A Direct Marketing Revolution

I will admit to no small measure of cynicism. Generally speaking, I’ve seen a lot of combinations of technology promising to vastly improve (or at least change) the way we market online. Many of them are cool, lots are clever, but infrequently are they breakthrough. On very seldom occasions do they ever make me stop and really think, “This is a big deal.”

My friends, I have just had one of those Big Deal moments.

Facebook, the increasingly dominant social network, just made a series of changes to the way Pages operate, and one in particular is a remarkable hybrid of text ads, RSS feeds, consumer-generated media, and e-mail marketing. Brands can now post Status Updates, which not only appear in their fan’s News Feed but also can be commented on. It’s a remarkable new development that needs to be examined closely and executed carefully.

This is one of those situations where you can either do the right thing and achieve wild results or do the wrong thing and be publicly dragged through social media’s town square. In the extraordinarily short time that this feature has been available, I’ve already seen both.

A Bit of Background: Facebook Pages

Facebook is a site built to let a large number of people connect, reconnect, and interconnect with one another. Where we normally would think of a site (e.g., Yahoo or Slate) as a bunch of pages that are linked, Facebook is a bunch of people linked. With all of those people there, brands naturally became interested in joining as well.

Facebook made the introduction of brands to the site pretty easy and pretty great, actually. It introduced its Pages, which was a certain kind of a presence on the social network, designed to let brands provide information and let users connect to these brands by becoming fans. Brands could send messages to their fans, but those messages were always separate from the main part of Facebook, the News Feed. Brand messages went into the Updates space, which doesn’t get nearly the attention the News Feed does.

Are you now sufficiently confused about Facebook’s UI (define)? If not, you get a gold star. Truthfully, the Facebook UI is a disaster. Changes are coming soon, but I’d be surprised if they addressed the core problems of the site: too many menus, too many things with similar sounding names, too many nav bars.

The big change that occurred with Pages is the introduction of Status Updates. Brands can now provide their fans with status updates, just like people do. That is, the person who runs the Facebook Page for a brand can provide a small bit of text that gets placed directly onto your fan’s News Feed.

To make things even more interesting, fans can now comment on those Status Updates. And everyone who is a fan can see all those comments. Consumer conversations are suddenly getting sparked by brands in some very public spaces.

How to Make the Most, Avoid the Worst

I absolutely implore you to get familiar with Facebook Pages and the new set of functionality. This is one of those relatively small innovations that could have massive ripple effects for marketers.

Consider this: posting up a Status Update for a brand is like sending an e-mail to your database. It’s a bit shorter, of course, and there are no graphics. But it’s still a message sent to a person who has opted in to hear from you. This message, though, not only goes out to everyone on your list but any responses to it go to everyone on your list. Suddenly, your fans may connect to each other through your message.

Which brings up the question: what are they going to connect about? If your brand has any skeletons lurking in the closet, this may be when they come out. You may put out a Status Update that you’re hard at work on version 3.5, only to have a massive response from consumers who are ticked that version 3.0 doesn’t work.

On the flip side, if you have some latent advocates — people who have connected to you and are ready to help spread your message — you are in really good shape. That is, if you post that version 3.5 is coming out and they post a comment or even click a button that says they like a post, that message gets broadcast to their social network.

This is the really big deal. Think about e-mail messages you send out. Not only do you hope that the recipient acts, but also that she clicks the “send to a friend” link and multiplies your effort. Unfortunately, that happens infrequently. People are fairly hard-pressed to just forward a message.

But within this new system, people can forward without forwarding. They can simply announce their own thoughts, and those thoughts get spread. It’s a simple way to provide a targeted, opt-in message that your consumers can instantly take ownership of.

It’s that low-investment interaction for the recipient that makes this such a powerful new tool for marketers. I believe that, once advertisers get a sense of the power they have, they’re going to become addicted to it.

Join ClickZ at Search Engine Strategies New York on March 25. More than one dozen online marketing professionals will discuss the latest issues in the larger universe of digital marketing.

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