For advertisers, the most interesting thing about Graph Search, Facebook's new social search product, is how dependent it is on Likes.
Likes are one of Facebook's most-used functions. The familiar thumbs-up symbol first appeared in 2009. But recently, it has fallen out of favor with advertisers.
Here's how Graph Search fixes that.
The monetization of Likes.
Likes are now back on the frontburner at Facebook.
When users search for restaurants favored by their friends, Graph Search will return results based on the number of Facebook Likes their friends have checked.
The intent is to deliver search results that are useful because it's like receiving an instant poll of your friends.
Obviously, businesses with more Likes — more fans, in other words — will do better in this environment than those with fewer Likes.
Under the Graph Search regime, Likes are suddenly huge.
This could force an abrupt U-turn among advertisers who have recently come to mistrust the Like.
Following the launch of Likes, Facebook encouraged brands to gather as many fans as possible. Some companies ended up with more Facebook fans than small countries had citizens. Walmart has 26 million fans, for instance.
Having gathered those audiences, however, advertisers found they often had limited value. Walmart isn't really talking to 26 million people all day. The activity seemed shallow.
Worse, last year Facebook tightened the News Feed algorithm (which some call Edgerank) that controls what percentage of a brand's posts are seen by all its fans. For uninteresting posts, as few as 10 percent of fans may see the message. Only interesting messages that go viral can be seen by all a brand's fans.
That annoyed marketers and their agencies. Having been encouraged to build a huge fanbase, Facebook was now restricting how they communicated with them.
Prior to that, some advertisers had begun to question whether advertising on Facebook to acquire more fans was even worth it. In September, Simon Mansell, CEO of TBG Digital — one of the biggest buyers of ads on Facebook — bemoaned fan collection campaigns. "It shouldn't really be about driving likes or follows because who cares about those things?" he said. "Is it because your competitor has more Likes than you? That's a stupid reason to do something."
But under Graph Search, having more Likes is suddenly a huge advantage. As users search for advice from friends on Facebook, the restaurant or yoga studio with more likes within a group of friends suddenly has a big advantage over its rivals.
Advertisers will now want to target Graph Searches.
A Facebook spokesperson tells us that advertisers cannot target users based on data generated by Graph Social searches. "We are not currently serving ads to people based on their searches. As before, ads can show up as sponsored results as part of the search suggestions when you type in the search bar. We are not launching any new ad capabilities at this time, and there are no ads in the search results page."
But advertisers know that Facebook may be able to turn on that capability at a later date, and are salivating at the thought of it.
Chris Copeland, CEO of GroupM Next, the digital innovation unit of WPP's media buying group, says he may now recommend to clients that they begin advertising again to gather more fans through Likes:
"You can see a model where people check-in more via Facebook, people use Graph Search to identify restaurants and businesses, and people associate that and give advertisers the ability to target them. Suddenly you have a powerful discovery vehicle."
What is the value of a Like?
"When a brand says, 'what is the value of a Like?,' part of the value is the exposure they might have to people in their own network via Graph Search. It forces brands to rethink what exactly their fan acquisition strategy is," says Copeland.
For now, Facebook is NOT offering advertisers the ability to target based on Graph Search requests. But Copeland believes the technology exists for that to happen in the future, maybe in tandem with FBX, Facebook's retargeting ad exchange.
In the meantime, advertisers suddenly need to make sure their Pages and fanbases are robust and up to date, lest their customers start making shopping decisions based on Graph Search recommendations.
Rob Jewell, CEO of Spruce Media, another large buyer of Facebook ads, foresees a new rush among advertisers to gather and keep fans through Likes. He tells us:
"The same exact paid media strategies that brands should be employing to maximize their news feed placement will also maximize their search result listings. If Facebook Graph Search takes off (like we think it will) brands who do not actively focus on keeping their fans engaged will lose out on being placed in search results. Brands with a high volume and frequency of engagements will benefit even more than they have in the past with more than just the improved newsfeed distribution."
Facebook's plan to keep advertisers locked in.
In short, everything about Graph Search smells like it comes straight from Facebook's not-so-secret plan to keep advertisers locked in for years. In that plan, advertisers are encouraged to build free assets — such as Pages that gather Likes — over time.
Once a significant portion of a company's natural fanbase is accumulated, the advertiser is then locked in to serving them — which often requires the expenditure of money on Facebook.
It is, again, very clever.
Disclosure: The author owns Facebook stock.
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