November 12, 2010

PR on Facebook : understanding and measuring success

For all its perceived potential as a marketing tool letting you engage directly with consumers in a half-a-billion sized tank of users, Facebook is not always seen as an easy ride for Public Relations and Stakeholder Engagement professionals. And yet, the opposite could actually be true.

Yes, Facebook is mainly a consumer oriented media on which hot topics include ice cream and the latest Lady Gaga adventure. Yes, brand bashing pages start or relay crises and have turned into PR nightmares (ask BP or Toyota). Yes, measuring your engagement, as described in many articles, is tedious and often based on flaky fan population sizes that can be slow to grow for non famous businesses and are meaningless to your board.

Flick picture by Kenny Møller

But let’s see the other side of the Facebook PR coin. Let’s start by defining the nature of a Facebook page, as a venue for Stakeholder Engagement and PR. It differs from traditional media in two essential ways:

  1. It is neither owned, earned media nor an opt-in list, but what Forrester refer to as partially owned media. You can’t invite people to your party and ask them to shut up once they arrive or not reply to them. Yet, that’s what some big corporate accounts have been doing and that’s what explains the ensuing PR nightmares (cf the Toyota case and Sinar Mas case).
  2. It pushes engagement towards real-time, leaving no time to consult VPs, CEOs or lawyers. Discussions must be open, honest and timely. BP’s PR ordeal can mainly be attributed to the breaching of these rules, and not only on Facebook.

Flickr image by European Parliament

I think Facebook may be a better place for PR than for marketing. For a quartet of reasons:

  1. Facebook isn’t all about Ice Cream. Essential stakeholders for many businesses have a presence on the social media. And whatever your sector, it is a great place to reach out to the general public: discussions posted on a regular basis make your page a repository of precious information that doesn’t require a visit to your corporate website.
  2. Even among Facebook marketers, the consensus is that the social media isn’t a good place to grow your audience, but rather a place to nurture your existing one through passive attention, maintaining brand awareness via regular updates to a semi-captive fan base. There are no built-in ways of identifying new prospects as on LinkedIn or of getting people to follow you as on twitter.
  3. More often than not, Facebook fans are already fans of your brand when they like your page, or are lured by the promise of short term profit (a discount or a lottery prize, for instance). In his excellent recent trilogy of articles on the subject, Jay Baer writes: « … what I can’t abide, and what I want to put a stop to right now, is the notion that Facebook fan pages are a cause of advocacy. Instead, Facebook fan page “likes” are primarily the manifestation of advocacy that already exists. »
  4. Thanks to the EdgeRank algorithm that decides what appears on your wall and what doesn’t, it is estimated that only one in 500 of a company’s updates actually reach its fans. Whereas when responding to mentions of your brand (using adequate monitoring), you will automatically be seen.

So how do you start?

  • Facebook itself has a good PR page teeming with discussions on the more modern variations of PR such as Webinars, blogging tips, welcome pages …
  • Engage openly. Tell your side of the story firmly but keeping in mind you share the room with very sensitive and sometimes vocal people who you can turn into powerful advocates or hateful enemies. Few industries are more exposed than energy and mining, yet Rio Tinto navigated the “Rio Tinto get the hell out of Madagascar” troubled waters efficiently.
  • Incorporate your monitoring and engagement in the broader context of a stakeholder engagement process and platform in order to produce meaningful reports (Hint: my employer is an editor of such solutions ;) )
  • As for measuring, nothing has changed: whenever possible try to link desired outcomes to your activity. If not possible, analyze the quality of your outputs to estimate outcomes. Counting fans? Really? If your research can tie a financial value to a fan, go ahead. Otherwise, focus on conversations and measure each update as you would a small article: accuracy of message, tone of voice, benchmarking …

If you have other ideas or experiences on this topic, please share them in the comments ! Happy Facebook.

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