Can brands be friends?

Say what you like about Facebook’s youthful founder, theres no denying his sense of destiny. In a week which has seen an avalanche of activity in the Social Graphic, involving virtually every major brand from MySpace to Google, 23 year old Mark Zuckerberg managed to cap the lot with the breathless announcement of his vision…

Say what you like about Facebook’s youthful founder, there’s no denying his sense of destiny.

In a week which has seen an avalanche of activity in the Social Graphic, involving virtually every major brand from MySpace to Google, 23 year old Mark Zuckerberg managed to cap the lot with the breathless announcement of his vision.

Here’s a taster. ‘The next 100 years are going to be different for advertisers starting today. For the last 100 years media has been pushed out to people, but now marketers are going to be a part of the conversation.’ †And how is this to come about? By means of the ‘social ad’ – ‘Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend… a trusted referral is the Holy Grail of advertising.’†

Holy smoke! ‘ Holy Grail’ ! No danger of underclaiming there, then.

What Zuckerberg is referring to, of course, is the launch of Facebook Ads, the proprietary software that enables brands to custom-build profile ‘pages’(up to 100,000) similar to those of conventional individual users – and, like them, carrying various ‘sticky’ applications, video etc to make them attractive to the visitor. That description scarcely does justice to the commercial potential, however. The niftiness is in attracting individual ‘fans’ to the pages, who will then endorse the brand gospel by ‘word of mouth’ (or at least messaging) to other friends. This viral effect will be amplified through a piece of technology called Beacon that tracks purchases made by Facebook users on outside sites, then reports these purchases to those users’ friends on Facebook itself. Finally, we have Insight, a piece of technology allowing advertisers to track the progress of their ‘social ads’.

The definitive working details of Facebook Ads have yet to emerge but, no doubt about it, this is clever-sounding stuff. Zuckerberg should be congratulated on the buzz he has created around his precocious three-year-old which, in the current war of words, has put bigger brother MySpace on the defensive and wrong-footed mighty Google as it struggles to invade the social space. Can he keep up the momentum?

It’s when we come to the question of hard results – particularly in the area of effective monetisation – that real doubts emerge. Having the right technology is not necessarily equivalent to having the right psychology; technology – in this case the platform for a sophisticated, interactive commercial offering – can evolve much faster than social mores (for which read acceptance of the commercial proposition) may adapt to meet it.

The $64m question
Let’s look at some of the characteristics of social networks. They’re certainly innovative in a socially collaborative way. Never before has it been so easy to build, so quickly and with so much functional interaction, a social community. These instant communities know no geographical boundaries and, in principle at least, no social barriers either. They are the perfect instruments of globalisation, creating a massive ‘interested’ (an important qualifying word) awareness almost instantaneously – far greater in range, depth and speed, it could be argued, than any successful television campaign during the pre-internet era.

Another salient characteristic – one guaranteed to have marketers salivating at the prospect – is the presumed informality or intimacy of the medium. Social networks have given a new meaning to the word ‘friend’ †– stretching it well beyond the conventional definition of acquaintance.

How effectively, though, can marketers be expected to ‘friend’ †their prospects? Here is the $64m question. The glue holding these networks together may not be very adhesive. Currently, they are overwhelmingly driven by novelty – a fact reflected in their membership of typically 18-30 year olds (not in itself a disincentive to brands and their marketers; in fact quite the contrary). But they are going to have to rely on a lot more than novelty if they are to have long-term traction.

A clearly defined set of community interests then? This is hard to achieve in a general network (where you are likely to find the huge numbers of interest to consumer marketers). ‘Friendship’ is a loose concept where alliances of interest may multiply and wane quickly. Facebook has certainly had success in the innovation and branding field, but it is difficult to define exactly what it – as opposed to any other network – stands for. In this respect MySpace may, in the longer run, find it is better positioned in defining itself as a music community.

Friend or foe?
Another problematic thing about ‘friendship’ is that it has some awkward kinsmen called ‘Trust’ †and ‘Privacy’ . An integral assumption about joining up, as an individual, is that whatever private information you choose to confide in the network will remain under your personal control. Marketers delight in the conceit that they can join this magic circle of friendship as trusted ‘advisers’. But their objective – particularly as it relates to the treatment of confidential data they become a party to – is not necessarily going to be ‘friendly.’ Should they be allowed to use this intimate data for commercial purposes in the first place? What will happen to it subsequently? Will it perhaps end up in the hands of third parties who have nothing to do with the original ‘transaction’? Even when information is put in the private domain, is it really safe from eventual commercial exploitation by Facebook (or MySpace, or Google, or any ISP: insert as applicable)? These are questions – the typical stuff of user scepticism – which cannot be convincingly answered.

So the concept of brand as ‘friend’ †is fraught with potential misunderstanding. At best, the ‘friend’ †in question may turn out to be a bit of a social pest: the sort who, boorishly, gate-crashes a party and hangs around long after the rest of the guests have fled. More damagingly, it may convey the idea of a treacherous hypocrite, stealthily gathering confidential information under the guise of friendship which is then exploited commercially.

To win true friends takes time. And that is one thing marketers, tumbling over themselves to exploit the new opportunity, do not have.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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