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Ain’t No Free: Thoughts on the marketing utility of Facebook

NRBQ: marketing geniuses

One of my favorite bands is an essentiially defunct group called NRBQ. On their 1978 album “NRBQ At Yankee Stadium,” there’s a track I’ve enjoyed, and, in my role as marketing guy, quoted from many times over the years. The track is called “Ain’t No Free,” and — to the accompaniment of a rollicking New Orleans beat — it details the many ways that none of us ever receive anything, from anybody, at any time, without paying for it:

Well, it might be credit
Or it might be barter
But they always find a way
To make you pay, pay, pay!

Much has been made over the last decade about how the Internet is changing this paradigm. All kinds of companies (including ours, on occasion) launch new products or entice new users, by offering goods and services at no cost. The reality, of course, is that in most cases, these things are only being offered at no immediate cost. Like the song says, “ain’t no free.”

The seemingly free stuff you enjoy over the Internet is either eventually going to cost you money, or it’s something for which you pay from the start without realizing it, usually with your personal or business data. There ain’t no free for you, the user, because—of course—there ain’t no free for the company that offers you the product. Products and services cost money.

Facebook is no different, it costs something to make. Consequently, Mark Zuckerberg is on a constant, and understandable, quest to find ways to make you pay, pay, pay. He tries to get payments out of advertisers, and he tries to get payments out of businesses that want to know how you or your company spend your time and your money.

Both of these things are essentially transfer payments from you. Advertisers and marketers are most immediately on the hook to pay Facebook’s bills—but if you don’t buy the stuff they’re selling, or choose not to share data pertaining to your habits and preferences, the people who advertise with or buy information from Facebook will walk away, the money will dry up, and Facebook will go out of business.

Thus far, the advertising industry has been pretty vocal (if not entirely unanimous) about how useful Facebook marketing is, giving it low marks as a paid branding engine. People who make their living in social media, of course, respond by saying “you’re not using it correctly!” or “Facebook’s brand-building has nothing to do with advertising!”

Both of these objections, in my view, are actually correct—but neither of them suggest that Facebook is destined to succeed as a paid brand-builder, either.

A few months ago, we spent a modest sum on Facebook marketing in the form of paid advertising as a means of raising awareness for our services in various regions outside the United States. The results were dismal, despite our painstaking efforts to follow all of Facebook’s rules and best practices. Our experience seemed to back up what we’d read in numerous analyst reports about the efficacy of Facebook when it comes to soliciting new business-to-business customers. It just doesn’t work.

But if you let Facebook do what it does “naturally”—i.e., give you a forum to share your company’s personality—the product can serve a useful purpose in the marketing mix. A 2011 Forrester Research survey of US and European B2B technology buyers showed that fewer than 10% make technology purchases as a result of something they see on Facebook. On the other hand, buyers do spend time trying to find out what their vendors are like before they spend their money, and we do tend to buy more things from people we like.

The lessons we’ve learned are behind the changes you might have seen on our Facebook page lately. Instead of trying to advertise our products and services on Facebook, we now use the social media platform to share our culture—our individual and collective personalities—through photos, opinion pieces and non-work-related (and hopefully entertaining) things our staff is geeking out about. Response has been good, and our employees also like having a public face that’s not buried behind three inches of marketing pancake makeup. Plus (despite NRBQ’s cautionary words), it’s free.

Or, at least, it’s free to us, in the B2B sector. I presume Mark Zuckerberg will find plenty of companies who will unknowingly pay to keep it that way—probably B2C companies marketing the latest energy drinks, hit TV shows or “thin” online games. In any case…

I’m not enough of an e-commerce whiz to know for certain whether ServInt’s experience with the paid advertising side of Facebook is indicative of a macro-level B2B incompatibility for the company—nor am I qualified to know whether it foretells an increase in the downward velocity of the company’s stock. The only concrete advice I can give B2B marketers on the topic of Facebook is this:

If you want to maximize the business utility of Facebook, think about how you personally interact with the site. I’m willing to bet none of you have ever bought any business service because of an ad on Facebook. Yet, I’m also pretty confident that many of you have visited the Facebook pages of companies you’re considering doing business with, simply to learn more about the personal, friendly, “Facebook-y” side of the business in question. I’m also pretty sure that there have been many times you’ve found a stripped-down piece of brochureware where you ought to have found some real personality on display—and that you left feeling a bit cheated.

I believe we expect certain things when we visit any Facebook page: we expect a respite from business-as-usual. We expect something genuine — even quirky. We expect friendliness, and a willingness to talk. And we expect a bit of entertainment or enlightenment to break up the monotony of a typical business day. Facebook is expertly designed to provide you with the perfect vessel for this kind of powerful, humanizing outreach. If you make the most of this utility, you’ll be effectively sharing a valuable, and all-too-frequently missing, component of your overarching brand strategy: your personality.

Fritz Stolzenbach is ServInt’s Vice President of Marketing and Business Development.

About Fritz Stolzenbach

Fritz Stolzenbach is the Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at ServInt. You can find him on Google+.


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