In a rare move for any company, Facebook not only announced what changes will take place, but it publicly offered a timeline for when it will happen. Of course, the timeline may shift, and some specifics have yet to be ironed out -- I've found in consulting both with Facebook executives and analysts covering the announcements that, many of the details aren't yet known and a number of important questions cannot yet be fully answered. However, marketers should still appreciate the wealth of information Facebook has provided on these changes, including a gallery of screen shots.
And in the meantime, here's what you need to know about the near-term changes:
- Opt-in E-mail:
Applications and Facebook Connect developers will be able to request users' e-mail addresses. This facilitates off-Facebook communication not previously available, and it allows marketers to extend consumer relationships beyond Facebook. It's also an endorsement for e-mail marketing, signaling that some fears of the Facebook inbox entirely replacing the e-mail inbox are exaggerated. E-mail notifications are an important way for many Facebook users to find out what's happening on the site, so now apps and Connect partners will reap similar benefits. This is all explicitly opt-in; applications won't suddenly be given the e-mail addresses of their users.
Action item for marketers: Not every application will warrant an e-mail component. If an informational app has 1,000 active users, even an ambitious 5% conversion rate for collecting e-mails will not make it worth the effort. However, marketers and publishers with popular applications and especially those using Facebook Connect should consider connecting this to their e-mail communications programs. Note that the list should be segmented; people who use a brand's game application and sign up for e-mails may get turned off by overly commercial e-mails unless the call to action is very specific ("Sign up for our weekly deal update!").
- Notifications Put on Notice
Updates from applications that were previously sent as notifications will now appear in Facebook's inbox and stream (the stream is the homepage content viewed as either the News Feed or Live Feed). It's likely that many of these notifications were getting lost in the shuffle, with many users not noticing or ignoring them, so this will make application updates more visible. Requests from friends inviting others to use applications will also appear in the Facebook Inbox. As Facebook's Developer Blog noted, "Application communication in channels like notifications and requests aren't effectively serving their original purpose."
There is one catch though: Once these updates are more visible, especially in the Facebook Inbox, users will be even more selective as to which applications can communicate with them. Facebook will make it easier for users to control this communication; more information on the user experience is on the broader Facebook Blog.
Action Item for marketers: As the change happens, monitor application usage and opt-ins to gauge changes in consumer behavior. Focus more on substantial messages to consumers such as those comparing consumers' rankings to friends, or time-sensitive new items, gifts, or levels. While some very popular applications may find themselves with ample leeway to blast messages, most will have to work harder to earn and maintain users' trust.
- A Shift to the Left
Bookmarked applications that now appear on the bottom-left of users' screens will now shift to the left-hand column of the homepage beside the stream. It still hasn't been determined how many applications will appear individually by default. That column will also include events and groups. A new feature will be a counter that posts the number of updates for applications, events and groups. Regarding applications, the counter will only include 'meaningful' updates, as a Facebook executive confirmed, such as noting that a friend beat your high score. It won't include automated, scheduled messages from applications to users such as, "Don't forget to feed your cow on FarmVille."
Action item for marketers: Again, meaningful updates will matter most here. Consider more usage of events as well to gain more real estate on the home page. With events, post real updates to special guests, the agenda, or venue information, but don't keep changing minor details just to try to game the counter.
- Fanning out across the web
Facebook users will be able to become a fan of any website. Right now, with Facebook Connect, you can go to JoesShop.com and become a fan of the Joe's Shop page on Facebook and you will receive updates specifically from the Joe's Shop Facebook page. In the future, as of sometime early in 2010, users will be able to become a fan of JoesShop.com, and that web page will be allowed to publish stories to its fans' streams.
Many of the specifics of this, dubbed the Open Graph API, are unclear. For instance, in this example, JoesShop.com will show up in search results on Facebook, but will it take precedence over the Joe's Shop Facebook page? What kinds of updates should a website send versus a Facebook Page? Should it change what marketers develop for their Facebook pages? The best practices will be determined once more details emerge about the API.
If the changes in application communication signal that email usage is indeed still alive and well despite the emergence of the Facebook Inbox, then the Open Graph API is Facebook's acknowledgment that its users do spend time on destination sites and not just the social network.
Facebook clearly wants to be a part of wherever its users are and marketers want to be where their consumers are -- and with more than 300 million active users, consumers are increasingly on Facebook. As Facebook Connect has shown, marketers and Facebook can benefit symbiotically. People go to a Facebook page versus a destination site for different reasons, so for any brand using Facebook (and assuming Facebook's trajectory continues, most brands need to be there in some way), both the social network and brand's web site will be important in furthering the consumer-brand relationship.
Action item for marketers: For this update and the one below, marketers won't have to take immediate action but will need to monitor this closely and loop in the appropriate constituents, including internal parties responsible for their Web site development and social marketing, along with their respective agencies.
- Analytics Upgrade
Facebook's road map includes improved analytics for Facebook applications and Facebook Connect-enabled sites, scheduled for late 2009 or early 2010. It isn't clear how the analytics will be improved, but any updates here will undoubtedly be welcomed by marketers. Marketers and agencies in contact with Facebook should use this as a reminder to share their wish lists with their Facebook representatives.
Not all of the changes above will be welcomed by every marketer and developer, but marketers can do their part to contribute to a positive user experience. The marketers who benefit the most will be those who learn to communicate with Facebook users in a meaningful way that adds value to their experience on the social network, while others who just try to shout even louder will find that it's easier for users to hit the mute button. Facebook is doing its part to help, phasing out lesser used features and focusing all forms of interaction where its users are most likely to respond.
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