The last 12 months has seen a sea change in the user experience strategy of many grocery brands, placing social media, and particularly Facebook, at the heart of their digital play.

At first look this seems sensible, Facebook offers an opportunity for richer forms of interaction than either digital advertising or a brand’s own website have historically delivered. And the platform is free to use. And it yields lots of new data points that weren’t available before.

But in the long term Facebook can’t be where brands ‘live’ online, and making Facebook the centre of gravity for FMCG brands opens up a number of risks for brand owners. We need to put our thinking caps on and consider a new future for brand websites in the marketing mix.

Last one out, turn off the lights

Grocery brands have spent over a decade wrestling with digital strategy, and very few seem to have created a compelling investment model.

Brand sites (and commonly campaign microsites) were a useful place to carry competitions and promotions, but beyond that they had little currency. Few consumers were ready to invest time in visiting and exploring content about the brand itself.

Five years ago the watchword was ‘viral’. Brands became aware that digital campaigns could get amplified by new social tools finding a huge, cheap audience for campaign ideas. Agencies loved this trend because it allowed them to pitch edgy ideas which might just become an internet meme and bring everyone involved fame and fortune.

Eventually brand owners began to realise that the chances of their viral campaign actually going viral were tiny. They were buying raffle tickets for their agency.

Marmite on Facebook. Either you get it...or you hate it.Recently the emphasis has moved from viral to social. Facebook offers the opportunity to build and talk to groups who self-identify as being interested in, or involved with, a particular brand.

Some early adopters, like Marmite, found brilliant applications for these communities like product and campaign development, demonstrating that investment and effort from fans was repaid with attention and action on the brand’s part.

But the long tail of brands now using Facebook rarely show that level of sophistication, or a native understanding of what motivates their social audience.

Most brands focus on one of two tactics: using Facebook to extend their advertising and PR platforms, or listening in on consumer reaction and sentiment.

The ease of doing the first of these and the newness of the latter have made Facebook a real draw for FMCG brands. So much so that investment in brand’s own websites is starting to peter out.

In advance of a new business meeting earlier in the year I visited the site of a major beer brand. It was still carrying a promotion for a world sporting event the previous summer. Tumbleweeds are starting to blow around the websites of some of the world’s biggest brands.

So why is that a bad thing? If all the consumers are at Facebook, why shouldn’t that be the home of FMCG brands online?

Frenemy at the gates

When thinking about Facebook as a point of presence for brands there are a couple of points to consider:

  1. They aren’t your fans. A brand’s fans are Facebook customers who’ve identified an interest in your brand and told Facebook about it. This is such an important principle, because it reminds you that ultimately it’s Facebook, not you, who owns and controls the data.
  2. Facebook is in the data business. Facebook’s great triumph has been to focus the creative efforts and imaginations of the world’s marketing folk on producing content for their site, which in turn helps them gain a thorough understanding of their users.

    This is the essence of their model: other people create the content, they harvest the data (a tiny fraction of which they also share back with the brand’s page administrator).

    What are the implications of this? Netflix recently announced that they are making a push into the British market in 2012. Which media platform would be top of your list if you were making this move?

    Well, Facebook has been gathering data for years about people’s film and TV preferences, it also has a very intimate picture of its customers’ relationships with film rental brands like LoveFilm and Blockbuster, and it has complete discretion over the way it makes use of this data resource in its commercial activities.

    The same applies to beer, confectionery, dog food, haircare products, snack foods. You name it; there is a data resource on almost every product category. All created by Facebook’s customers and the brands which want to sell to them.

    The long term threat of this is that Facebook has the potential to create a data resource about consumers in exactly the same way that Clubcard and Nectar have created with shoppers.

    Facebook and the supermarkets threaten to create a complete lock on consumer brand marketers: selling them back data which they’ve helped to create.

    A third way: develop your own data resources

    I’m no luddite. The data resource that Facebook is developing is useful to the world, and there’s no stuffing this particular genie back into the bottle.

    Instead, consumer brands should start to develop their own independent data to give them a picture of both consumer and shopper behaviour. This would give brands intelligence which would allow them to develop better consumer messaging, product and promotions as well as more ideas about how to influence shoppers at the point of sale.

    The place to do this is on their own brand websites. Which brings us back to this decade-old problem: how to create a valuable and viable site experience?

    The key is to re-think the purpose of a brand’s website. Until now most consumer brands would have something like the following as their site’s objective:

    The website’s role is to extend the brand’s communications platform online.

    I would argue for an alternative purpose:

    The website’s role is to gather information about consumer and shopper behaviour in order to better inform marketing activities.

    Direct Line ideas lab on Facebook. Like research, only interesting.This will certainly involve using social tools, but these can be woven into a digital experience which is more under the control of the brand – and where more data can be collected by the brand as an outcome of marketing activity. But two mindsets need to change:

    1. Marketers need to think more like researchers.

      How can the brand’s personality be manifested in a way that creates the opportunity for dialogue with customers?

      Marketers need to learn that their primary role in digital is not to ‘tell’ about the brand, but to ‘ask’ consumers about themselves, their preferences and behaviours in a way that is consistent with the personality of the brand.

    2. Researchers need to think more like marketers.

      In the online and social space, structured research enquiries need to be entertaining, engaging and rewarding, everything that most traditional market research is not.

      Consumers are very willing to share their experiences and perspectives with brands, but not where the rewards for them and the brand are seen as unequal. Our own work with Direct Line sheds some light on what research will look like in the future.

    The Skittles site offers some interesting ideas about how this can work. It offers an entertaining experience which is grounded very deeply in the brand’s personality. It sits at the centre of a web of social platforms (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) which interconnect and create the mechanism for interaction and enquiry.

    Its content invites visitors to participate in lots of ways, many of which will yield useful data, all of which are fun.

    Skittles brand site. Clues about the future of brand experience onlineAll that’s missing is the introduction of specific and structured research enquiries which allow the brand to explore the development of product, communications and shopper initiatives..

    However, who’s to say that Skittles isn’t doing this kind of research in more private online contexts with consumers recruited from their social environments?

    In summary, social media platforms are not the end in themselves. There is a risk that brands which are too reliant on social media for digital marketing are giving away data and relationships in a way they may later regret.  

    But social platforms do offer a new set of tools which allow consumer brands to revisit the old problem of how to create value out of digital, and suggest there is room for a user experience strategy which creates measurable value.

    FMCG brands need to consider that the real value of digital is as an ‘ask’ rather than ‘tell’ medium. Success rests on the two disciplines of research and marketing learning from each other, and evolving their practices.