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Brands and Facebook: How a ‘like’ can quickly turn into an ‘oh no!’ moment

Posted by: Joe Harrod on December 21, 2011

For fans of Larry David or Ricky Gervais, and lovers of the awkward pause, there’s a moment in the recent BBC documentary Inside Facebook to rival Rick Perry’s ‘oops’. This awkward pause comes as Emily Maitlis puts a hard question to Elliot Schrage, VP of Public Policy at Facebook, about Sponsored Stories.

If you’re too squeamish to watch, the video clip concerns clicking ‘like’ on a brand’s Facebook page. Did you know, a one-click endorsement could be turned into a sponsored story that appears in the browsers of your friends, and that some brands pay Facebook to do this? Maitlis was right to push the point. As she noted, “How far can Facebook go in terms of using personal information without its users feeling exploited?”

Brands that are trying to create online communities don’t want Facebook’s actions to alienate consumers who have chosen to engage them. In emotional and experiential terms, the sponsored story is a disaster. It turns a hard earned ‘like’ into an ‘oh no!’ moment. Many consumers may want to sign up for updates from one of their favorite brands – without telling the world what they’ve done.

An additional issue is that Facebook determines the rules for messaging and layouts -- which constrains how brands can represent themselves to consumers. Layouts and user experience on Facebook can’t be altered, and the right of comment is universal. Since the value of a brand lies within consumer perceptions, it is terrifying to hand over so much control to third parties.

Brands, however, can’t afford to ignore Facebook. Consumers expect a presence and the sharing facilities within it mean that every mention of your brand can reach from hundreds to even thousands of friends. The site offers meaningful connections and endorsements that were simply non-existent in 2005. And let’s face it, Facebook is incredibly good fun.

For a brand to be properly protected and framed, agencies and clients need to remember how the web actually works. It’s not a channel that allows brands to communicate. It’s a tool that gives people the freedom to do whatever they want. If Facebook’s story tells us anything, it’s that the definition of success is tapping into and enabling human behavior. You cannot make people do things they don’t want to do or can’t be bothered to do, as evidenced by the glacial growth of Google+.

Facebook users know that because they are not paying, they are the commodity being traded. They only use the site to do things they want to do. It’s amazing that the range of activities that people (and especially young people) pursue on Facebook includes ‘liking’ brands, but those brands need to be careful about expanding the comfort zones of the community.

There are two rules of thumb for brands on Facebook:

Rule One: Only create interaction that supports and reinforces your brand. This means having an authentic tone of voice and promoting stories and content that accurately reflect the brand. Anything else will fail to connect with users. You also need a sound strategy in place for dealing with haters and complaints.

Rule Two: Only use Facebook for promotions and content that reflects real desires. You know it’s a safe bet to assume that 90% of your Facebook fans will enjoy a silly video, and the rest will ignore it. If you’re going to ask them for ideas, stimulate a debate, or create some kind of amazing application and ask them to ‘share’ it, please ensure that it is the kind of thing they enjoy. Knowing your audience and what makes them click has never been more important.

Joe Harrod is a freelancer with Interbrand’s Verbal Identity team in London.

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