Who Needs The Web When I've Got Facebook?

Why online marketers might not want to wait for Facebook to come to them


This April, Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook’s “Open Graph” initiative, an Internet-wide protocol for making any webpage “equivalent to a Facebook page.” With a few bits of code, any web developer could add social networking functionality to a page, integrating its content with tools such as Facebook’s “like” button. From Facebook’s point of view, the idea was simple: People enjoy online social networks. They like web browsing, too. Why not combine them?

Six months into the Open Graph experiment, it seems that the bet has paid off: Social plug-ins (ie, “like” “share” and “recommend” buttons) are now, according to Facebook, present on more than 2 million websites. Online marketers have been some of the most enthusiastic adopters of social plug-ins, as they allow brands to convert impressions into lasting relationships: Once a consumer “likes” a brand, the brand establishes a dedicated communication channel, the Facebook newsfeed, for pushing out further messages. These communication channels are highly valued, as they represent both an endorsement of the brand (“likes” are broadcast to users’ friend groups) and a receptiveness toward receiving future brand messaging. Last month, the Facebook “like” button even began appearing in banner ads from J.C. Penny and Mountain Dew, entreating web readers not rush to stores or the nearest soda machine but to simply engage with the brands through the tools of social networking.

At is heart, the Open Graph represents an conviction that web users prefer information that is socially rooted; rather than relying on an algorithm, such as Google’s, to index information, the Open Graph aims to index content through the recommendations and endorsements of the people users trust most: Their friends. Want to know which movie to watch this weekend? Who cares what the reviewers say? Here’s the one your friends liked. Around the time of the Open Graph launch, this line of thinking caused speculation that Facebook was headed for a fight with Google. By pushing its functionality out to the broader web, it seemed that Facebook was making a bold claim that all browsing should be built on a social network foundation.

The rise of real social browsing on Facebook

Whether or not this bold wager was correct will of course be determined in the years to come. But some recent ReD ethnographic research suggests that perhaps Zuckerburg didn’t need to expand Facebook’s reach in order to conquer the wider web after all; for certain groups of younger users, we’ve seen a trend toward the rest of the web moving into Facebook itself.

In a recent study of 21-29 year old females, we observed a surprising number of respondents spending as many as 5 hours per day on Facebook, with much of that activity being what the respondents near-universally called “nosing around” and we’ll term “social browsing.” Social browsing here (not to be confused with start-ups that have tried to make web browsing something you do with other people) largely consists of seeing what your friends are/were up to: Reading status updates, clicking and watching video links, shuffling through photos of friends’ nights out and comparing those nights to ones own. To people familiar with Facebook, this behavior, of course, is not unexpected. But what we found most interesting about it was that, for this group, social browsing had largely replaced all other forms of web browsing. Yes, these women would occasionally go out onto the broader web to perform discrete tasks: to check the weather, or to buy something online. But when it came to idle Internet time — the kind of behavior we’d typically associate with reading news, or blogs, or gossip sites, or just trolling around “killing time” — Facebook had almost entirely monopolized their attention.

What’s most important about this behavior, from a brand marketing perspective at least, is that when many of these women needed to look something up — information on a venue, or a band, or a consumer brand — they were more likely to look first for information on the site where they were already spending all their time: Facebook. And once they found that information on Facebook, they weren’t afraid to express their approval through a “like” or a shared link on a wall post, sending their endorsement to friends who, through social browsing, were likely to find out immediately and check things out themselves.

A brand’s Facebook page needs to be way more dynamic

What does this kind of behavior mean for online marketers? Well, for starters, brands primarily interested in targeting a younger, female demographic should focus on building brand Facebook pages at least as comprehensive as their brand websites. This point is worth emphasizing, because for all of the thinking and headscratching that has gone on in recent years as to how to best utilize Facebook for marketing, a surprising number of companies have only the most rudimentary of brand pages on the site. When your customers are coming to your Facebook page as a first-choice source of information, you need to be prepared to meet them there. And once they’re there, you want to make it very easy for them to share their experience with their fellow social browsers — their peer group. And while this behavior has only been observed those far in young adult women, brands marketing to other demographics should keep an eye out for similar behavior among their target customers; these young users have typically set the trends on online social networks.

The trend toward users seeking branded content on Facebook itself also means that marketers should continue to pressure Facebook for more flexibility in designing their branded pages. While some brands have largely succeeded in replicating website-caliber content on their Facebook pages, the perception remains that Facebook places too stringent limitations on what can and cannot happen on a Facebook page. Facebook first opened things up a few years ago, bringing flash capacity to pages, but the broad design rules (tabs at the top, banner ads down the right) remain fairly inflexibile.

If Facebook is serious about becoming the social index for the entire web, it needs to do more not to just export social networking functionality but to make Facebook itself a more hospitable place for outside web page content to live. Ultimately, this type of “social browsing” behavior by younger users may be an even stronger validation of Zuckerberg’s Open Graph thesis than the plug-ins currently populating the web. Yes, for these many years of the Internet thus far, people sure have seemed to enjoy browsing web content. But what happens if it turns out they prefer browsing content about their friends even more?

See Fast Company’s “expert blog” version of this paper here.


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