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BW Businessworld

It’s Time For Timeline

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Facebook does as Facebook likes. And today what it likes is its great-looking Timeline layout. Well, at least I think it's great-looking, but the world is distinctly divided on that issue and I recollect coming across several "Timeline sucks" since Facebook announced the feature in September last year. But that's for individual profiles. Timeline has been mandatorily rolled out for all brand pages as of 31 March, and I've been enjoying myself picking brands at random and looking at their pages because just for now, you can tell just who's social media savvy and who isn't. Fascinatingly, it isn't the social media agencies, many of who didn't make use of the Timeline feature all this time. Neither are most of the PR agencies, even though you'd have thought it was one way to demonstrate their ability to communicate a brand — their own! You can see a good collection of sparse pages, repetitive and tacky images, poor English, and no message in particular differentiating them from anyone else. Most ironic, considering your brands are in their hands and they should be the first to show that they understand exactly how companies can be positioned online.

Facebook's Timeline may be annoying some users but there's often a resistance to change — and Facebook tends to make most of them, forcing users to change patterns and habits to keep pace. There's immediate questioning of Mark Zuckerberg's "hidden" agenda, which I'm not sure is hidden at all. They have 854 million users and many ideas on how to keep them engaged long enough to get advertisers interested — why Facebook wouldn't put its ideas into action, specially on the brink of its IPO, I wouldn't know.

Whatever Facebook's agenda, brands should get their acts together on their pages, which will, in all probability, get them more engagement with customers than their own websites. Timeline now offers a whole canvas for them to get creative with. As a matter of fact, it's a method of telling customers and fans everything about the brand, at one go. This intensely visual and complex canvas is going to be hard work for companies because it's going to make them think or rethink what their brand stands for, what story it is telling and most of all, how smartly it is able to engage with people. Because, now, it's all out in the open, transparent, easy to see. Not only does a visitor to the brand page get the big picture, the little details stand out. Why is there no statement or powerful photograph that truly spells out the personality of the brand? Why do the About lines trail off the viewing area, when one could write a line that fits and makes standalone sense? Do some brands have no history? Do they stand for nothing in particular? The components offered by the new Timeline are many, and there are a ton of primers online on how to use them, but unless it's done with proper thought and finesse, it will show up for what it is — tacky and just plain not savvy. I'm looking at Nike's international page, as I write this. Now Nike has done a great job of conveying what it stands for and what its mission is. "If you have a body, you are an athlete," says Bill Bowerman, right up front. It's a clear statement Nike is making about its products being for everyone. Let's see Shopper's Stop. This veteran of large retail stores has chosen to go colourless on its page and doesn't seem to be making much of its story. I see Jet Airways thanking its fans for 500,000 Likes. It's a busy page that conveys the message that Jet wants you to think of it as more than just an airline. Oh well.

Some initial Timeline studies by marketing platform Wildfire show that engagement with users really goes up, but more so for businesses with fewer fans. This was estimated to be a temporary lull. But All Facebook, a marketers resource site, quotes a study by Vitrue that says engagement has gone up 192 per cent with Timeline. The site suggests companies focus on the kind of content that is most readily shared, take advantage of the visual nature of the layout and use the ability to pin a post to the top for promotion.

Whether companies have given enough significance to their Facebook activities or not, it's an 854-million fact that can't be ignored much longer. All Facebook puts it prettily when it says you can now take your business to social media rather than make social media a part of your business. It's ironic that while brands are getting "humanised" by becoming more able to interact like people with their customers, customers are getting more comercialised with all of their Timelines and life histories there for the taking. But for now, Facebook does what Facebook likes.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, @malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-04-2012)