Oh, we of little faith. A couple of weeks ago, we were moved to question all things Facebook - its all-too-brief sojourn as a flavour of the month (or about a year, all told) was, we reflected, perhaps coming to a conclusion.
Of course, this had nothing to do with the numbers. After all, its audience continues to grow, and it still generates vast acres of media coverage. More to the point was the fact it was gearing up to sell itself more coherently to advertisers.
Similar to many cultural artefacts, popular websites are at their most attractive when they're at their least commercial. Facebook was surely about to become just another desperately slick advertising channel. The new economy savants and digital gurus who had evangelised on its behalf this time last year were now stifling yawns with the backs of their hands every time Facebook was mentioned. Oh well. Dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.
But wait. Last week, Facebook served notice it was far from done. It announced, to the sound of great fanfares, that it is undertaking no less a mission than a total reinvention of the relationship between brands and their audiences. November 2007, it urges us to believe, will come to be seen as the dawning of the age of the "fansumer" - an even more brand-loyal version of the old-fashioned consumer, one who buys products as a way of making a big statement about who they are. "For the past hundred years, media has been pushed out to people. Marketers are now going to be a part of the conversation," Facebook's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said at a presentation in New York last week.
This will be achieved very simply. Advertisers can now set up brand-specific Facebook pages, and other Facebook users can contribute to these pages, take advantage of digital content offerings they find there (software applications and music downloads, principally) and add these sites to their lists of friends. Facebook has also begun offering tighter demographic targeting for advertisers buying into its existing banner ad sites.
Impressed? Will Phipps, the media planning and strategy director at Profero, reckons he is, but he emphasises that brands will have to work hard to ensure they interact productively with their audience. He adds: "We're all keen to see how it works, but it's clear your product will have to be something people want to begin with. Some advertisers will never be an attractive proposition (on the site)."
Marco Bertozzi, the head of digital at ZenithOptimedia, agrees that service will be absolutely crucial. He explains: "It should be seen as a brand opportunity rather than being used as a campaign initiative. It has to be an all-year-round thing. You don't think much of a friend who rings you a couple of times and then disappears for two months. But, in general, the model is sound as long as everyone is clear about the effort required."
Absolutely, Niku Banaie, a managing partner at Naked Communications, agrees. It can be made to work, he says, but not for everybody. He explains: "There's a small amount of products that can make sense of this - principally cool and of-the-moment products such as the iPhone. I'm not sure you could generate a community for, say, household bleach. That is an agency role. It will be up to agencies to generate the ideas to attract people."
But Nigel Sheldon, the director of digital at Starcom, points out that we've seen plenty of pointers as to how it can be done. "There have already been clever examples of advertisers tuning into Facebook conversations. For instance, the 'Bring Back Wispa' campaign," he points out. "The bottom line is that anything growing at the rate Facebook is growing will be of interest to advertisers, and from our perspective, it's interesting London continues to be its fastest-growing city. Facebook is a centre of gravity for an increasing number of people, and, for many, it's even replacing e-mail. So the tools that it recently unveiled have to be a useful new place to start from."
YES - Will Phipps, media planning and strategy director, Profero
"With the new approach, it feels as if the product is not only endorsed by Facebook, it's as if it is a recommendation from one of your mates. Brands will need to service their audience more than they've ever done."
YES - Marco Bertozzi, head of digtal, Zenith-Optimedia
"Where the individual advertisers are concerned, the content will have to be bloody good. Advertisers will be judged on the way they deal with fans - they have to be willing to interact with the comments people post."
YES - Niku Banaie, managing partner, Naked Communications
"It will be about harnessing big ideas - the big social, political or cultural initiatives we know can capture emotions. It won't be for everyone, but we have to be glad that Facebook is pushing new formats."
YES - Nigel Sheldon, director of digital, Starcom
"Just putting up an advertiser page does not mean you will necessarily be welcomed into a conversation, but if advertisers can genuinely share people's interests, it can become a powerful thing. Once something catches on, then the multiplier effect can be staggering."
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