Facebook's Plan to Go After 25 Million Small Businesses Could Backfire

Before Selling Ads to SMBs, Facebook Needs to Teach Them About Branding

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Facebook is on a mission to get America's 25 million small businesses -- from plumbers to pizza parlors to boutiques -- to actively invest in Facebook ads. Modeling its efforts on how it's already courting big brands -- the Cokes, GEs, and Toyotas of the world -- Facebook aims to teach small businesses how to promote their products and services on its platform.

However, this plan could backfire if Facebook doesn't do one thing first: Teach small businesses how to define and develop their brand. This is true for small businesses as well as for large businesses, and it presents both an opportunity and a risk for Facebook. Branding must come first, before advertising, or businesses will flail on Facebook, potentially sending disjointed messages that could confuse or repel the customers they're trying to attract.

Before focusing on advertising, Facebook's first objective should be to help small businesses understand the importance of branding, and give them the tools to identify, develop and leverage the unique brand attributes that make their goods and services distinct from their competition. Key questions must be answered if small businesses hope to craft optimal advertising strategies that meet their broad objectives and reinforce their image with customers. For example:

  • What does our business stand for?
  • What's our niche?
  • What's our brand promise?
  • Who are our customers?
  • What makes us different and better than our competitors?
  • What's the emotional connection we want our customers to associate with our brand?

For insight, Facebook should study the history of how world-class brands are born, including its own. Great brands initially focus on identifying and developing their brand DNA, in order to create strong emotional connections that drive everything they do. By doing the brand work first, word of mouth grows organically, allowing for smaller and more targeted advertising investments, while brand awareness proliferates and value solidifies. Advertising may eventually become part of the strategic brand strategy, but is never the driving force.

Ralph Lauren's first products in the late 1960s were hand-made silk ties, wider than the typical tie selling at the time, which targeted a narrow niche of high-income customers. He chose the Polo name for the image of sophistication and class that reinforced the mix of English classic and American traditional style he aspired to build as the central image of his brand.

Ralph understood that brand-based consistency and standards in all facets of his business, including marketing and advertising, needed to be meticulously scrutinized before significant advertising investments.

Facebook's brand development followed a similar path. Mark Zuckerberg determined the one product or service to brand, its unique benefits, the niche it filled, and the emotional connection he strived to make. Facebook's brand name was catchy and memorable, easy and pleasant to say, and descriptive of the service it was providing. And without significant marketing or advertising expenditures, the company's brand awareness skyrocketed.

The challenge for small businesses is that branding is complex work, and most small businesses lack the capital and expertise necessary to undergo a quality branding process. They don't have access to big brand resources, and are sorely in need of guidance from branding experts. Herein lies Facebook's opportunity to be a hero, taking ownership of the branding issue before small businesses dump millions of dollars into inefficient advertising campaigns.

Hiring a chief small business branding officer would be a great start for Facebook -- someone with the gravitas to build, lead and outsource teams of top-notch branding experts. In turn, the brand experts could facilitate holistic educational programs and networking resources, like online courses, webinars, in-person events and more -- all dedicated to helping small businesses prepare their brands for Facebook advertising success.

If Facebook embraces the branding prerogative, small businesses will be in a position to implement truly effective Facebook advertising campaigns -- driving more revenue for Facebook over the long haul. If they choose to ignore it, in favor of simply getting small businesses buying ads as quickly as possible, the likelihood of significant, lasting ROI from Facebook ads is minimal, and many small businesses will simply drop Facebook ads from their budgets out of frustration and cynicism.

Will Facebook be a partner to small business, or just another vendor? This is an important inflection point for the social network, and millions of small businesses across the country. It's also a reminder to all businesses -- large and small -- that branding must come first.

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