Sept. 1 marked six months since Facebook automatically switched brand pages from news-feed-style pages to the "Pages for Business," or Timeline view. Almost immediately, there was a flurry of panic about a reduction in engagement with brands due to the switch. Yet there's clearly plenty of debate: A brief search in Google reveals as many articles stating that engagement has increased as articles stating it has decreased since the introduction of Timeline -- with further confusion resulting from different ways of measuring engagement and competing points of view from reputable sources such as Reuters and the research firm Ipsos, as well as comScore.
So in the midst of all this confusion, how should brands think about Facebook Timeline? What is working? What should they measure? Is successful engagement possible? Where are brands succeeding? Struggling? What are the key insights learned about Timeline in the past six months?
Brand Timelines are here to stay
Like it or not, brands need to accept that brand Timelines are here to stay and start looking on them as an opportunity to step up their creativity game -- to really look at what consumers want when they connect with a brand on Facebook. The job at hand is to look for ways to make Timeline pages compelling, engaging, and successful with their opted-in fans. When brands give consumers interesting and fun things to do on their Timeline -- ideally making them appear smart, witty, funny, or sexy in the process -- they start down the road of turning fans into long-term paying, loving customers.
Timeline disrupted traffic measurement
When Timeline for brands launched, one of the most significant changes was the discontinuation of branded "landing pages" (i.e., essentially a brand's homepage for Facebook). Many companies, such as Buddy Media, built a successful business on crafting those landing pages for brands.
The change caused a major disruption in the way traffic was measured to landing pages, and mainstream media has continued to report that traffic to brand custom tabs has dropped since Timeline view launched. Yet, they are comparing a time when traffic was "force funneled" into a landing page default, to now, when traffic is not.
Taking away landing pages also caused a major marketing disruption. To brand marketers, the Facebook default landing page approach was straightforward, understandable, and web-like. It allowed brands to repurpose thinking (and assets) they already were using on websites and microsites. Traffic didn't need to be driven to those pages. They didn't need to be promoted effectively. But none of this was necessarily a good thing. It didn't foster social creativity in marketing. The switch to Timeline has challenged brands to come up with alternative marketing methods on Facebook. Some brands have risen to that challenge, but many have not.
Get engaged with apps
The more creative and socially savvy brands tend to look holistically, judging the success of their Timelines beyond the quantity of traffic and the number of fans they have attracted to their page, to measuring how their fans engage with their content. To significantly affect engagement on a page, brands need to go beyond posting links to their websites -- still remarkably standard practice. Sending fans elsewhere discourages engagement.
Instead, brands should use their Timelines for producing regular, diverse, and interesting posts that prompt comments, feedback, and discussion on Facebook. At the very minimum, brands should focus on watching the following Facebook Insights numbers:
- Daily engaged users
- Daily content "liked"
- Daily content shares
- Daily organic impressions
- PTAT number
- Fan count change
One of the very best ways to foster engagement is through an engagement app installed on Facebook. Engagement apps power social sharing and provide more options for fans to participate with the brand.
Comparing a few travel pages can reveal the variety of approaches brand marketers are taking to content and engagement:
The Visit Florida page put up beautiful photos and clearly has passionate fans. However, the links to Guides, Sweepstakes, and Deals (on the "tiles" under the cover photo) all send the fan off Facebook -- missing a great opportunity to prompt even more engagement.
The Visit Las Vegas page has provided a little more on-site fun, but still offers little opportunity for participating on a personal level on Facebook with the Sports Illustrated, Summer, or Sign the Oath apps. If ever there was a brand likely to have opportunities for sharing fun and edgy content on Facebook, it would be Visit Las Vegas. But the brand offers essentially repurposed web campaigns that send fans offsite at the crucial moment, with little opportunity for comments and sharing.
Visit Norway USA recently ran a 45-day engagement app that acknowledged the social nature of Facebook, offered varied and integrated content that allowed fans to participate, and boosted numbers successfully. Through an engagement app on the site, designed and built by Friend2Friend, the brand posted new quizzes and photos each day that fans could share, resulting in a 195 percent lift in new Facebook fans, a 6,500 percent increase in daily "likes" of page content, and a PTAT (People Talking About This) increase of 1,101 percent over the pre-campaign engagement. In addition, the app enhanced website referrals -- Discover Norway saw a 238 percent lift in referral traffic from Facebook to the brand's main website, with a 40 percent year-over-year gain in website traffic as a result.
Timeline best practices
- Design and build compelling engagement apps that speak in a meaningful way to the brand's audience and capture the brand's essence.
- Don't expect fans to "find" the apps from clicking the tiles below the cover photo. Drive traffic to that engagement app, post about it in the Timeline every day, and drive through other media.
- Make sure apps are mobile-aware. Visit your favorite brand page on the Facebook mobile app. Find a link in the Timeline to an app. In most cases, the link doesn't work. With extra effort, it's possible to ensure that engagement apps run optimally on both Facebook desktop and Facebook mobile.
- Strive to deliver fresh, engaging content every day (questions, challenges, daily prizes, sweepstakes entries, comments) to entertain fans and keep them coming back.
- Include engaging media (photos, videos) to grab attention.
- Incorporate user-submitted content if possible. This not only gives the fan a personal feeling of participation, but also gives the brand interesting content that can be used as the subject of future posts.
- Look at ways gamification elements, like leaderboards, can juice engagement.
Bad Timeline habits
- Engagement apps that pull fans away from the Facebook page and funnel them onto a website cause fans to lose the social context and limit the potential of word-of-mouth sharing on Facebook.
- Facebook is special, yet many brands don't offer Facebook fans something unique they can't get anywhere else. Leverage the highest share possible -- one from a valued and trusted friend -- and give Facebook fans something unique.
- Brands tend to be averse to tapping advocates to learn and connect deeply. There's a huge amount of insight to be gained from the fans that are willing to talk about what they've bought or experienced.
- Brands that don't maximize the full potential of Facebook ad products (ads, Sponsored Stories) to drive more traffic and maximize reach miss out on engagement. Those ad products are designed to amplify good social behaviors to a wider audience and can be highly leveraged.
Engaging Timelines are a game changer
Brand Timelines, done right, can be a game changer. Facebook is the largest branded online community ever, offering huge opportunities for brands to use fans as advocates and amplifiers of brand messages. When brands use "social actions" (sharing, "liking," commenting, participation) as the lubrication for engagement, they will find their Timelines can become lively and interesting places for fans to gather. In the six months since Timeline launched, some brands have risen to the challenge, but many more are still climbing. Repurposing what's been done for the past 10 years on branded websites is not the approach. Before we call the success, or otherwise, of Timeline, brands need to keep pushing the innovation envelope and embrace Timeline as a new branded social context that requires its own set of measurements and its own consumer engagement system.
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"Timeline concept" image via Shutterstock.