PR best way to convey social networks' changing visions

Any company that changes its strategy midstream is bound to contend with the incumbent weight of its initial vision. One of the latest companies to encounter such a challenge is social networking site Facebook.

Any company that changes its strategy midstream is bound to contend with the incumbent weight of its initial vision. One of the latest companies to encounter such a challenge is social networking site Facebook.

Whereas competitors MySpace and lamented Friendster have always been free-for-alls with the entire online populace invited, Facebook launched, initially, as a place for Harvard University students. Later, it expanded to include college students and, eventually, high school students.

Now that it's opened its doors to all comers and helped create a new approach to social networking, the company is looking to expand its base. But Facebook must contend with members of the unaware public, like a colleague who rebuffed my advice to join Facebook because he contended that it was for kids. After all, it's LinkedIn that seems to have gained the reputation of being the network for businesspeople.

But Facebook has a compelling story to tell for business professionals. The company has fashioned itself as the open-source social network where you can upload widgets and create networking groups for your company or industry. The PR industry alone has a number of groups.

In a convoluted world, new companies constantly face Facebook's challenge because business-strategy transitions are more the norm than the exception.

AOL has switched from being an ISP to a free content provider, Yahoo has switched from being a search engine to a global hub, and Google has switched from a search engine to an information company. Pretty much any company these days has altered its vision. Compare Microsoft, Amazon.com, and Apple in 2007 with where they were in 1997.

It is perhaps unsurprising to readers of this publication that I would suggest that PR is the best marketing discipline to effect change in the minds of consumers when your company has changed so much.

Apple's advertisements are great for when the company launches its iPhone or latest iPod because products are often easily demonstrated in 30 seconds. But if you want to know why Apple is now a multimedia company, it's best to turn to John Heilemann's profile of Steve Jobs in the recent New York magazine.

What would a Facebook advertising campaign look like? Perhaps a smattering of profiles from the 40- and 50-year-old set with the tagline, "Facebook: now for everyone." That won't do.

Thus, it's up to the PR pros at social networks to reach out to the media or consumers to explain why their social network is now for everyone.

Of course, the two companies' individual successes hinge on the larger question of why a person should join a social network in the first place. While that answer is not within this column's focus, I'd hope that every PR pro reading this realizes why they and their clients or company should be online. And if you are on Facebook, you can join our PRWeek Networkers group.

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