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September 23, 2010
Is Facebook the New E-mail?

We’ve certainly discussed the pros, cons, and security angles around Facebook here and here, and as promised, we’ve added useful links to one of these, our Facebook Privacy page. It's worth mentioning in passing, but today I’m thinking more of another entry, "Is Social Media Really Bankable," that cited examples of how some of the largest companies in the world -- and maybe yours -- are starting to leverage social media to build their businesses.

We Talent Zoo/New Media Edge contributors normally look outward for suitable subject matter, but in this case, my own tendencies have caused me to question whether we’re part of a larger trend.

Here is the question: When you want to reach out to someone today online, with a menu of communications capabilities (figuratively speaking) arrayed in front of you, which button do you push? (No, not the bright red Staples EASY button, fun as it may be.) Research by HubSpot and others indicates that whether you’re looking to close the deal or simply stay in touch, you’re doing a lot more of it these days via LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Xing, Spoke, or other sites.

More and more, I find myself pushing the Facebook button, and my stunningly unscientific yet rampantly anecdotal research seems to indicate many of you are, too. It is not just the 500 million users who allegedly (in Facebook-speak) “are actively using Facebook to stay connected with their friends and the people around them.” I think it also is a response to the emerging reality that, while sites like LinkedIn and Xing are places you must hang out your cyber-shingle to be considered a Web-forward participant in the business world, Facebook appears to be picking up steam as a business vehicle while also holding serve in the “friends & family” sphere. Every other day I hear about someone launching a Facebook event to promote a business and getting far better response than his or her last e-mail-with-a-link campaign. Companies are creating communities of users on Facebook that generate a high degree of involvement and engagement.

Something else is accelerating this activity. When I think of the proliferation of e-mail -- including, to cite just one example, people who now forward their corporate Lotus Notes mail to Google Gmail addresses as a mobile work-around -- I think the pump now is primed to send social engines like Facebook racing forward as primary online-communications vehicles. People are getting sick of problematic mail clients and flocking toward mail-via-URL. Are the interfaces usually less elegant and feature-rich? Sure, but they work. No hassles with SMTP server names or dense mail clients. You can get an Internet connection from anywhere; they work.

Online "reaction time"

Social media sites work in another way. I voraciously devour e-mails, voice mails, blogs/microblogs, and news board dialogues seemingly 24/7, but I don’t expect everyone else to do the same, and I experience a wide range of reaction times when it comes to where people are most and least responsive. What I have found for some time now is that while I may indeed hear back in response to an e-mail, I almost always hear back in relatively short order if I message someone via Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing, or Twitter.

Why? If you are old-school enough to remember when baseball was about strikeouts instead of steroids, you’ll recognize the expression “Hit it where they ain’t.” It’s the same philosophy that ought to be your primary motivator for marketing, or just basic communication: Cut through the clutter. Social media can help you cut through the clutter. Instead of being e-mail No. 91 in someone’s inbox, maybe my message via Facebook or LinkedIn -- even if the recipient learns of it via confirming a e-mail -- goes to the head of the class in terms of interest and likelihood of a response.

On Facebook, not just on someone’s wall or my own profile but also in direct messages, I can attach a link, photo, or video. On LinkedIn, links are out, although you can work around the censors with a non-clickable “emailme[at]ISP[dot]com” or “visitoursite[dot]com.” In my humble opinion, if you are a part of the business world, you should be on LinkedIn and Xing. I am on both as well as dozens of other sites, but when it comes to global social multimedia networks, it’s Facebook, as they say, in a walk.

OK, from a strictly business standpoint, let’s play devil’s advocate. Unless I’m a Facebook advertiser -- in which case I can apparently reach any Facebook user with targeted advertising based on God knows how much demo data Facebook gives me about them -- the pool of people the rest of us can message to on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn is by definition limited to those who have agreed, in effect, to “opt in” by connecting with us first. By contrast, if you purchase the right list, you can zap an e-mail to vast multitudes of (alleged) prospects in an instant.

Could it be, however, that it is worth investing a bit of time and effort upfront in order to communicate on an ongoing basis with people who then are more likely to be receptive to your message?

Facebook going Places

No discussion of Facebook would be complete without mentioning its latest feature/self-created controversy: Facebook Places. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, Places lets users tap the location-sensing capabilities of their mobile devices to "check in" to a business or address and instantly share it with their Facebook connections, while locating others who do the same at that location. Speaking of tapping, the reason for Places is that it will help Facebook tap into the location-based services mobile advertising market, selling location-targeted advertising to these ready adopters. Users opt in to receive advertising messages, often but not always sent to them depending on where they are physically located at the moment, in return for special deals from retailers and/or a monthly service discount from the wireless provider. That is the main ingredient in partnerships such as the one between Verizon and Microsoft: Sweeten the deal to persuade users to opt in for ads on their mobile devices, and with every user who does so, these companies build viable audiences for advertising messages.

Traditional media outlets have long done the same, and you “opt in” by watching TV; listening to radio; or reading a magazine, newspaper, billboard, or other print medium. The problem, and the point of the sword among old and new media, is old media advertisers are getting a lot of what I’m going to call “assumed opt-ins” -- the time-honored viewer ratings or readership statistics -- that are starting to hold less water by the day. It’s much harder getting on-the-go mobile users to opt into your mobile advertising, but when you do, it should be worth several, maybe many, of their “assumed opt-in” old media counterparts. No, I was not commissioned to write the sales pitch for Microsoft's advertising; these are just some of the salient arguments that are helping new media correctly gain a toehold in the market.

Facebook Places follows the launch of Google Places earlier this year. (Apparently even with first use in interstate commerce, Google couldn’t lock up the word “Places” describing a directory/location-based services offering, or Facebook tested the trademark/service mark waters to see if Google blinked, or the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decided “places” is generic and cannot be registered, or it was something else.) Google Places gives companies directory-style sites with location info, street-level images, customer reviews, and more, and some observers feel that is where Facebook is headed next.

As The Wall Street Journal notes, adding location info to the existing treasure trove of user data that has already caused high-profile user defections from Facebook could increase both the ongoing public outcry against the service and the amount of unwanted attention it receives from privacy advocates and regulators. As one reader on the publication's own message board pointed out: “It’s optional. If you don’t want to share your location data with the world, don’t do it!”

Talk to us

What do you think? Is Facebook becoming the new e-mail? Do you use it to reach out to friends, business contacts, both, or neither? What do you think about Facebook Places? We welcome your comments.

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For years Jeff Cotrupe was the analyst who "named Stratecast but never joined the firm." Those days are over: He has now joined Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan, as Program Director, OSS/BSS Global Competitive Strategies. If you compete in the global communications market, Stratecast offers the critical strategic insights you need to WIN. You can connect with Jeff on all social media sites at XeeSM and follow StratecastF&S and Jeff on Twitter.

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