BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Just 15 months ago, Procter & Gamble Co.'s top digital-advertising executive had some serious reservations about Facebook as a marketing tool.
Now, the world's biggest marketer wants all of its brands to get a presence on Facebook this year and has recently opened a research-and-development office in Palo Alto, Calif., not far from Facebook's headquarters, in an effort to co-develop capabilities in digital and social media.
It's a clear sign that Facebook, by its sheer mass of 400 million global users and status as the digital world's biggest time-sink, is a marketing force not even the world's biggest media spender can ignore.
P&G rival Unilever and beverage giant Coca-Cola have begun shifting attention in digital marketing from campaign websites to more-permanent relationships with consumers on their Facebook pages. And other marketers such as Honda and Ikea are moving beyond the "planting the flag" stage to find new ways of using Facebook's intrinsic ability to connect with consumers.
"What Facebook does is connect people into communities," said P&G Global Brand-Building Officer Marc Pritchard. "It's also just a pretty good way to reach consumers through messages."
That doesn't necessarily mean giving up on brand or campaign websites, he said. "You can use Facebook and websites in different ways," he said. "You can go deeper in content on your website in many cases."
Focus on partnerships
Aside from hopes that marketers will buy more of its Social Ads, none of this has put much cash in its tills yet. But Facebook's focus on integrated partnerships -- lucrative or not -- in lieu of display advertising (it abandoned banners earlier this year) is a big reason it's at least on the same page as brands, rather than pushing products marketers did not want.
Clearly the messaging part stood out when P&G launched its Winter Olympics sponsorship with a 60-second "To their moms, they'll always be kids" ad from Wieden & Kennedy. Most of the 18 P&G brands involved in the corporate effort posted messages on their Facebook walls the next day linking to the ad on YouTube.
Some, such as Olay, put their pages up for the first time just this month, a week ahead of the games, garnering about 9,000 fans within the first 10 days. Pringles, with 2.9 million fans, already had a substantial presence that had grown largely organically.
The reality is that branded Facebook pages, still relatively rare only a year ago, became commonplace for a variety of marketers in the past year, particularly as Facebook gave them a chance to control and own their vanity URLs such as Facebook.com/Axe.
The men's personal-care brand from Unilever, which has long used disposable campaign websites, is instead channeling consumers toward its Facebook page now. The page has become a place to host viral videos the brand launches, and Axe recently added a human face aimed at appealing to its male clientele -- Jennie from Axe, actually part of the brand's team at PR shop Edelman.
It remains to be seen, however, whether brands' Facebook pages will become a force even bigger than their own brand websites.
As of last week, Axe's Facebook page had fewer than half the fans that its most recent campaign website -- AxeHairCrisisRelief.org -- attracted in one month last June in the U.S. alone, per Compete.com. The 200,000 fans of P&G's Pampers on Facebook are dwarfed by 1.5 million monthly visitors (per Compete) to Pampers.com, which anchors one of several online relationship programs with seven-figure databases for P&G brands.
Then again, in many cases those databases have been in development for more than a decade. And, as a counter-example, Coca-Cola's 5 million Facebook fans easily outnumber the roughly 300,000 monthly U.S. visitors to its brand website, and came largely without the brand's involvement, or, until last year, even formal consent.
Channeling rather than parking
Among the more-interesting signs of Facebook's emergence as a marketing tool over the past year have been marketers trying to channel the intrinsic power of the networking site rather than using it as a place to host content they might once have parked on their brand sites.
American Honda Motors Co. did increase the fans of its Facebook page nearly fivefold to more than 300,000 through its "Everybody Knows Someone Who Loves a Honda" campaign, launched in October. But the point really was to point out that everyone knows a Honda lover, and to that end the campaign website has calculated more than 3 million friends of self-proclaimed Honda lovers.
And Ikea in August used one of Facebook's most-popular functions -- photo tagging -- to promote the opening of a new store in Malmo, Sweden. Agency Forsman & Bodenfors created a Facebook profile for the store's manager, Gordon Gustavsson, and posted about a dozen photos of Ikea showrooms. Whoever was first to tag his name on the items in the pictures won them, encouraging people to tell their friends about the deals (at least after tagging one for themselves).
It's hard to know what additional ways marketers will find to use Facebook's ability to connect with consumers. But with the biggest ones now clearly committed to tapping the network's potential, they'll soon find more.