09/06/2011

By Ben Maynard, Head of Technology and Telecommunications Sector, MHP Communications

With over 700 million members and a valuation rumoured to be as much as $100 billion Facebook is undoubtedly one of the most significant internet phenomena of the last few years. Whether it is worth the price tag and can realise the profits it implies is another matter. But as a global space in which conversations, opinions, comment and views can be exchanged it is unequalled. A glance at the most popular pages (stats on which can be found at SocialBakers), shows that the majority of this conversation is driven by games, celebrity, music and popular culture and it is clear that consumer brands definitely have much to gain from using Facebook to build engagement with their customers. But what about SMEs (Small and medium enterprises) — and especially those working in a B2B (Business to Business) environment? I'd suggest that these too need to get familiar with Facebook and what it can do for, or perhaps more importantly, to them.

There has been much written about marketing on Facebook, and indeed it is now one of the biggest advertising sites online. In addition, many brands, as diverse as Coca-Cola and Fiat are building Facebook into their marketing plans. But if you are not selling to a general consumer population then it is unlikely that wall posts, shared video and viral games are really going to influence sales. For B2B (business to business) players it's not about fans or likes or even having a lot of friends. But that doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore it. For good or ill Facebook can have a significant impact on your reputation. The real challenge for SMEs (Small and medium enterprises) is building advocacy amongst Facebook users to support you when you need it. It is about creating a digital counterweight.

The world of Facebook is a world of emotion. People share what is important to them, what interests them, their thoughts and feelings. They do not, generally, share detailed facts or balanced argument. This makes Facebook a very dangerous place for SMEs. The social graph of Facebook creates an emotional frame through which news, opinion and commentary is viewed. These frames are fragmented and self selecting (you tend towards those that reinforce your own views). People will ‘like’ views and pages that reaffirm their own views without necessarily judging the veracity of the claim, or indeed any motives of the person expressing the opinion. Search and popularity then conspire to further promote the views of those that shout the loudest.

So opinion quickly becomes 'crowd-sourced' and viral which means that evidence and the wider perspective can quickly be lost. Single issue groups can concentrate and polarise opinion irrespective of facts.

What this means is that, especially at times of crisis, companies and individuals working within them can suddenly become very famous for the wrong reasons. Emotionally charged responses to crises quickly frame the argument and can colour the way brand is perceived not only on Facebook and online but also beyond in to wider media and other ‘off-line’ commentators and influencers. What’s more, these damaging opinions can surface from the most unlikely places — not always in reaction to a ‘real’ event or incident, but often from a perception — perhaps a rumour about poor working conditions at a supplier-firm, commentary on the behaviour of an individual linked to the firm, or anecdotal evidence of fault in a key component.

Once these comments have metastasised and spread across Facebook it is often too late to try and influence the conversation. People will see engagement at this point as a defensive sticking plaster and will doubt the authenticity and credibility of the effort to join the conversation.

Corporations cannot hope to sway the opinions of the extreme antis, but they can provide a counterweight that may balance the argument for the moderate majority if they invest in creating their own narrative ahead of crises.

Transparency is celebrated in our Wikileaks world and companies should invest in demonstrating it before they are forced to. Having a presence on Facebook and using it to provide information and updates that present a more open and human view of the organisation than the corporate website, perhaps using individual stories, examples of community relations, helpful information etc, can establish a factual counterweight to more emotional commentary. In addition, not being on Facebook is increasingly seen as a crime in itself. If you are unwilling to engage and share then you must have something to hide.

Investing in this presence now in peace time as it were, means that you do have the platform and some credit should hostilities breakout. Creating these 'digital embassies' is not easy and requires thought and commitment, but it is important and may be the difference between succumbing to an entirely emotional and negative conversation and having some chance at influencing it with some rationality.

Email: Ben.maynard@mhpc.com
Follow me on Twitter: @Benm1969


Watch the video below featuring Jemima Gibbons of AAB Engage discussing ow social media can positively impact your business.

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