PR pros on the ascendancy of Facebook

Less than a year ago, Facebook was only populated by college students. Now, the social network is growing faster than any other, mostly among people over 25, providing a meeting place for social advocates of various demographics and new business opportunities for communications professionals.

Less than a year ago, Facebook was only populated by college students. Now, the social network is growing faster than any other, mostly among people over 25, providing a meeting place for social advocates of various demographics and new business opportunities for communications professionals.

We’ve asked PR pros for some insight into how they’re using the network as a communications tool and how it fares next to major competitors. Thus far, the consensus is that Facebook really took off when it established an open API platform for creating applications. The majority also agreed that professionals must build a profile and become part of the culture in order to use the network effectively. This list will be updated as more responses come in. To contribute, e-mail Alexandra.Bruell@prweek.com

Brian Reich
Cone, director of new media

We have clients creating profiles and groups, posting updates and building a following -- the obvious things. We are working to develop applications for a few clients, to help trigger different kinds of actions - pledging, registering to vote, and the like. For one client, the Alliance for Climate Protection, we have partnered with Project Agape to create an option for Facebook users to make donations and recruit supporters through their profiles -- the dollars are still very small, but we are learning a lot about what users expect from an organization before they donate. 
 
For the most part, however, we are spending our time watching and listening. There are some good models out there for successful engagement that we have seen, and a number of clients are anxious to experiment and break new ground. But, Facebook continues to grow in popularity because of its authenticity and we don't want to do anything that jeopardizes that, or our clients in the process. Even in opening up their application to outside developers, Facebook has managed to keep its community... well, a community. It is not the social networking functionality that makes Facebook successful - those tools are available on dozens of different sites -- the success comes from the people, the intimacy and trust that exists between friends, the fact that control exists with the user and not the marketers. Until we are confident that we can help a client mount an effort that can credibly tap into that kind of energy, we are happy to be patient, take our cues from the community of Facebook users and put the pieces in place over time. We'd much rather build sustainable programs than have first-mover advantage or a make a big splash that loses energy over time.
 
Too often, organizations suffer from ‘shiny object syndrome,” a terrible affliction that results in the creation of a marketing effort based on whatever is newest or generating the most buzz of the moment, instead of what will be truly effective at delivering a message to a target audience. It happened with blogging a few years ago and it is happening more and more with social networking right now. So, I spend my time experiment with - and directing my clients to consider -- a broad range of options when building a campaign. First thing I do with a client id consider what they are trying to accomplish and how best to tell that story. Then we build a list of options based on possible impact, and not the size of the audience or the number of press clips a tool or online community has received. As a result, we have clients blogging, podcasting and distributing videos through YouTube, Revver and dozens of other sites. We have been testing how Twitter and Pownce, Meebo and Google Chat, building games and simulations, and firing off text messages.  We are just barely scratching the surface of what is possible, especially when you are talking about communicating around causes and serious issues.
 
Facebook is almost always on the list of opportunities we integrate into a campaign -- but it is just one of the many channels that exist for organizations to use in communicating with an audience.  It's the fastest growing social network, and one of the largest and most influential overall, but it is just one of the many options available. It has a great user experience and a growing number of applications (from outside groups) that offer unique and interesting ways to learn about or engage on an issue.  But if I want to connect with people about music, cooking, hockey, getting married, having grandchildren, writing books, or whatever is most interesting to me, there are niche social networks that offer me a more focused experience.  I love Facebook -- I'm a member, a regular user, and a fan.  I am impressed by what they have accomplished and anxious to see how their thinking will help to drive the whole new media space.  But it will always be just one of the tools that I consider with a client. 

Gerald Kimber White
RF/Binder, managing director

In polling some of my colleagues at RFBinder Partners, it seems that most of us use Facebook as just another channel for communicating with the media, our clients, and each other. Some reporters seem to be using Facebook as a way to quickly source story ideas from a trusted circle. We've had some success forging new relationships and securing client visibility through Facebook but there is nothing particularly special about Facebook. We've had similar success with Second Life, LinkedIn, and even AOL IM. And Facebook, like MySpace, carries a certain amount of risk since the line between your personal life and professional life can easily blur (e.g., do you really want your boss, colleagues, and media contacts seeing pictures of you doing the Running Man at last weekend's party?).
 
We're witnessing an explosion of social networking applications and everyone is still figuring out which formats work best for their needs.

