphere 1.0, which was very generous to those who moved fast, so they're trying to avoid that this time around," said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer at Nielsen Buzzmetrics. "Also, they're realizing what all the college kids did: that Facebook is a solid platform with sticky appeal."

Eric Bader, senior VP at MediaVest, the Publicis Groupe-owned media agency, compared Facebook to an open-source intranet. "It bridges the gap between business-business and business-social and allows us to bring in insiders so it's not just us talking to ourselves," he said.

Of course, one of the benefits of working in the communications business is that all manner of new-media dawdling can be justified as -- cue finger quotes -- research, so it's tough to separate out just how much is business-business, how much is business-social and how much is social-social. Thanks to Facebook's ever-growing host of applications, it's also pretty clear something besides "research" is going on here. And that something is some rather serious pimping of profiles.

Personality profiles
We get a fairly good sample of Mr. Elliott's cinematic tastes, which, if you read his New York Times column, you'll know trend to mid-20th-century classics such as "The Apartment." We see a dashing photo of agency new-business honcho and former Israeli army officer Avi Dan atop a tank during the Yom Kippur War. From the whole universe of users, we get a never-ending wave of book and movie recommendations, declarations of political affiliations, and status updates that represent the range of human experience, that is, from sleeping to vacationing. On an even more micro level, we get Twitter entries, very brief blog-like postings that are like an RSS feed to the haltingly ordinary, like this one from social-media expert and Ad Age columnist Steve Rubel: "I am enjoying a light frappucino."

(Full disclosure: In its three months of existence, this 30-year-old reporter's profile has been at various times the locus of inane poll questions, mundane status updates, song dedications, Scrabble games, poker games, food chucking, book chucking, zombie biting, fantasy stock trading, snippets of songs by '80s pop duo Wham and dumb wall exchanges, some of which are about Wham. Another Ad Age reporter's profile is studded with a virtual aquarium. Yet another is part of a Harry Potter-related group titled "'NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!': Mrs. Weasley Appreciation Group.")

Ms. Roehm, an avid user of LinkedIn, is new to Facebook, and has used it to connect with young family members. "Overall, it's a terrific networking site that has a social bent, which makes it more fun than businesslike," she said.

'Hooked'
Mr. Dan's experience with Facebook is representative of a lot of users interviewed for this article. Even after Facebook's decision to open membership beyond college students, he dismissed it as a kids' hangout. Despite being initially intimidated, Mr. Dan jumped in. "When I got into it, I became completely hooked," he said. "I spend a couple of hours a day on it. ... I mostly use it for chats and groups."

Where it all goes from here is unclear. Certainly, the network could still use some more CEO participation. Though Digitas Chairman David Kenny is on, the C-suite is under-represented. Asked about his absence, BBDO chief Andrew Robertson quipped, "I don't personally have an entry because I don't want my mother to be able to see what I am up to."

One thing for sure is that all the interest among marketing types isn't going to hurt Facebook's bid to improve ad sales. Mr. Blackshaw even speculates that Facebook's balance of permission-based communications and openness might be "a model for Web 3.0. "

Mr. Blackshaw, operating at the height of meta-ness, has pretty much turned over his Facebook to an examination of the marketing community's obsession with Facebook, even posting a video blog or two on the matter. In the video, he wears a curious bandage on his nose, where, he discloses, his kid smacked him.

Consider the business and the social properly bridged.
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