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Facebook: Another Britney?

A bored shoe taps the edge of the desk. The clock reads 3pm…. then the bell rings! You know what happens next: kids spill into the locker-lined corridor...

A bored shoe taps the edge of the desk. The clock reads 3pm…. then the bell rings! You know what happens next: kids spill into the locker-lined corridor and the video jumps to life. On September 30th 1998 “…Baby one more time” catapulted Britney to international stardom, selling over 9 million copies worldwide and creating a teenage pop sensation overnight. The fans loved her. The press declared her the “princess of pop”; Britney was the ultimate media golden girl. Her first album, released just three months later, made the Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling album of a teenage solo artist. There are clear parallels between Facebook and Britney…

Facebook’s growth was meteoric, in the US alone there was a 655% year-on-year increase between June 2007 and June 2008, taking subscribers up to 111 million people. After that Facebook just exploded. The whole universe appeared to gain an account overnight and World Internet Stats estimate that at the end of March 2012 the site had attained a total 49.9% penetration across the United States. Needless to say these figures rise sharply amongst younger people, but I’m sure I’m not alone in saying both my mum and gran have profiles.

This site was the world’s first true social media love – Myspace doesn’t compare – yet since the company went public on 18th May this year, the tide of opinion seems to have finally turned. A company that previously had the golden touch – now seems to have a distinctly tarnished halo. The same is true of Britney. Since the late nineties she has continued to make music, fill stadiums and generate headlines, but the tone of reportage has rapidly changed. In 2007 when she shaved her head the response was positively vindictive.

Now opinion on Facebook seems to have reached a tipping point. A couple of weeks ago, company stock slumped to a new low and the news was awash with stories of investors leaping at the first opportunity to dump their shares; slashing the value of the company by 67% since its debut, to £34bn. To some people this was the ultimate opportunity to let vent with new found venom about the tyranny their former ‘best friend’ had subjected them to.

Like many internet businesses, Facebook has struggled to monetise itself through advertising. The problem is the company is so integral to people’s social lives that any efforts made quickly become an emotive subject.  As the Independent’s consumer correspondent put it “An increasing number [of users] are likely to feel bruised as they are confronted with the bitter truth that they are mere fodder for a machine that means business,” a marketing expert in the paper added: “It takes clever leadership and in-depth understanding of where you can introduce business elements without destroying your value for users.”

Katy Guest wrote a very impassioned piece recently for the Belfast Independent, which addressed what she sees as the “sinister” use of targeted advertising. In this she described how “likes” appeared on her profile that she never made. On 2nd August Facebook announced that it estimates more than 83 million accounts on the social network are illegitimate; whilst digital distribution firm Limited Press alleged that, based on its own analytics software, 80% of clicks on its advertisements within Facebook had come from fake users.

This is interesting, although not all that surprising as utilising Facebook for marketing is quite a tricky business. I imagine a lot of people create fake accounts and use them to attempt to market their products. In a similar (though non-commercial) vein an ex-colleague of mine and I wrote and serialised a book online and promoted it via social media. Under the guise of our main character we built a following through our fictional anti-hero’s niche interests. Over a shared love of cheese, bees and comfortable trousers (and hatred of gyms) – we amassed quite a few friends/ fans.  However, we were still shocked to see 63 birthday wishes pop through for Greg last month – a full three years since he’d ceased to use the network. It just proves how powerful a medium Facebook can be for marketers if used in the right way.

In fact, a recent poll we ran on this site showed an even split between professionals who use Facebook for business daily, weekly and never, which means two thirds of B2B marketers are using the social network for their business.  Maybe this is not all that surprising as business marketing varies so much, however, I am definitely surprised by the volume of traffic back to our main IT website via Facebook.  This is probably due to our global audience, but you would still imagine the vast majority of social media interaction would come via LinkedIn. Yet looking at Google analytics over last three month 34% has come in via Facebook, 32% through LinkedIn and 23% by Twitter.

The sheer volume of Facebook subscribers means the site simply can’t be ignored by marketers. This is compounded by the fact that it has established itself as an integral part of society. Shortly after police in Aurora, identified the “Dark Knight Rises” shooter as 24-year-old James Holmes, Facebook users began searching for his presence on the social network. This became so intense; one James Holmes from Denver took to his Facebook profile with his girlfriend to assure the public that he was not the killer. The pure normality of Facebook has taken on a darker side. As the German newspaper Tagesspiegel pointed out recently, neither James Holmes, nor Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian Utoya murderer had Facebook profiles

Overall, I think this just goes to show that too many people are now signed up to Facebook to make it viable for any kind of mass exodus elsewhere.  Besides, what are the alternatives? Google plus has not really taken off, and the still newish timeline already makes it feel as though Facebook represents your whole life. Surely this would be a hard thing to abandon?  If this is the case then marketers will have to continue to make the site work for their business.  This could be through smart new advertising initiatives or, more likely, it will need to be through engaging audiences with information that interests them. Now, what was it I spotted about Britney’s wedding to Jason Trawick…

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