John H. Bell
360° Digital Influence – Ogilvy PR Worldwide, managing director/executive creative director

I sample a lot of different social media including lots of social networks. And then there is the “core” – those communities and applications that really speak to me as an individual. Facebook is part of the core (as is Linked In, as is Mashable). [Everyone on] the 360° Digital Influence team are members of Facebook either because it’s part of their core or part of their extended network of experimentation and exploration. We are using Facebook in programs by creating groups and building applications for the Facebook platform. Facebook did something very smart when the established the Facebook Platform this past spring. It opened up new possibilities for anyone – marketers included – to create useful applications that users can include in their profiles.

That being said, in general, Facebook resists the same “marketing saturation” that seems more acceptable in MySpace. Creating a brand presence really requires a commitment to being of-use to the communities in residence.
Everyone compares Facebook to MySpace and at 15 million and 28 million daily visitors respectively, but what people are really commenting on is the rate of growth - just about 300% for Facebook and 72% for MySpace over the last year, June-to-June. MySpace has embraced a kind of “anything goes” aesthetic in terms of marketing and behavior, and this can even be seen in the chaotic design aesthetic. Not only does every band market themselves via MySpace, but tons of brands have pages with lists of friends just to create a presence within a social network. Facebook seems to have more community integrity. It’s harder to create brand pages not tied to a real human being. The power for marketers in Facebook is in developing or joining genuine communities of interest. It forces brands to be a ‘part of’ vs. trying to ‘own’ something. It’s great to see people in advertising, PR and marketing joining up. Many will discover a true interest in being a part of communities within Facebook.

Brian Solis
Future Works, president; PR2.0, blogger

Facebook should first be viewed as a personal reputation management system. It really is, in its most simplistic sense, an online hub for your personal brand for you as individual or person within a company.

It happens to be the network of the moment that brings the people together in a way that we’re used to doing things and wanting to do things. It became that hub, not necessarily by doing groundbreaking or new things, but when it opened its API, people began developing tools within it – it made it stand out.

Everyone jumped into Facebook almost overnight; it’s been explosive ever since. If you’re in PR, jump in there and be a person, learn the culture of Facebook. Get friends, and widgets, and bring together your reputation where you understand the dynamics of a network. When you have that, you’re participating as a person and not a marketer; no one wants to be marketed to.

A lot of times it’s only used for relationship building. For products not publicly released yet, we’ll research throughout the community and see who’s talking about this. Certain people can be reached differently. I have seen PR people create a group or go to an existing group.

Do research, find the right people, and reach out one by one. If you’re part of the social media group and I want to reach you, I can reach everyone - Spam the group, that’s one way to do it.

For example, Robert Scoble, tech blogger, said, if you want to reach me, write on my Facebook wall. He’s been pretty responsive.

We now have the tactics and tools to reach people directly.

David Almacy
Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, VP, digital strategies

What’s valuable about the Web in general and what’s changed in the past 12 -18 months is that instead of just a worldwide Web, the Web is becoming segmented based on interests, brands, and communities. The value of Facebook is it connects those with similar interests and enables them to participate in online dialogue.

The challenge is it’s intended for a younger demographic, college age. Now that they’ve opened it up, there’s discussion to what level non-college would have the ability to interface with those in the communities. The challenge is whether they can develop it into more of a mature online meeting place.

The challenge for businesses and clients is to decide what space is more effective to meet and overcome business challenge. Will Facebook put them in a situation where they are reaching a specified target audience? Is the majority on Facebook using it more casually?

If we have clients who have an interest in reaching a younger audience, in college or recent grads, Facebook provides a unique opportunity to reach that audience. Once people join and create a profile in college, they will probably keep the profile.

Depending on the goal, Facebook may or may not be the best tool to use. It’s a case-by-case base.

We’re taking a look at it. Are we using it in ever circumstance? Probably not. If you form a group on Facebook, once that group hits 1000 members, you can’t e-mail out to everyone in your group. We had a client who considered reaching out to the college audience and met limitations, but those could change down the road.

Facebook is a tremendous resource and connects you with people you might not be able to reach with other networks. It’s an informal gathering place, and before companies delve in, they need to understand the culture, play with the tools and applications.

