Real Facebook shop in virtual world breathes life into Mars

Mars%20chocolateMars is taking the groundbreaking step of selling real products on Facebook (MW last week). But, after the recent backlash against the site’s advertising platform Beacon, brands must tread carefully when trying to engage with consumers through social networks, warn industry experts.

The Mars Celebrate application allows Facebook users to send actual gifts rather than “virtual” ones for the first time. After recipients open the message, they enter a mobile number and an SMS barcode is sent to them. They can then redeem the gift at participating stores. A selection of Mars goods will be for sale, including Twix, Galaxy and Maltesers. Users pay for the gifts via a PayPal account.

Lynette Cowan, client services director at the Light Agency, which developed Celebrate, says: “We began talks with Mars’ agency Mesh Marketing about a Facebook sweetshop and they thought it was a perfect match.”

Henry Ellis, head of social media at search conversion agency Tamar, thinks people will use the Celebrate application for the novelty value, pointing out that virtual gifts are popular. The Light Agency claims more than 80% of people on Facebook have sent virtual gifts to other users.

Ellis says that Celebrate can be a success – but only if it is done properly. He believes that any problems could have a negative effect on both the Facebook and Mars brands and adds: “It’s at the mercy of the social graph as well. If Paris Hilton had launched an application like this it wouldn’t have worked because people don’t like her, but people like Mars.”

Facebook UK commercial director Blake Chandlee says it is important that brands acknowledge the power of users when it comes to social networking: “If a brand picks up on a consumer advocacy group that’s targeting them early enough, they can manage that in a much better way.”

Bebo’s UK head of sales Mark Charkin thinks the sale of actual goods over social networks can work, but says it is dependent on how brands position their offerings. “If brands stamp in and try to force sales, it won’t work,” he adds.

A Mars spokesman says the popularity of virtual gifts on Facebook will ensure Celebrate catches on but Charkin believes selling real goods is an entirely different proposition. “Just because virtual gifts are a success doesn’t mean gifts in an offline environment will work,” he says.

Packaged goods

Observers point out that only a limited number of brands will be able to sell actual products over social networks. Cowan says: “It has to be the right brand to fit.” She believes packaged goods brands are the most suitable, while Charkin says he could see applications being used for ticketing and books.

The launch of Celebrate is evidence that brands are now looking beyond simply forming Facebook groups. However, Ellis agrees that brands in certain sectors are less likely to launch applications. “Insurance providers probably wouldn’t do a quote application,” he adds. “They would be more likely to design a racing game and associate themselves with it.”

Budget tracker

Charkin concedes that it may be more challenging for some sectors, but adds that it is possible with innovative thinking. “Sectors like DIY and finance are really looking to add value,” he adds. “You could develop a budget tracker application and off the back of that reinforce your brand. This could potentially lead to cross-selling.”

Whether Celebrate takes off or not, its launch underlines the potential for brands to use social networks to interact with consumers.

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