April 6th, 2011
These days, corporate brands and nonprofits alike are diving into Facebook marketing — for a small indicator, look at how many TV commercials now drive potential customers to a Facebook page rather than to a company’s own website (ten years ago, it might have been a AOL page!). And of course pushing a product or cause on Facebook makes intuitive sense, considering how much time we now spend on the site — you want to go where the audience is. But here’s the elephant in the room: what good are those followers if we can’t actually get them to DO anything?
Note that I’m not talking about the Gladwellian “soft ties” argument about the potential of social media to change the world — to me, Egypt and Tunisia are proof enough of social media’s ability to provide people the tools to self-organize for political change. I’m thinking from the point of view of a practical professional marketer, someone who’s trying to get attention for a product or (more relevant for our purposes on Epolitics.com) to build a following for a candidate or a social cause.
And from that point of view, a Facebook fan-base does not necessarily translate into a useful cadre of activists, no matter how tall a soapbox the site has proven to be for Sarah Palin. For a start, let’s talk action rates: for most nonprofits, getting 3-5% of their email list members to take a particular action is pretty good, meaning for instance that a list of 100,000 people should generate several thousand emails to Congress on a given issue. Of course, the more difficult the action, the lower the resulting response rate, since asking people to call their Congressmembers instead of clicking a button to send an email can easily cut the number of participants tenfold.
What about Facebook? Unfortunately, even simple actions posted on Facebook often have response rates lower by a factor of ten or more than the equivalent sent out to members of an email list, making an “easy” Facebook ask similar to the heaviest lifts you might ask of your list. In part, this results from Facebook’s “in-the-moment” nature, since your updates are likely to flicker out of sight quickly unless a fan has interacted with your page extensively in the past, raising you higher in their news feed. But I’d argue that the same dynamic is at play as when you ask your list members to take a difficult action. “Liking” a page is easy to do, perhaps too easy — one click and you’re done — creating the “loose ties” that Gladwell believes undermine the medium’s ability to create change in the real world.
Regardless of where you stand on that argument (e.politics stands in the corner waiting for history to sort it out), the loose connections between a cause and a fan on Facebook create a barrier to getting that fan to act. Why? Because they’ll have to DO something. Of course, people on your email list will also have to do something to take an action, but by signing up, they’ve already made the choice to receive messages from you in their inboxes where they’re much harder to ignore than a random Facebook status update. By choosing to join your list, they’ve already moved a step up the ladder of engagement compared with a random Facebook fan — they’ve made a commitment, even if it’s just to accept email from your organization. By contrast, Facebook fans have jumped through a far less difficult hoop at the start, and they’re consequently less likely to jump through the next one when you ask them to.
I’m not arguing that political marketers should ignore Facebook, but its current relatively low response rate as a mobilization tool should at least figure into the value we place on a Facebook following. For instance, advertisers frequently spend anywhere from $.50 to a couple of dollars to acquire a fan, but is that worth it when progressive nonprofits can pay under $2 per acquisition to recruit email-list members via services like Care2 and Change.org? The same logic applies to Google Ads as well, since they have a proven track record of generating excellent Return On Investment for political list-building. So far, most organizations that I’ve spoken with just haven’t seen the same concrete results from Facebook, no matter how good a tool it may be for fostering conversations both with and among followers.
Now, this situation isn’t likely to stay constant, since plenty of people are developing tools and tactics to turn passive Facebook followers into customers and activists, and even into the ever-prized “brand advocates” (a.k.a. “brand evangelists”). At my current job, for instance, we’ve built a solid (35,000+) following on Facebook, via both advertising and word-of-mouth, and we’re constantly experimenting with ways to connect with our fans and help them up to the next step on the ladder of engagement. But unless political organizers can find ways to put Facebook followers to work consistently and effectively, some of us may have to start hopping off the Facebook bandwagon. Even the best fishing pond isn’t much good if the fish don’t bite on the bait hard enough to end up in your boat.