Facebook: can it open the web to business?

13 May 2010

It is not easy reading when you discover that in some large towns 40pc of retailers have closed because of the recession. At the same time, the internet as we know it has sped up in terms of size and complexity.

Many businesses in this country lack even a web strategy, let alone a social media strategy, so the speed of change is frightening, even for savvy business owners who realise the importance of the web to their business.

Today, the number of people on Facebook is anywhere between 400 and 500 million. The number of Irish people on Facebook stands at 1.5 million and, according to Colm Long, head of European operations at Facebook in Dublin, many of these people have been active on the site in the last 30 days. He says more than 700,000 Irish people are on the social networking site every day.

Any Facebook user in Ireland would be aware that pubs and restaurants are making good use of Facebook to keep their ‘tribe’ or
clientele, with big brands from Guinness to Starbucks looking at evolving their engagement. A Cork firm, Hairy Baby, has a thriving
business selling bespoke T-shirts around the world using Facebook as a marketing tool.

The ‘Like’ button

The biggest change that Facebook intends to bring to the social media space is the ability to tie sites outside Facebook to people’s overall use of the internet.

The vision, in its initial state, being that the ‘Like’ button you can now see on people’s statuses can be put anywhere on the web: beside a news article, a car ad, a song you’re thinking of downloading or a video on YouTube. The key for marketers is that the more people who can see their friends and acquaintances like something, the more likely they are to buy it.

Under a new mechanism called ‘Open Graph’, Facebook wants to bring the entire internet into its orbit and take everything from music, restaurants, books, food and TV into the ‘status’ stream or the conversation.

The golden word for businesses here is ‘context’. It’s not a million miles removed from the Amazon method of telling book or music buyers that if you liked this product, you’ll probably like these.

But can Facebook get away with it? Most likely. The ‘Like’ button is already visible on more than 50,000 websites. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says nine out of 10 US media sites are using the Facebook ‘Connect’ service. The key here for Irish firms is that Google has a new competitor in helping your business be found online.

So, the next time a friend decides to visit your shopfront on the internet via Facebook, their 100 other friends will know about it. If that shopper liked your product, chances are those 100 friends will also know about it.

Death of privacy

But before Facebook’s Open Graph vision comes to fruition, the company’s 26-year-old founder needs to stop making pronouncements on the death of privacy. This is especially true if other services that Facebook intends rolling out become possible, like a mobile geolocation service to rival FourSquare.

Facebook is tantalisingly close to bridging the real world with the virtual one. For small-business owners if that translates into real revenues it’s a good thing.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years