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If your company has a dearth of resources and wants to set up a custom page or application on Facebook, it becomes necessary to look for a technology partner. There is a big difference between custom pages and the wall – everything on the wall shows up automatically in feeds, while content on custom pages needs to have a “Share” button for users to post on their profile. One limitation of the Share button is that a pop-up comes up for the user to post on their profile – if users have disabled pop-ups, it is unlikely that they will be able to share at all. This makes the wall a very powerful tool, but most of the focus of partners is on the custom page because this is what brands want to use as their “face”.

In Dec 2009, Facebook published a list of its preferred developer consultant program, and the site promotes this list as a starting point for companies looking to establish a Facebook presence in partnership with a developer. The list is very long, and differentiation between partners low. Several criteria come to mind when picking the right partner.

Facebook is booming, but this boom will last only so long. Many developer consultants have been launched by very young entrepreneurs, and the longevity of these partners is questionable. While researching partners for my company, “going concern” was top of mind for me. I wanted to make sure that we did not invest in a company that may not be around for long. Since barriers to entry are low, so many developers exist and it is very difficult to differentiate among their services, because they all say “we can do whatever you want us to.” Hence long-term prospect is key. The best way to assess this is — for how long has the company been around, who are its clients, who are the founders, and how much investment has the company obtained. Pricing (set-up and monthly maintenance), time to launch, internal and external efforts required, challenges, “click” with the company, proprietary interface, ease of use of the interface, details surrounding changes to custom pages and applications, and tracking are some key factors. One factor I explored was location, since it was preferable that the partner be local.

A freelance can set up a custom Facebook page or application for as little as $500 to $1,000. Larger partners may cost from $20K to $75K to $100K+. I attended the IAB social media event in NY to meet several partners and came away with a wealth of information and contacts. I love all IAB events, and have never had a problem getting a free pass from them. I explored the below developers.

Context Optional: This is among one of the top partners for Facebook, and a friend is using them for her company. They can pretty much do anything you want them to, and given the large number of clients they can come up with good examples of pages. Their fees are reasonable as well.

Always Be Social: I set up a presentation with Always Be Social. The sales team seemed friendly and nice, but it just did not seem to be a good fit. They did not have a lot of examples, so it was difficult to assess their value.

Sprout: I quite liked Sprout’s presentation at IAB and their Alice in Wonderland dynamic ads. I got along quite well with the sales person as well.

Buddy Media: They were at the top of my list simply because they have a proprietary interface and a lot of experience in retail. While I felt that their ready interface and high price limited the level of creativity and viral component that we could add, given limited resources on our end and short timeline we did not want to expend much effort on launch. They were the best fit.

Brand Networks: I reviewed this partner as well, but do not recall my discussion. This was the case with most partners – they had such similar services that I could not recall details and differences except with a select few.

Vitrue: Every single partner I spoke to cited Vitrue as their biggest competitor, and seemed impressed with their service. I liked them, but had a hard time understanding whether they were a good fit because of few examples. The differentiating factor here is that using their tool you can use apps on the wall and track them. They also offer localization which is used by McDonald’s. I just wish they were able to show me more examples and give me enough “meat” to justify using them versus Buddy Media.

Fluid: I really liked Fluid. Their focus is on websites rather than Facebook, and Facebook services are an extension for their site services. They designed the amazing Timberland’s customized boots website. They also use Facebook Connect effectively on sites coupled with product reviews.

Wildfire App: This was an okay partner – not much differentiation but willing to negotiate on price.

Involver: I liked Involver, but what stood out to me is their positioning in the marketplace. They tout their technology as their key product, and have been asked by Facebook to design their Homepage. They kept stressing on technology. But they were selling to a marketer, not a technologist, so to me their pitch had the opposite effect. I am all for technology, but what is the use of spending on a custom page when you don’t have a strategy to increase fan base. I was looking for a company that had a strong base for marketing rather than just technology. They do have good clients though, so obviously their model works.

Allurent: This is similar to Fluid in that they focus on website tools and offer Facebook tools as an extension for a small fee. They had good tools, but I liked Fluid better.

Brickfish: I don’t see Brickfish on Facebook’s preferred list even though they have an impressive clientele. I attended their presentation at IAB. They built a very successful app for Coach. Their services are good, but their sales pitch left much to be desired. If they are able to find sales people passionate about their technology and brands they have worked with, it will make a big difference to their pitch. They have received a lot of free PR – Coach presented their work at the WWD Social Media event – Brickfish needs to find a way to leverage this.

