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Facing up to Facebook



Facebook is omnipresent, and seemingly on a trajectory toward omnipotent.

"The Social Network," the much-buzzed-about Facebook movie, just premiered at the New York Film Festival last month. Everybody and their mother seems to be on the website - literally.
Women in their 50s and 60s are the fastest-growing demographics on Facebook. But it's still largely about the youth market: Of the website's 500 million-plus users, a quarter are 18 to 24, and another quarter are 25 to 34, meaning a full 250 million users are in that elusive sweet spot marketers are forever trying to reach.

Overall usage time jumped a staggering 700 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to Nielsen, and while it has slowed in 2010, Facebook now accounts for nearly 10 percent of the total time spent on the Internet - by everybody.

Such statistics have been known to make marketers drool. "You need to fish where the fish are," says Greg Williams, media director with Backbone Media in Carbondale. "Social media is now one of the essential elements of communicating with your customer. Facebook is essentially permission marketing - people are giving you permission to share your story with them."

Backbone Media has gotten noticed for its work with Fort Collins' New Belgium Brewery, which cracked the 100,000-fan plateau on Facebook in August, just about two years after launching a social-media initiative. That represents a bigger audience than half of the print magazines in which New Belgium pays to advertise. Facebook is free but requires time and dedication. Social-media marketing requires more than just money, and that levels the playing field.

"We're never going to run ads during the Super Bowl, but we can kick Coors' ass on the social Web," Williams says.

New Belgium launched a "What's Your Folly?" campaign on Facebook last year with Backbone's help, inviting fans to share their folly, whatever that might be, in 350 words or less, and get a chance to win a cruiser bicycle every week for five weeks. The messages were pushed onto the fans' friends' pages, and each fan had nearly 200 friends on average. The results for the month: 7,000 follies shared turned into 10,000 new fans and 1 million impressions.

Then this February, New Belgium leaned heavily on Facebook in the launch of the brewery's new Ranger India Pale Ale, named for its sales representatives, a.k.a. Beer Rangers. Backbone helped develop a map divided into the Rangers' territories, and let the reps take the reins and post about regional promotions and events.

"We wouldn't want to put that information on the main New Belgium Facebook page," Williams says. "We wanted to segment our market without fragmenting it." The launch was a success, as Ranger quickly became the second-best selling craft IPA on the market.

"It really complements the rest of the stuff that we're doing," says Adrian Glasenapp, brand activist at New Belgium. "It's owning the audience rather than renting one with a full-page ad in a magazine. I think it's extremely valuable.

"It's one thing to put content out there," he adds. "It's another to go out and engage people. Facebook is not just a one-way broadcast, it's a two-way conversation." The major question is how much resources to allocate to it. "There's a balance. You could spend all day going back and forth in the comments. I don't know if that's time well spent or not."

Williams' advice: "It's all about meaningful communication, content and knowing your voice. Promotions and sales are good, but that can't be the only reason for it to exist. If the first question you ask is ‘How are we going to monetize this?' it might not be for you. It's a brand-building tool."

Social media is "scalable word of mouth," says Williams, who jokes that he's not sure whether he coined the term but will start taking credit for it. "We'll probably get many tens of millions of impressions off Facebook for less than the cost of a full-page ad in Rolling Stone," he says.

While beer is almost ideally suited to social media, marketers are just scratching its surface. It seems to have a place in most every industry's playbook. The Colorado Tourism Office has aggressively pursued a social media page with the help of its Kansas City, Mo.-based advertising agency MMG Worldwide. Colorado's official Facebook page passed 100,000 fans in just under a year, shattering expectations of 20,000. Robert Patterson, MMG Worldwide's director of social media and Web analytics, says the tally puts Colorado at third among all such efforts, behind those of Michigan and Virginia.

Patterson says the page is very open, allowing users to post photos and comments of all kinds, but that MMG Worldwide staffers moderate it for questionable content. "We want it to be as social as possible," he says, noting that the content is planned with a standard editorial calendar to ensure all of the stakeholders' input gets weighed. Last fall, a "Snow at First Sight" contest was launched, and three winners who had never seen snow before got an all-expenses-paid trip through the state. The catch: They had to make blog posts that were funneled into Facebook and Twitter accounts.
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"We wanted to make an impactful entry into social media," Patterson says. It worked: The Associated Press picked up the story, Jimmy Fallon joked about "snow virgins" on his late night show on NBC, and Colorado's Facebook fans started to snowball. Facebook is now one of the top 10 drivers of traffic to Colorado.com, Patterson says.

