22 Jan 2013

Facebook Graph Search: 7 implications for brands

Guest post by Oli MistryDigital Strategy Director at Leo Burnett Sydney

On January 15th Facebook made one of its biggest and most interesting announcements relating to a major platform update it is planning to launch, Graph Search. Graph search will allow users to search Facebook for people, interests, places and photos. Unlike other popular search engines the results will be based on the interactions and updates of the user’s first and second-degree connections. Their friends and friends of friends.

An example of this might be a user planning a holiday being able to search for friends who have been to Thailand. They will potentially get results that show their photos, see where they checked into and stayed, where and what they ate and therefore who to contact for advice and recommendations.

We all understand the power of personal recommendation or brand advocacy and its influence in the decision making process when it comes to purchases. This is a hugely exciting update for marketers and although there are no details out there on opportunities for advertising it’s certainly possible to speculate with reasonable confidence about what opportunities might begin to emerge.

So what does this all mean for brands? What are the dangers, what are the opportunities, where might this initial update be leading longer term and what should we be starting to think about in terms of actions and strategies to gain competitive advantage?

The first port of call when it comes to predicting future developments is to look for insights into the company and industry.

Company Insight

Facebook is now a publicly listed company. Its stock has fallen since the IPO and mounting pressure to dive shareholder value means the company must develop and innovate ways to monetize its platform.

The first signs of this appeared back in September 2012 where a key change to their algorithm meant that organic reach of brand posts fell sharply. As a brand, having your posts appear in a fan’s newsfeed was never a certainty, engagement or affinity, weight of content and regency all factor in to whether your post appeared in a feed. The changes meant this was still the case but the un-promoted or organic reach of posts still fell across the board to about 15-20% if you had an engaged fan base.

This was just one of the signs that the ‘free lunch’ for brands was coming to an end. If you want people to see your posts you’re going to have to start spending. Fair enough in my opinion, Facebook are a business and business need to make money, someone’s got to pay for a free platform that needs to support over a billion users. We can clearly expect more of this to come.

Industry Insight

The future of search is intrinsically linked to social. A reasonably bold statement but lets look at the signs. Standard text based search hasn’t changed much since its inception, the technologies, algorithms and advertising opportunities have no doubt changed immensely in that period. However, from a user perspective its pretty much the same service all be it richer in content delivery and hopefully more relevant.

The richness of social data and its relevance to the user in terms of an accurate link to their preferences, networks, friends, affiliations, recorded actions and more offers a huge opportunity when cross referenced in a search scenario. If you can get listings that are tailored to you it should offer more relevance than a standard listing that pretty much anyone would get after entering a given keyword.

Google have been trying to enter the social space for some time now, their recent launch of Google Plus and efforts to drive usage and activity in this space shows that they realize this only too well. If their core business – search, is to remain relevant into the future they need social data. Social is their weak point just as search and monetization was Facebook’s.

Graph search is Facebook’s opening gambit into search and one can only think this is just the beginning of the next evolution in search. So what does this mean for brands on Facebook?

Implication for Brands

1. The number of fans you have suddenly matters

Having a large fan base has for a long time been a slightly questionable statistic to be too focused on. Engagement and PTA combined with volume have been far better KPI’s. Fan volume alone doesn’t guarantee reach.

Now it’s slightly different, a user searching for a product will potentially see listings where friends and friends of friends that are associated with (like) that product or brand influence the ranking. Growing your fan base is now a form of SEO for social. 

2. Keep your fans engaged

Its important to note that again its not just about the volume of fans, one can assume engagement will still be a key variable in that algorithm. Therefore quality of fans and engagement will be still important in terms of reach and rank.

3. Review all your information and about pages

As well as a large volume of engaged fans, its safe to assume the Graph Search algorithm will also be referencing text, keywords and other important data on your brand page. So it’s probably wise to make sure it’s up to date, clear and relevant in terms of keywords and related information.

4. Localization will become more important and more accurate

Profile data as well as GPS location data from mobile devices will become a huge influencer in listings. For example ‘Find a bar near me (that my friends like)’ brands must consider how to structure their brand pages and look for opportunities to convert in this space. The ability Facebook has to track an individual user from desktop to mobile device and back is a key advantage it has over almost all industry players due to the fact its users usually remain logged into both. It will no doubt be looking to use this to their advantage.

5. Paid Social Search

It doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict this one is coming. It has to be one of the main reasons Facebook have made this update? If you can’t rank organically in the search listings, brands should be able to purchase sponsored listings the same way they can on Google or other search engines.

6. Think BING

It’s to early to make a firm recommendation based on the impact of Graph Search on Facebook’s partnership with Bing. But we know that when people want to search beyond Facebook, they will see web search results from Bing with social context and additional information such as Facebook pages. This may drive huge growth in its usage and present interesting media opportunities.

7. Get very familiar with all your social data

Data is going to be the fundamental driver of success in this space and more so than ever with this update. Data to optimize fan acquisition. Data to optimize the engagement of your fan base with your posts, both promoted and organic. Data to optimize the appearance of your paid search listings if or when that arrives. Data to optimize ad track conversions from all of the above back on your site, store, app etc.

In Summary

We are moving into a world of social search. Brands need to start looking at new disciplines that drive and optimize activity and conversions from this.

Similar to SEO and SEM for existing search, strategies and practices will emerge to rank and compete in this space.

Its safe to say that: growing an engaged fan base, considering keywords across all your social content, assigning more budget for social media and setting up processes for extracting and gaining key insights from all social related data is a wise course of immediate action.

Final thoughts by Si Muddell:

What are your thoughts on this move by Facebook?
Do you think it is the catalyst to a paradigm shift in Google's dominance within search? Will / can Google step up? Are you excited about the changes as a user? 

Relevancy (for the customer and the advertiser), speed of results, and reach (of searchable content and number of people) have, and always will, remain the backbone to any search engines success or demise. With Facebook social graph, will relevancy prevail? Or will the corporate pressure to deliver on revenue generation interfere with the user experience and push people away from using it? Is Bing even capable of delivering the technology required to make this product shine, remain, and evolve?

I guess there are a lot of 'ifs and buts', however make no mistake, this is an exciting time for advertisers and social media users alike. Facebook is finally growing up, social media 'experts' need to become a lot more familiar with data, understand what the data really means, and learn about Digital Marketing techniques in general.

Facebook has made a bold, clever and very calculated move that in theory sounds like it could actually benefit all stakeholders; shareholders, advertisers and users, whilst possibly sending a rather large ripple across the search engine world. I guess for both Facebook, Google, Yahoo and other networks, this topic is very much 'TBC', and all of us should be paying very close attention.

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