Tuesday 21 April 2009

Is Facebook (or will it ever be) any good for business?

When I added the final remarks to my last post it was a couple of weeks after Facebook's 'Twitterization' of its news feed and introduction of the much-criticized righthand 'Highlights' column - a blatant attempt to force-feed the user with spam-like advertising content from company pages.

At that time the general opinion in social-web-guruland was that Facebook might - at last - have got it 'right' for business and provided itself with the possibility of a decent income stream (I refuse to use the pera-ugly word monetise). Since then opinion has fragmented and swayed back and forth as the gurus get to grips with everyday Facebook usage.

And now they, like most FB users, are not very happy. And the same applies to FB's big competitor MySpace. A recent study for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, reported at Guardian.co.uk showed that
"31% of social networking website users disliked the barrage of notifications and requests to join various groups or try applications. Research by the IAB also suggested that despite the rush by brands to tap into the potential of websites such as Facebook and MySpace, the reality is that users are turned off by marketing tactics. Only 5% of those surveyed said they had signed up to a social networking profile set up or sponsored by a brand."

This is exactly what I would expect. Facebook is personal. A private experience. It is for family and friends. They say as much in their strapline. It is clear in the main competitor's name: MY SPACE. The average FB user has approximately 120 friends. I have 80 friends. 20 of those are family or close friends, and I can say I am in regular contact with them. The other 60 are old acquaintances from school days or people I know locally here in Greece who have recently joined the social networking phenomenon as ADSL, and more importantly, flat-rate monthly charges have come to the island.

But that 60 are only there because I happen to know them. We have little in common. School acquintances go their seperate ways over 35 years, and though it's nice to know they are there, contact with them is not an everyday thing. Most of my local Corfiot friends seem preoccupied with nightclubs, Greek pop idols and motorcycles - none of them my scene. And therein lies the problem for FB users. Just because a 'friend' of mine has become a fan of some particular superbike page, it doesn't mean I want it stuffed in MY FACE - MY SPACE - all the time. Yes, if it is in the news feed in the centre of the page you can hide it. But in the righthand 'highlights' column you can't. Facebook decide what you see there.

In extreme cases this means that people have been deleting their 'friends' - those whose activities they can't themselves tolerate. I have regretfully deleted two for this reason. And a lot of people have been removing themselves from groups and fan pages rather than try and work out how not to see constant 'spam'.

So where does this leave Facebook and business? The average number of friends per FB user and the problem described above - and by the IAB research - should tell us everything. Facebook users don't like to feel 'controlled'. Until FB bites the bullet and goes for unobtrusive text-only targeted paid advertising in the right column à la Google then no one will be happy. Even then people will moan, but they will get used to it like they have with Google. The facts of life are these: free site = ads; subscription site = no ads (except of course for the likes of the huge genealogy site Ancestry.com which is subscription and carries ads... bit OTT methinks). With no trickery, and honest, straighforward, unobtrusive ads the Facebook user will at least feel THEIR SPACE is not manipulated in such an irritating manner as at present.

However, please have a Facebook page for your business. There's no harm in it, and you can keep it fresh with minimal effort by piping in a company blog and Twitter feeds and so on. You can use FB pages both Internally and Externally - internally a bit like an old fashioned social club for your employees and externally for the general public/customers - fans.

The bottom line for FB business pages is this: big biz do have very big fan bases; small biz small ones. Don't imagine FB can turn your small biz into a big one. For almost all business it can't (Possible exceptions? Bands?). You have to do that elsewhere by more trad methods, and then the fans will find your FB page. And my advice is don't be pushy - until FB takes the Google Ad way, don't get in MY FACE!