I had been getting emails from clients all week. They were noticing new pages spring up on Facebook under their brand name. Only problem is they had no apparent control of these pages which seemed to only feature a Wikipedia article and aggregated wall post comments from people. Some seemed to feature company logos. When I asked one of my Facebook contacts in our WPPDigital meeting about them, he kind of shook his head in acknowledgment and said, "Yeah, there have been a lot of questions about that. I'm told we are working on a memo that explains it. They plan to have it by tomorrow." It's been a few days and no memo. But for those of you who have dealt with Facebook directly, this delay is not all that meaningful. (almost every inaction from Facebook is met with the same explanation - 'With a 1000 people to serve 500 million, they are just swamped.')
Here's what is going on and you can jump to the end where I suggest 4 things brands should do today.
On April 19th, Facebook announced the creation of Community Pages. You can see their blog entry explanation here. Essentially, they are a new breed of topical page tied to user's stated profile interests. I am a fan of Denis Johnson's book Tree of Smoke and put it in my profile a while back. Now that test links from my profile to a page dedicated to the bookand featuring the Wikipedia article as well as facebook user wallposts. Most of the reaction from critics so far has been from the users perspective. But there is a risk for brands, as well.
It Matters Today...
Brands are upset. This is a bit of a slow rollout or test depending on how you look at it. These pages aren't everywhere...yet. Some feature logos. Some show up for the brand in Facebook search. This makes them a threat to brands who are spending a lot of time, if not advertising dollars, on Facebook developing their own brand presence. They get in the way, potentially confuse users, and, especially those featuring logos, suggest that they are brand sponsored pages. I like staying at W Hotels (and Marriott, Intercontinental and Kimptons). Is this Community Page featuring the Starwood logo"sanctioned" by Starwood (that's the W Hotels group)? What would it mean to sanction to the point of featuring the logo? Also, the language at the top of the page is just phrased wrong as it seems to come from the brand:
"Our goal (my emphasis) is to make this Community Page the best collection of shared knowledge on this topic. If you have a passion for W Hotels, sign up and we'll let you know when we're ready for your help. You can also get us started by suggesting the Official Facebook Page."
Most brands in Phase 2 of their Facebook use have spent a fair amount of energy culling the english garden-growth of brand related pages. They have gone through and brought the miscellaneous pages from employees in the Phillipines, the franchisee in Lubbock, and the factory in India into alignment with the brand. Many have "taken over" unofficial pages that infringe on copyright from miscellaneous fans. Now, all of the sudden, Facebook seems to launch a new wave of brand clutter.
Did they do it to spawn more pages for advertising? Is this a mild form of brandjacking like Seth Godin's Brands in Public or BzzAgent's Bzzscapes? Are the pages meant to motivate brands to buy advertising to sit alongside the user-generated content to get their side of the story in front of folks?
It all seems to fly in the face of Facebook's business interests (i.e. avoid poking sharp stick in eye of he/she who pays you). Facebook has a dual allegiance - the user and the advertiser - and, rightly so, the user's interests most often trump the advertiser. That's as it should be. Still, the user benefit of the Community Pages is not clear. If you want to see what facebook users are posting about a brand inside Facebook just use www.youropenbook.org.
But It Won't Tomorrow
There are three reasons why this troubling development won't really matter to brands tomorrow.First, Facebook has demonstrated its "Ready, Fire, Aim" approach to innovation many times before.They are conditioning users to the idea that they will deploy something, hear from their constituents and revise their position accordingly. They did it on Beacon, they did it this weekend on user privacy. Given enough brand feedback, they will likely change their approach. I would certainly expect that not only will logos go away but there will be some type of framing statement on pages clarifying that these are not official brand pages. Many businesses will demand this as anything less presents a liability and potential threat to their customers (think pharma clients where users post off-label uses that may be dangerous).
Secondly, look at all the attention Facebook is paying to major brands.They routinely have them fly out to Palo Alto to hear the roadmap and the advertising sales pitch. They are doing all they can to convert brand fascination and dabbling into full belief in the compound effect of engagement advertising within Facebook. The "go-public" strategy for Facebook will only be strengthened by a thriving advertising-fueled business model.
Lastly, read the Fortune excerpt of David Fitzpatrick's book on Facebook and its founding.It supports the idea that Mark Zuckerburg is earnest about figuring the business side of his business out. The fact that he is making adjustments on the engine as the car races around the track is just their way. The stories of the early entry of the company into the valley suggests that he has a level business head and is hungry to learn.
Ultimately, Facebook will position community pages correctly and people will determine if those pages are useful. You can bet they will become a staple of the brand ad buy but will those pages really become valuable to the end user?
Four Actions Brands Can Take Now
Rather than bunker in to crisis mode, brands can do four things:
1. When you travel to Palo Alto to meet with the gang at Facebook and discuss why your minimum spend should be at least $1M per brand/product this year, make sure to blurt out at a critical moment, "Hey, what's up with those community pages?" The more they hear from brands, the more likely they are to change their approach. It works when users speak up.
2. Next, call your Facebook sales rep (they tend to be regional) and tell him you want your brand marks off the community page (assuming you object). I am guessing that they can make that happen pretty quick and are obligated by law to take care of that.
3. Third - take renewed interest in your Wikipedia page. Chances are you are already doing that and have done all that is possible to cause it to be factually accurate.
4. Most importantly, do what you have hopefully been doing all along, keep pushing your proactive social media program to activate positive word of mouth and keep making great products and services. Are the Community Pages really that much different than a Google search that returns a bunch of blog posts, the Wikipedia article for your brand, use-created videos and more? 25% of the top Google search results for the top 100 brands are user generated content.The strategy for improving those results is to do all that you can to generate positive third party endorsements. Do more of that. It works.