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Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

Feeding the needs of fickle fans

A report in U.S. advertising publication Advertising Age a little while ago highlighted the interesting fact that for many companies, a presence in social media network Facebook is becoming statistically more popular than their own brand websites. With an explosion in Facebook membership over the past few years, many internet users are turning more frequently to the networking website as a source of online information by subscribing to product or company “fan pages“.

What the statistics don’t tell us, though, is whether the dedicated brand websites are being abandoned because Facebook is a better means of communication, or whether they are losing visitors because they are poorly created and lack information in their own right.

Facebook users who click on the ubiquitous “Like” button, whether on an external website or within Facebook itself, are subsequently provided with further information relating to the product or service on their Facebook home page. My own home page often contains news items and links shared by Burson-Marsteller, Adobe, photography websites and several online media outlets. I see a new article on the Adobe Lightroom fan page that reminds me to check out photoshop.com, while Apple tells me that if I’m a Harry Potter fan, I can download a free game app for my iPhone. All of this information comes to me at no cost, and I can see it without making any real effort.

The Facebook home page is a constant stream of what’s happening in the world of people, products and services. I automatically have the latest information delivered whenever I need it: over a coffee first thing in the morning; at lunchtime, before heading back to work; or in the evening, when friends and family are posting photos or sharing links they’ve found. Such channels are immensely powerful; the captive Facebook audience is continually being fed information. Somehow, advertising (which would otherwise be seen as intrusive) is accepted and even welcomed, as long as it’s in the form of a “status update”. By targeting news to “fans” of your product, you reinforce brand loyalty with little effort; a simple Facebook update is much easier than extending a dedicated website and trying to work out a good way of marketing it.

Facebook has gone so far as to recommend to Procter & Gamble Co. that they concentrate their social media marketing efforts on the simple status update, rather than the more expensive, complex and less frequently adopted Facebook Application as a main means of communicating with their fans.

So, does this mean that the traditional website is dying out? The statistics mentioned in the article give examples of how prominent brand websites are seeing a marked reduction in traffic: nabiscoworld.com, run by the makers of Oreo cookies, saw a drop from 1.2 million visitors in July 2009 to 321,000 in July 2010. The Coke brand website also lost massively; in their case, a 40% drop in traffic over the course of the last year.

Such alarming statistics will flag up a requirement for such manufacturers to act: and many of them will see the increase in attention through social media networks as an indicator that this is a mainstream of potential revenue. However, companies must resist the gut reaction to shift all of their focus onto social media channels. First, they should re-evaluate the real reasons why attention is falling away from their brand website in the first place.

While social media channels offer a direct route to existing and potential customers, they involve many limitations. A company brand – one of the most important aspects of any marketing initiative – is more difficult to maintain in generic social media circles. There are a huge number of people signed up to Facebook, but there are still many people who can’t be reached through this channel. Want to implement a great new brand-based design or extensive information platform? Neither of these options is fully possible through Facebook.

Perhaps most importantly, users of social media channels such as Facebook are at the beckon call of the owners of these channels. Breach the terms of use and you could find your fan base lost as your Facebook presence is deactivated; or worse, deleted.

Before taking the drastic action of cutting the budget for a brand website to focus on social media channels, think of the long-term effects. How are you going to provide your visitors and customers with all of the information they are looking for, through a channel for which you retain complete control and which can be monitored and managed independently? The best way of achieving this online – proven over more than a decade of continually increasing commercial activity – is the bespoke brand (or company) website.

Use social media channels for the purpose to which they are best suited. Studies indicate that after the primary use of keeping in touch with friends and family, many users indicate a “like” for a brand, or sign up for updates, in order to keep abreast of what it happening with the company or to receive product information.

Consumers are often encouraged to interact through a Facebook page in order to receive discounts – as is the case with the aforementioned Oreo page – and many users even “like” a page in order to align themselves socially and present themselves in a certain way. Social media channels are therefore an excellent way of increasing visibility for your brand, gaining a “fan base” and allowing the fans to both gain and exchange up-to-date information.

However, the detailed and targeted brand message can be communicated much more effectively and extensively through a linked, dedicated external website. This is where the focus of the brand message should be concentrated, so that those people being notified through social media channels can click through to receive more extensive information. If the supporting brand website is poorly conceived, then the efforts in building a popular social media presence will only be partially successful.

The Nabisco World website, for example, is poorly designed and out-of-date, with the main landing page focusing on games and promotions rather than going all-out to present the brands in an attractive and informative way. Visiting the landing page of the Coke website focused on Switzerland doesn’t tell me anything about the company or the product: it simply shows me a pretty image and a slowly rotating series of teaser images for Coke-related marketing activity.

Do these examples perhaps lead online visitors – who have historically been encouraged towards a short attention span – to leave the websites quickly, without delving deeper into the website?

The statistics show us the result of a poorly planned website and online marketing concept: visitors stop coming to the website. Because of the ease of use of social media channels, and the familiarity of every page being presented in the same main layout within Facebook, users prefer an environment where they can get what they want while expending as little effort as possible. Take this into account and re-visit your own website not as a seller, but as a customer. Does the website tell you what you want to know? Is it easy to use? Does it present a challenge to visitors or put a barrier between them and the information they want?

If the answers are no, no and yes respectively, it isn’t time to move shop to Facebook, but time to re-evaluate and re-develop your brand website.