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Facebook‘s launch of instant personalization caused an uproar in the blogosphere. The company ran a pilot with sites such as yelp.com, where if you are logged in to Facebook and visit these sites, the content served would be personalized based on your profile information. Users have the option to opt out. Blogs talked and talked about it, and reports resurfaced about how Mark Zuckerberg made a statement that Facebook “doesn’t believe in privacy.”

Facebook has been growing at a very fast pace and during one week surpassed Google as the most visited site on the Internet. What % of Facebook users know of and care about privacy issues? I was once asked, “what is your stand on it”? I had no answer. On one hand as a consumer, I am exasperated at how easily available personal information is on the Internet. On the other hand as an e-commerce executive, I cannot help but realize that without that information, how would we get new customers? How would we use targeting and segmentation to grow the business? My consumer side wins over the business side. If you Google yourself, you come across several sites that replicate information from social networks. Not only that, these sites have other personal information that is in public records of the government. I spent one day emailing a number of sites to remove personal information – one site refused because the information was publicly available in government records. It is scary because now I have access to information on how much a person spent on a house, or anything that the person may have written or contributed to in the past. A couple of sites get your business information from some place (probably LinkedIn), and you have vendors calling you all the time after subscribing to that site. I got my info removed – they put it back up after a few months.

I wonder, where will Facebook go in terms of privacy? Will users start leaving if Facebook lowers privacy barriers? Has Facebook’s growth reached a maximum, and the only way to go from here is down?

Privacy is not restricted to social networks alone. A large number of retargeting and behavioral targeting companies have cropped up. Retargeting is relatively new, where you put a cookie on visitors who come to your site, and you serve them ads on other sites that they visit to bring them back to convert on your site. Behavioral targeting has different business models – your visitor data is contributed to a common cookie pool, and ads are served to users on other sites based on how closely they match your site visitors. In layman terms, once you visit a site, the site’s ads “follow you around” on the Internet. Many e-commerce sites use these programs, and I have seen ads follow me! It is easy to tell which ones are retargeting and which ones are behavioral — if you get served ads on a site you recently visited, it is retargeting; if you see ads for competitors of the site you visited, it is behavioral. I don’t know how much of personal information the sites have access to, but once a cookie is dropped, they can track you everywhere you visit. The best way to avoid this is clearing cookies after every browsing session. However, each time you visit a site it will drop a cookie, so clearing cookies frequently can be taxing.

I don’t mind cookies because it helps save passwords and sites remember my login and information. As long as sites do not know who I am by name, I don’t care that they know which sites I visit. But you have to wonder, how much more advanced will these sites get, since they have access to so much information? Retargeting business models are becoming a commodity because it is easy to do, cost is low, and there is very little differentiation among vendors. If there is any advanced capability, it is easy to replicate. Vendors have to be smart and devise advanced ways to target and segment, which requires consumer information.

Recently, it was made illegal to pass credit card information automatically. For example, some sites use Webloyalty where at the end of an online purchase, you can sign up for access to certain discounts and offers. Your credit card information will, in some cases, automatically be passed if you choose to sign up, and in some cases there maybe an automatic monthly fee. This is how you get that $9.99 free credit score charge monthly in your credit card statement!! It is now illegal to automatically pass credit card information, and the customer has to enter credit card info again after signing up – this serves as an additional layer to ensure that the customer is aware of the charge. LinkedIn does something similar and shady. You can sign up for a Pro account but you have to call to cancel and cannot choose the option to opt out of monthly automatic fee. I complained to Consumer Affairs and disputed their charge on my credit card. It is such a blatant manner to fool the consumer – clearly, if the consumer wants to sign up for a monthly service, he/she will do so. Removing that option just shows that the company is being greedy and does business in taking advantage of consumers.

There need to be legal rules and regulations around online privacy. There are always loopholes, but laws such as the above on credit card information force businesses to change their business practices and make them more compliant.

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One of the biggest questions related to social media is, is it a sales channel? Can it be a sales channel? How do you monetize it? A billion $ question, if you ask me. Social media is like a black hole – every company is trying to figure it out. Ones that have figured it out and are looked upon as “best-in-class” have yet to monetize the channel.