Boulder-based Room 214, a self-described "social media agency," had to wait for the market to catch up with it after its launch in 2004, says Jason Cormier, the company's managing director. When Cormier, a Web developer, and public relations man James Clark co-founded Room 214, "We didn't come out and say that we were a social media company," Cormier says. "Back then, (public relations and Web development) didn't merge that well together."

Room 214 was the second startup in two years for Clark and Cormier, friends since junior high. In 2003, they launched Vital Sourcing with a plan to use the Internet and search engine optimization (SEO) to connect U.S. companies with Chinese manufacturers. They wrote a white paper and found a Chinese partner, honed the keywords, and found themselves atop Google's search results for "Chinese manufacturing." The white paper went viral. Despite what Cormier describes as an "onslaught of leads," the Chinese partner was not up to the task, and he and Clark closed up shop.

"We shut that down, but realized we had a pretty powerful formula we could carry over to any business," Cormier says. Then came Room 214. At first, the company specialized in SEO for Google AdWords and blog consulting. By 2006, the company had the term "social media" on its website, but took it down because it was not part of the general lexicon. A year later, it was back up for good.

Today, the company helps clients with SEO, but 85 percent of Room 214's business is related to social media. It helps brand-name clients like Qwest and the Travel Channel with their social media strategies, specifically in the areas of business intelligence, program management and application development.

The Travel Channel employs Room 214 for services in all three of its focal areas, helping garner more than 1 million Facebook fans to its myriad pages. Half of those fans indicate through Facebook that they "like" network standout Anthony Bourdain. Qwest has focused on utilizing Twitter as a customer service tool. "Anybody that tweets about them, they can pick it up," Cormier says. "They've seen a 15 percent increase in customer retention in terms of this channel."

Another client is Des Moines, Iowa-based SmartyPig, which Chief Operating Officer Michael Ferrari describes as "an online piggy bank. We help people save for very specific purchases." For its launch in April 2008, Room 214 suggested a blogger outreach program, which led to plenty of coverage by personal finance experts.

The chatter in the blogosphere then caught the attention of ANZ Bank, the third-largest bank in Australia. ("It was pretty surreal," Ferrari says.) The resulting partnership has been a success, proving the concept's viability in foreign markets and paving the way for similar partnerships. Meanwhile, SmartyPig has garnered $500 million in deposits in the U.S.

"For us, social media is SmartyPig," Ferrari says. "It's meant so many different things to our business. I can't imagine not using it."

From an operational standpoint, what exactly is Room 214? A roomful of twentysomethings updating Facebook pages all day long? Cormier doesn't exactly deny it.

"There are a bunch of twenty-somethings here," he says. "I'm the oldest guy here - I'm 40." He describes maintaining social-media accounts for clients "a body count issue where it's about putting butts in the seats to do manual work," noting that Room 214 always pushes clients to handle such minutiae with their own people internally rather than outsource it. Noting that the client's voice must be maintained, Cormier says of Anthony Bourdain, "We're never acting like we're Anthony on Facebook."

But that's just the beginning. "A lot of what we do is evaluate new technologies and tools," Cormier says. The No. 1 question applies not only to emerging technologies but also to social media in general: "Is it a fad or is it how things are now?"

Cormier, for one, believes social media adds a fifth P - people - to the traditional "4 Ps" of marketing: price, product, place and promotion. "People is like a circle in the middle of that square," he says. He uses the analogy of the "marketing funnel," through which every lead is passed and only a few make it to conversion. "Social media is not a specific part of the funnel, but more the grease in the funnel."

And it pays to monitor all the chatter flowing through that funnel.

"People are going to talk about brands, products and companies, and you can't control that conversation," he says. "The question is, can you be a part of that conversation and even guide some of it? Do you have something of value to contribute?"

While it's "a conversation Room 214 wants to have," Cormier says return on investment can be difficult to calculate when it comes to social media. "There's a level of generosity with social media that doesn't necessarily align with old-school business rules," he says. "Sure, it's tough to be generous if you're hungry, but you could go hungry if you're not generous."
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Eric Peterson

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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