What are the metrics of the results? Is creating a profile achieving your goal because you’re in that space, or do you want to mobilize people on behalf of a product or idea? You can measure whether you’re getting results from that, for example, by how many people came to events through Facebook. It really comes down to how we succeed in a business challenge.

We pulled together advice for clients interested in creating profiles on Facebook who wanted to know if it would be advantageous to do so. We were pulling that advice for them.

We’re actually pitching a campaign today involving Facebook and will know if it’s effective in a month or so.  On the advertising side, we can measure success through actual click-throughs. Those are more measurable.

B. Bonin Bough
Weber Shandwick, executive vice president,
Interactive, Social and Emerging Media Group

Overall, how does Facebook compare with other social media apps? It is definitely leading the charge today but tomorrow could be a different story. What is great today is that Facebook started off very sincere with the goal of allowing college students to interact and has intelligently scaled to an ad and marketing platform.
 
While we think that Facebook is a compelling opportunity for PR, marketing, political types, and the like, we also think that it is not the only valuable platform around. When developing campaigns, we look at all options before deciding on one or many. What is great about Facebook is the intimate participation it allows between people online. Of course such power comes with responsibility, which is to treat Facebook as a social environment and not place it into a currently understood box. Dialogue, while common to the PR practioner, is somewhat foreign to many marketers. I also personally think that truly uncontrolled dialogue even makes the PR practioner nervous. Facebook is just that: Uncontrolled dialogue, a mirror of society.
 
We tend to ask questions and apply our traditional approaches. Even questions as simple as "how do I know if social media is credible?" are, in some cases, difficult to answer and in many other cases the wrong questions to ask. These types of social media applications really force us to look at the behavioral instincts of the users.  It's not a question of if we think social media applications are credible but if the users think they are credible. Even then credibility is a shifting marker. It is a sort of "opinion economy" where having an authentic dialogue is the only thing that matters.
 
In terms of using Facebook internally, there is a large Weber Shandwick employee membership from all levels. I often receive messages from senior executives - although I have never been "poked" by one, but I guess it is only a matter of time. From an internal communications point of view, I think it has the potential to be an extremely powerful tool once companies and communicators become comfortable with it. I spent a lot of my life designing intranets for global companies and the one thing that holds true across all intranets is that the phone book and the lunch menu are the killer "app". One thing that always bothered me was when you searched for a person all that was returned was their phone, e-mail and, in some cases, their picture. Imagine if instead their Facebook page was returned with all of the rich context of who this person was, their interests, and the people they are connected to. What a powerful tool for building relationships within the work place.
 
From a client perspective, engaging users on Facebook is really about the brand adding value to the community and not just marketing to them. For example, one of our clients puts on a college-based lecture series, and one of the ways we're leveraging Facebook is to update users about upcoming events and, most importantly, to collect questions from students for the presenters. The next events will be broadcast on the Web and students will be able to see their questions asked - and if the questions are not asked at the event, then the speakers responds to them via Facebook.
 
There are a host of other options that Facebook brings to the table, all of which have unique value. I also think it is important to look at places like LinkedIn, which have not grown at the rate of Facebook and does not provide the same options for marketers, but has a very appealing to membership.
 
I will say one thing, the number of invitations and requests I receive from people have grown exponentially over the past six months.

David Haase
Mindshare Interactive, campaign director, Editorial Services

 
Facebook seems to be the hot social networking site right now. As with all things Web 2.0, we assume that will change and a new hot site will emerge, and we’ll deal with that when it occurs.
 
One thing we like about Facebook right now is that it has a more grown-up demographic than MySpace, and for the kinds of corporate, trade association, and nonprofit clients that we cater to, I think we are more comfortable recommending it because it is more likely to reach the audiences we want. (If we had an indie band on our client roster, we might feel differently…)
 
Facebook has all the features of MySpace and an intuitive interface so it’s still easy to use.
 
We have used a Facebook presence in several advocacy campaigns for clients, most recently for “ED in 08,” which is a joint project of the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation to promote education as an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.
 
That campaign is aimed at five distinct audience groups, and we think Facebook will help us reach out to at least two of those.
 
The thing I would caution you about, however, is that we don’t just use Facebook. We use it as part of our arsenal. We don’t ever just recommend one social media or social networking site. They have different purposes, different specialties, different audience demographics … and quite frankly it’s part of our job to pick the social networks that meet our clients’ needs.
 
Sometimes Facebook fits, and sometimes it doesn’t.

 

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