One of my favorite sites is the award-winning much-touted OPEN forum. It is a forum by American Express for its small businesses. It provides content relevant to small businesses and keeps the user engaged enough to come back for more. It performs extremely well in organic search. It is a website all by itself. I have seen online advertising on sites such as http://www.entrepreneur.com just for OPEN forum, displaying video content. Many people have cited the forum as a best-in-class, and it makes perfect sense for Amex because the company not only signs up small businesses for its card, but also provides services. Now for the big question – does it increase leads?

Starbucks got a lot of attention when it made its “free pastry” promotion viral on social media. However, the company did not share results on how much sales it got as a result in its stores.

There are ways to monetize this channel, but it will never be a big component of e-commerce. Facebook and YouTube are the largest visited social networks, and users are there not to buy, but to interact with networks and watch videos. Users are likely to buy after visiting forums, communities, and blogs, but these are not as widely and frequently trafficked. Hence social media as a whole will not have a positive ROI in terms of sales, and should not be viewed as such. These sites, however, provide access to a wide network, and networks of network, with the ability to drive significant traffic. In addition, the great thing is that one does not need to spend a lot of money – all it requires is creativity, persistence, and really committing to the channel. Of course a lot of money spent the right way does help – the OPEN forum is a great example. But eventually companies start viewing the investment in terms of ROI, and it becomes a white elephant that is too expensive to manage and does not have positive ROI.

Take the example of Facebook. Here are a few steps to follow:

  • Build a professional-looking page and make it interactive – An in-house creative with HTML knowledge can do a fairly good job. Freelancers can do it for as little as $500.
  • Leverage existing properties – Add Facebook link in emails, direct mail, brochures, catalog, and all communication materials, website/Homepage, store windows, etc. Every customer touch-point by the company should have the URL.
  • Customize URL – Have a URL that makes it easy for the user to find you. For example, http://www.facebook.com/openforum and/or http://www.openforum.com/facebook. I prefer setting both up but promoting the latter just because it makes the user remember the website.
  • Explore Facebook advertising – This step should be done only after a professional-looking page is in place, else users will not “convert” or like the page.
  • Drive fans to the page – Include links in your and partner Wikipedia entries. Make links available to affiliates and partners and “exchange” fans with them. Use sweepstakes to add fans. Leverage networks for sweeps – for example, every user that enters a friend into the sweeps automatically gets 1-2 extra entries to win something. For consumers, it could be anything – gift cards, shopping spree, paid trip for two, iPad, free music downloads, etc. For small businesses, the incentive could be a paid trip to a conference or conference pass, Facebook advertising credits, subscriptions to magazines or research tools, online conferences, etc. Fan-only content and exclusive promotions and discounts are other ways to drive fans by making promotions viral. A referral program is also a great way to add fans. Members get an incentive to refer a friend, similar to the sweeps example above.
  • Provide engaging content to keep users engaged – Exclusive promotions and discounts, user-generated content (photos, videos, discussion groups, tips) are all ways to keep users engaged. These are subtle ways to increase sales. If a user sees another users’s outfit, he/she may like it and want to buy. A specific shoes website (don’t recall the name) has videos accompanying the products, and seeing the shoes on someone makes a world of difference and can potential increase conversion rates. A similar strategy can be used on Facebook through user-generated content, testimonials, and videos and photos on outfits.

Now for the most important part, how do you measure performance.

  • Have the number of fans increased? Keep track of an increase in fans on a weekly basis and compare it with competitors. Over time you may come to a consistent % weekly increase – use this as a benchmark. Has this % increased after your efforts? If so, then you can use it to justify performance. This is the best and easiest way to measure performance.
  • Do the efforts drive traffic to the site? Measurement is as simple as adding a tracking code in all Facebook URLs, working with a technology partner that has tracking ability, or simply looking at free web-based tools and evaluating before and after traffic from Facebook as well as Inbound links.
  • Has Google page ranking increased? This is a little more far-fetched since none of the efforts drive traffic to the website, but in the long run it may be worth exploring this metric.
  • Do your customers engage more on social networks? Again, this is a very subtle metric. Rapleaf is a company that takes your email and direct mail database and identifies their patterns in social networks. You can use Rapleaf’s service to understand existing user behavior online, and see if that pattern has changed after building and promoting your Facebook page. Again, this is subtle but worth exploring. It is a cost-effective way because Rapleaf works on a monthly-fee basis.
  • Does it drive revenue and sales? There are several ways of testing this. Use a separate promotion code on Facebook to track redemptions and sales. Every person that “Likes” a page is an existing or potential lead. If running a sweeps or referral program, see how many users who signed up and shared their email ids end up purchasing something. Once you have a user’s email id, it is easy to track revenue driven by them. Apply a customer lifetime value to every new sign-up. Over time, there should be a consistent % of qualified leads from all the leads. So revenue = qualified leads * customer lifetime value. It is easier to track if users purchase directly from Facebook – if the revenue is collected elsewhere (eg. stores, website sign-ups, search, affiliate), it is difficult to track the impact of Facebook. A lot of times users may see a promotion on Facebook but convert through another channel such as search or affiliate. If you have an existing web analytics package or ad server, do a path analysis for before and after Facebook efforts, and see if Facebook has increased its standing in the path.

