Long live Facebook for retail in 2014

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There has been much uproar over Facebook’s December 2 tweak to its EdgeRank algorithm and how it negatively affects the News Feed reach of business brand page updates. Nicholas Carlson over at Business Insider has infact claimed that “Facebook screwed lots of online retailers just in time for the holidays,” and in a way he’s right of course:

It has been a less profitable holiday season for many online retailers thanks to a small change Facebook made to how the site works.

Facebook’s News Feed — with all its eyeballs, engagement, community and domination of the mobile phone experience — has become a key influencer along the path to purchase, and is a key pillar of any self-respecting businesses’ marketing strategy for retailers, the food & beverage industry, travel … just about everyone actually.

However, the businesses’ continued reliance on their brand pages and Facebook promotions such as like gates, contest apps, surveys and “highly engaging timely content,” — which has never actually been the best way to use Facebook for marketing — that is the real problem.

It’s 2014 and it should be every marketer’s New Year’s resolution to try and truly understand how Facebook works and break free from their increasingly hidden fan pages. Admittedly it’s not easy, because even Facebook’s own solution for businesses (more and more targeted advertising) is not even the best way to speak to your customers on Facebook.

So what is the solution? The key to understanding Facebook is to understanding why it acquired 1.2 billion-plus users. The simple answer to that question is that it allowed people to simply connect with friends. “Connect” in this case meaning communicating and sharing experiences, ideas, and messages, through the digital formats of text, photos and video. That’s all reasonably well-understood … but what businesses tend to overlook though is the “with friends” part.

Other than marketing people and analysts, few of those 1.2 billion Facebook users created accounts because they wanted to be informed on what was happening at Proctor and Gamble, what new products were available at the Gap or how much Absolut Vodka loves Christmas. Between TV, online advertising, e-commerce and blogs, there were plenty of existing channels already happily broadcasting that information at you.  People created their “social” Facebook accounts because they want to share what they are up to with their friends… oh and er… yes, to see what their friends are up to also: people which whom they have real relationships.

Friends-of-friends is still the most powerful and natural conversation happening on Facebook. This is why Facebook so carefully keeps tweaking EdgeRank: to ensure that those powerful conversations continue to surface prominently in the newsfeed to retain the primary value of the Facebook service to its users.

So the real challenge to a Facebook marketer becomes how to get friends talking to friends about brands and retailers on Facebook in the natural manner that friends use. To get native content in the News Feed created by the users themselves (truly native Facebook advertising). “Brand advocates” is a term you’ll be increasingly hearing as innovative marketers look to the Facebook population as a source of marketing not just an audience.

This challenge is complex, but the rewards are worth it. Friends’ News Feed updates can reach far, due to their higher engagement rate versus fan page updates. Friends’ News Feed updates are more trusted by friends than your fan page updates, and friends often are friends because of similar interests.  A post made by your friend is a recommendation, not an ad. People love recommendations; people think they hate ads. Most importantly, these recommendations reach new consumers that fan pages do not.

Solving this challenge requires the proper integration of digital and real world marketing efforts. Effort and money marketers are already spending. When executed creatively, brands’ interactions with their customers in the real world, gives them the ability to tap into that consumer’s network of friends in the social world.

Don’t think Facebook users are willing to participate in your marketing schemes? Next time you see a movie recommendation, a picture of a juicy steak that tags a restaurant or a picture of someone’s favorite new shoes on your News Feed, think again. Turning up the dial on existing user behavior can be done by savvy social marketers.

2014 is a new year. Is Facebook ad buying going to be just another line item your business checks off or are you going to accept the challenge of tackling the huge opportunity of having your retail brand succeed on social in a new way… the right way?

unnamedTimothy Brown is a social media marketing veteran developer of multiple apps and web properties covered in publications such as Time, Forbes, GQ and Wired. Presently he is the co-founder of Reqvu, Inc. a company that specializes in social word of mouth.

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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