Can Marketers Keep Up With Facebook?

Social Network's Warp Speed Poses Challenge to Brands

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Garrick Schmitt
Garrick Schmitt
Facebook is growing at warp speed. Not only are the company's user statistics staggering -- 200-plus million users, a 17-minute average stay, 850 million photos uploaded month -- but the service itself is evolving so rapidly that brand marketers can't keep up.

For many of us, it's too easy to get distracted by the industry speculation: What will happen now that Facebook has overtaken MySpace in the U.S.? Will Twitter take share from Facebook? Are Google and Facebook on a collision course? It's like the digerati's version of "Hot or Not?"

But what often gets overlooked is just how quickly the Facebook platform changes, forcing users and marketers to scramble to catch-up.

Facebook's vanity URL land grab is an excellent example of just how fast the company moves. Two weeks ago Facebook users and brand marketers (who hadn't submitted the proper info in advance) needed to log-in on Friday night 9:01 PST to secure their own Facebook vanity URLs. These URLs ensure that a company like Starbucks has a dedicated place to direct consumers, e.g. facebook.com/starbucks.

Adapting to a change like the Vanity URL program can have a significant impact on the overall success of a brand on Facebook. Both Starbucks and Victoria's Secret saw big spikes in fans after the change. Starbucks notched a 27% gain and added 656,102 fans, while Victoria's Secret saw a 58.5% spike with the addition of 524,999 fans according to InsideFacebook.com.

Clearly there is more to all of this than just throwing sheep. To help brand marketers make sense of advertising in the Facebook era, we recently co-hosted the Facebook Marketing Breakfast Series with Inside Facebook in San Francisco.

The attendees reflected the ever-widening Facebook marketing ecosystem. On one end of the spectrum there Fortune 500 brand marketers who are looking for clues on how to best adapt their campaigns to the social sphere and Facebook in particular. On the other end of the spectrum were grassroots nonprofit organizations and individuals who were looking to tap Facebook's tools and ad programs to build their businesses.

The speakers were equally diverse and included Trista Handisides (brand market solutions, Facebook), Jeremiah Owyang (Forrester), Michael Brito (Intel), Betsy Burkett (Mattel), Karl Long (Nokia), Keith Rabois (Slide) and myself, among others. Everyone shared their perspective on where Facebook and the social graph were headed and how brands could successfully participate. We also discussed, rather candidly, where brands have struggled with Facebook.

There was a good degree of enthusiasm about Facebook's relatively new Engagement Ads, which enable users to interact with advertising on the home page either by attending an event, sending someone a gift, participating in a poll or watching a video, all from the ad unit itself. This type of socially driven advertising felt much closer to a viable model than anything marketers had seen yet.

Of course there were also complaints. Frustration with Facebook's search ranked high, as brand marketers felt that the indexing lagged significantly. There were some more minor issues around the quality of tools and reports. And, of course, there was confusion about the diversity of Facebook's offerings and what was right for each marketer.

Owyang put the event in the right context, noting that power is shifting to communities over brands and that Facebook plays a critical role in the evolution of the social web. Given that, most of the speakers seemed to agree that simply running display ads on Facebook wasn't going to cut it. Instead, brand marketers need to run broader social programs that enable conversations with consumers -- which can include anything from Facebook fan pages to tie-ins with offline events.

But many participants at the event seemed mostly concerned about keeping up. It's clear that Facebook needs to innovate in real-time to win the hearts and minds of consumers -- and fend off Google, Twitter and the like. But Facebook also needs to find a way to slow-down a bit for more brand marketers to get on board.

Don't expect that rate of change to lessen anytime soon, however. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently told Robert Scoble that the future of Facebook won't even be a website.

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Garrick Schmitt is group VP of Experience Planning at Razorfish and the agency's global lead for User Experience. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual consumer experience report and in his spare time flails about on Twitter @gschmitt. Intel and Mattel are Razorfish clients.

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