Again, social media will never be a prominent sales channel, but its relevance and importance cannot be denied. Lets go beyond revenue and leads for a few minutes. What are other benefits of this network?

  • Customer service – Want to reduce costs at that expensive call center? Use Facebook. Get customers to post their questions and concerns on Facebook. It is easier for them as well to write on Facebook than wait for 10-20 minutes on a call. Concerned about having the world read customer issues? Set up an email id with facebook@companyname.com, and address all issues through email. The benefit is that if call center reps have to address the issues, they can respond during downtime.
  • Making customer feedback constructive – An unhappy customer will want to tell the whole world about their bad experience. Two instances come to mind. One, a customer was so unhappy with customer service at the call center that she wrote it as a status message. Two, one customer was so unhappy with her experience that she made it a point to write a negative comment on almost all posts by the brand. How to you deal with this? Take all comments offline and encourage customers to be constructive. Write a templated response informing that you have heard them. Email them and ask them to email their issues to you – they will have to write something constructive – “I hate you” which is prominent on the Wall will not show up in the email response. The customer in case two above stopped expending energy in writing negative responses and wrote a constructive email explaining her frustrations. We apologized and mentioned that we will channel the feedback internally to the group concerned. RESPOND to the customer and genuinely try to address the issue. If possible, give them an incentive to make good for the bad experience. Jet Blue posts a templated response and drives users to their customer service page.

One thing to keep in mind is NEVER delete comments unless they are inappropriate or spam. Customers need to air their grievances, and Facebook should encourage an open communication. Sephora deleted a few negative comments. This made a customer angry and she responded with strong words on their Wall. More customers posted comments on how this was unprofessional of Sephora, and it became a heated conversation. Deleting negative comments is the worst thing a brand can do – there are other ways of dealing with this feedback, so why do anything that reflects negatively on the brand and company? Gosh, this is a looooooong post. There is always so much to write about social media, and in this case Facebook! More to come… adieu.

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I was once asked — what are 3 things that make each Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube successful?

Facebook

  • Don’t just have a brand page or presence just for the heck of it – have a strategy around it. The point of having Facebook is to leverage the wide reach and network that it provides access to – have a strategy for developing fans and leveraging their networks.
  • Keep the page fresh and updated regularly. Have a calendar and select days to update it so that fans can expect it to be updated on a certain date.
  • Engage fans and listen to them. Give fans an incentive to interact with the brand and become fans. The incentive could be sweepstakes, exclusive promotions and offers, or you could restrict content and make all content available only to fans. Take fan feedback, channel it to the right group internally, and act on it.

YouTube

  • Content is key. People come to YouTube to watch videos – give them what they want in terms of content.
  • Promote your videos. There are millions of videos on YouTube – the best way to get attention is to promote the videos on YouTube. If you have good content and promote it, subscriptions will increase.
  • Leverage the YouTube network and encourage engagement among fans. YouTube has made several changes in the past to allow users to connect with their friends, and Google is still trying to figure out how to monetize this channel. While YouTube is not “there yet”, it is still getting there in terms of building a network. Identify brand influencers and give them an incentive to vlog about the brand. There are several beauty videos on YouTube – people regularly teach how to apply makeup and share their favorite brands with followers – they have a strong fan following. Reach out to this set of influencers and get them to use your brand in videos.

Twitter

  • Give an incentive to add followers quickly. There have been several instances where people have given incentives to the nth follower to increase the number of followers quickly.
  • Keep Twitter fresh and updated regularly.
  • People on Twitter are more interested in what they have to say than what others have to say. The best way to get their attention is to get into conversations with them about their posts, especially if you don’t know the followers. Follow people who are relevant and follow with the intention of conversing with them. Most of the people who follow me on Twitter do so only because they want me to follow them back. Once I realized that their following me had nothing to do with me or my content but was just a way to get me to follow them, I stopped checking out their Twitter accounts. I hardly ever visit Twitter.

