By Mark Blenkinsop, senior search marketing manager at Pod1

“As an agency we spent most of last year pushing Facebook and Twitter to our clients, but were getting very few takers. Now, suddenly, we’re finding every body wants to have a Facebook page,” says Pod1’s Mark Blenkinsop. In this piece Blenkinsop looks at what has caused Facebook to reach its tipping point for brands, from good publicity such as when the site took over from Google in the US as the number one site in term of visitors, to a string of changes that makes the site more appealing to brands.

Until recently — and contrary to a lot of the hype — trying to convince companies to invest in Facebook and Twitter was something of an uphill struggle. They knew that it had potential as a marketing channel, but most were either not convinced of its ability to generate sales or simply not brave enough to take the plunge. Meanwhile, those that did were out reaping the benefits; not least in the column inches they were producing.

But as always, marketing goes in waves, and the exposure Facebook has been getting in recent months has caused a shift in the client space from our perspective. Where three months ago everybody wanted an iPhone app, now everybody wants a Facebook page.

So what has caused Facebook to reach this tipping point with brands?

A lot of it has to do with the publicity, and Facebook has done a very good job of marketing itself — making big noises when it counts. For example there was a huge wave of publicity when the site overtook Google as America’s most visited website in March 2010. On top of this it has been keen to break away from the image of just being a site for kids; the 35+ demographic now represents more than 30% of the entire user base. This equates to over five million in the UK alone. Even the adverse publicity the site received over changes to its security settings played out to its advantage as marketers became aware of the power Facebook was adding for brands.

Having mastered interaction between individuals, the social network giant has now turned its attention to doing the same for consumers and brands. This is highlighted by its move to change the “Become a Fan” function, to simply “Like”. What appears a relatively small alteration has added huge power to how brands can use Facebook. While changing the idea of being a fan of something to just liking it may seem a relatively insignificant semantic alteration, it is a very real change to the way people perceive it.

Facebook users no longer have to be a Fan of a brand like Kurt Geiger, for example, which can sound a little bit obsessive, and instead can ‘Like’ anything from the brand page itself to individual products or offers. This is where the real marketing power now lies. Once users ‘Like’ a product, it is displayed on their wall, so their friends can see they like a very specific product or offer; whether that be the latest Tag Heuer watch or a £350 flight to New York.

This means that marketers can gain much more in-depth profile mapping of their customer base; knowing who their audience are and what they like. Such a simple button now means that fans are doing brands’ work for them, creating valuable buzz and word-of-mouth endorsement. This shift to more granular information is perfect for big brands as they don’t need their followers to be promoting them as a brand, they need them to be promoting specific things, such as individual products or offers.

Importantly, without any particularly complex integration, brands can also pull comments and other information from Facebook into their own websites. This gives them a very easy way of adding reviews to their own e-commerce platform, providing a link saying, “256 people like this product and here’s what they had to say about it”.

Facebook has obviously realised its marketing potential and the whole platform has become much more geared towards businesses. Indeed, the majority of the changes Facebook has made over the past six to 12 months have been about turning it into a place where brands can push their products.

Because of this change of emphasis, it is now possible for brands to glean huge amounts of valuable data from their Facebook pages and followers. At its most open level Facebook can hand brands information from sex, date of birth and email addresses to what brands their followers like, what media they are interested in, what bands they listen to and whether they like sport.

This can all then be pulled directly into a CRM system to help build a much more accurate profile of a brand’s audience. Which is likely to mean fewer, but more targeted communications with that audience.

While it may seem a small change, the new ‘Like’ button has had a powerful impact on Facebook’s offering, and you can guarantee that we will be seeing more developments like this in the future as Facebook looks to capitalise on its new-found interest from brands.