Search gets social – what Facebook’s new venture means for marketers

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at the launch of Facebook Graph SearchAlthough still in its early stages, Facebook’s Graph Search has caused something of a splash in the digital marketing space. As a high-profile move from the social media heavyweight, it signifies Facebook’s first real foray into the field of search, which is currently dominated by Google.

But Facebook’s search is fundamentally different to Google’s traditional web search. It relies on the company’s vast hoard of user data to deliver results showing how users connect to their friends, family and favourite brands. It’s search gone social.

Mark Zuckerberg once said that there are more than a trillion connections on Facebook, a number that continues to grow. Indexing this information and then making it available to users via a workable search function is a mammoth task. The idea behind Facebook Graph Search is to contexualise the things that consumers are saying and doing online. Many will talk to their Facebook friends about local coffee shops, clothing brands, favourite movies, songs or even local services. While this insight in itself is useful, imagine a brand being able to search this content based on tags, ‘Likes’ and comments. This added layer of insight provides context and sentiment to the conversations being conducted over Facebook.

So what will this mean for brands? For one, social media will become a lot more valuable and interesting as a channel of communication. With the ability to turn social conversations into contextual insights about a brand’s presence online, it could effectively increase the value of a ‘Like’ or recommendation. This is due to the fact that ‘Likes’ and recommendations will have a greater influence on Facebook searches, driving more traffic back to brand pages.

An additional benefit of generating more ‘Likes’ will be the added data this will give brands. Data is the new currency for marketers – it enables personalisation and targeting, which ultimately drives engagement with consumers and increases sales. A function like Graph Search may mean that consumers take more time to provide in-depth feedback to friends and define their interests more accurately. This would be greatly beneficial to marketers, enabling them to unlock greater insights about their own brand and their competitors.

Graph Search also has the potential to incentivise marketers to engage with customers across other channels.  Facebook has been looking at developing its mobile offering for some time and speculation suggests that location-based services may play a role in the future of its new social search function. Imagine being able to search the website for user recommendations based on location. This is yet another example of how the value of real-time social feedback may increase and how it can deliver tangible returns for brands. With this in mind, cross-channel integration will become more important as marketers will look to encourage interaction through other digital touchpoints.

While it’s still early days, the potential for Facebook’s Graph Search to revolutionise the way brands and consumers alike are using social media platforms is great. If consumers can easily see what friends with similar interests are buying, this could spur them on to make those purchases for themselves. In short, socialising the buying process could pay off by increasing sales for brands. Facebook has been moving steadily towards commercialising the site, and recent news of the “Want” button was a significant step forward. This feature would allow users to signify intended purchases, an action which would then be visible to their friends on the site. From here, the next logical step will surely be for Facebook to enable users to make purchases directly through the site, in return for commission from the merchant.

Regardless of whether the ‘Want’ button materialises, the fact that Facebook is investing so heavily in Graph Search proves that the company thinks this technology is a big part of its future. The challenge now for brands and marketers is how they can capitalise on this vision. While there has been some initial debate on the privacy of data being accessed, if Facebook allows users to opt in to the service then the onus is on brands to be transparent about how data is being used.

However, one thing is clear. If marketers want to make the most of this new feature, they will need to invest more time in listening to feedback and recommendations provided on social media platforms. Nurturing social advocates and fans will help to increase a brand’s online profile. Creating conversations and engaging with followers will also provide insights to improve products and enhance the brand’s reputation. As we move away from acquisition first marketing into the era of relationships, the importance of building genuine dialogue with consumers will be paramount. Any new system is likely to catch out brands which farm likes, a practice which goes against the definition of ‘social.’

Simon Robinson is senior marketing and alliances director EMEA at Responsys