Connect all accounts – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Digg, blog, etc. so that updating one will update the rest automatically. For all, there is a 4-step process:

  • Provide engaging content
  • Promote content and increase fans
  • Keep the pages updated to continue to engage fans
  • Leverage fan networks to increase fans further

Which network is the most useful? It depends on your business.

For retailers, beauty companies, small businesses, etc., Facebook is the most relevant because people are passionate about and love to connect with brands they love on Facebook. On average each fan has 150 friends. So if you have 1,000 fans, you have access to a network for 150,000 people! Facebook is like an email database, only better, because you have access to a wide network.

YouTube is most relevant for the entertainment industry. Music executives have a far way to go — some videos on YouTube have no sound/music due to rights issues; however, if people listen to music on a video and like it, they will buy. Why not encourage monetization by allowing people to listen to music on YouTube, click through on the paid ads that show up most commonly for Amazon and iTunes, and make money from that? People can listen to music illegally and download it anyway, why not be smart about it and make money from this channel? It seems so silly to hold on to old ways of thinking when honestly, music executives have NO CHOICE but to accept that they have no control over the Internet.

IMO, Twitter in its current form is a fad – it really is. Its retention rate is 40%, which means that of every 100 people that sign up for Twitter, 40 stay while 60 do not return the following month. Some of them are like me, who have connected my blog with Twitter and do not visit Twitter at all. Not even for discounts for brands I am following. Here is an interesting article about how the 40% as reported by Nielsen is incorrect. According to the article, a number of people are on Twitter apps and do not need to visit the site, hence the 40% retention is misleading. Twitter is still trying to figure out how to make money off of the site. I wonder how much of the site’s traffic is from celeb gossip blogs quoting celebrities. It is a great way to make information viral, but I still think that Twitter is a fad and unless it finds a way to make money, it will lose importance. Mashable has a great write-up about what Twitter needs to do to improve.

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Today at work I presented interesting facts about social media craze. Social media is such a black hole, and marketers are still figuring it out. Does social media have the potential to drive sales? How does it help in branding? DVF’s fan page on Facebook is brilliant. A really good way to capitalize on free media. Their customers post photos in DVF clothes and they choose fan of the week. I would love to do that for my company. People could see complete outfits from us, get a better idea of how clothes would look on real people in different sizes, and buy them. Such a good way to give styling advice and build a community!

Check out some cool facts:

  • Twitter is expected to double its user base from 6MM in 2008 to 12MM in 2009, ~4% of the US population; its retention rate is 40% on average. Growth is driven by 25-54 year olds. In fact, 45-54 year olds are more likely than average to visit Twitter. WOW!!! Who would have thought? I guess that is a good way to spend early retirement.
  • 1 in 9 visits on the Internet are to social networks, down from the last 2 years. However, visits to Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn have increased, but declined for MySpace by 4%. MySpace is a crappy site, and they don’t even allow brands to have their own fan page. They have monetized everything. Who goes there anyway. The pages look crappy and juvenile, and are now relevant just for music. Although they are trying to find relevance and make money.
  • Facebook averaged 1.4 BILLION visits in April 2009; unique visitors was 77MM, over 25% of the US population.
  • On YouTube, 15 hours of video content is uploaded in one minute, equivalent to 8,600 full length Hollywood motion films per week.
  • 28MM users update their blog at least once a month.
  • 97MM users read a blog at least once a month; this number is expected to increase to 128MM in 2013, or 58% of US Internet users

Wow, just wow. With Facebook you have access to over 25% of the US population, which is really cool. Question is, how do you reach that user base? How do you enter that black hole and not get stuck? I visit Facebook 2-3 times a week, sometimes less frequently. I am on YouTube every single day. I don’t want TV anymore and watch all shows on YouTube or the Internet. I watch international shows on YouTube. I probably spend an average of 2-3 hours per day on YouTube on a weekday, and 4-6 on a weekend. There is so much to watch, discover, and learn on YouTube. And of course you can rewind Bush’s video of almost getting hit with shoes umpteen times.

I don’t frequent Twitter; there are too many updates to have the time and patience to read.

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