What Happens When Facebook Trumps Your Brand Site?

'Like' It or Not, Trend Serves as Another Telling Sign of Social Media's Growing Dominance

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- While the tech world obsessed about when Facebook would turn on location and morph into a "Foursquare killer," the social network has quietly become something else: the biggest relationship-marketing provider for many brands.

Biggest Facebook Fan Pages

BIGGEST FACEBOOK FAN PAGES: While U.S. web traffic to brand websites rarely exceeds six figures, DBMS can already count 37 branded Facebook pages with at least a million fans just among CPG, retail, pharmaceutical and fast-food marketers.

For many marketers, their Facebook fan bases have become their largest web presence, outstripping brand sites or e-mail programs either because a brand's traditional web-based "owned media" is atrophying or because more consumers are migrating to social media.

Coca-Cola, with its 10.7 million Facebook fans, has three to four times the Facebook fan base as MyTown and Foursquare have registered users. (There are at least 11 brands whose Facebook fan pages have quietly grown bigger than the biggest geo-location providers.) That certainly trumps U.S. unique visitors to Coke's brand website, which fell by more than 40% to 242,000 in July compared to a year ago, per Compete.

Kraft Foods' Oreo is the No. 3 brand page on Facebook as tracked by DBM/Scan, with an 8.7 million fan base growing at a clip of 71,000 a day. But the multi-brand site where its web presence has been hosted, NabiscoWorld.com, has seen U.S. traffic decline from 1.2 million in July 2009 to 321,000 last month.

While fan pages may work a lot like a marketer's traditional "owned media," they're not actually owned by the marketers. Facebook hosts the pages and provides analytics for free, but growing marketer dependency on the network for CRM programs, combined with simultaneous declines in traffic for many of their own brand websites, could give Facebook a valuable revenue opportunity.

Clearly much of the audience migration from brand sites to Facebook pages is by marketer design. Increasingly tags on TV and print ads that used to direct people to brand websites now direct them to Facebook fan pages, noted Daniel Cummings, business development director for DBM/Scan, a firm that tracks relationship marketing programs for packaged goods, quick-serve restaurants, pharmaceutical marketers and retailers.

DBM/Scan thinks of Facebook as "a big-list broker like Experian," Mr. Cummings said, albeit with big differences, such as being free -- for now.

DBM/Scan tracks 560 such branded Facebook fan pages created since April 2008. Pampers has seen its Facebook fan count shoot north of 327,000 in recent months. But Pampers.com has lost even more people in terms of traffic, much of it driven by its e-mail programs. The site's unique monthly U.S. visitor count was 560,000 last month, down almost half from the 1.1 million a year ago, according to Compete.com.

The decline of web traffic isn't universal for marketers with big Facebook fan followings. The current reigning champ of branded Facebook pages, Starbucks, has seen fairly steady web traffic over the past year, according to Compete, even as it built its Facebook presence to 12.7 million fans. But like other retailers or fast feeders that have maintained web traffic amid growth in Facebook fandom, Starbucks.com also has substantial e-commerce traffic.

Similarly Walgreens, while building a Facebook fan base of more than 500,000, has seen no dropoff in traffic, which hit 6.7 million in July, according to Compete.

Within Facebook, Walgreens is finding what works best are fairly frequent short updates, often ones that involve posing a question that prompts a response, said Rich Lesperance, director-online marketing for the retailer.

Facebook is now telling marketers such as Procter & Gamble Co. to focus on status updates rather than other applications that can be harder to get adopted or track, said Michael Stich, group director-strategic planning for WPP's digital and relationship marketing agency Bridge Worldwide, which works with P&G.

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