What keeps corporates on Facebook

Look past the mass hijackings of company communications on the top social channel and there are signs of real rewards and how to reap them, David Bowen says.


Last week I spotted a Facebook post from Shell about the construction of a giant floating natural gas platform. I clicked and watched an intriguing video. So I hit the comments button to see what others thought – and found myself reading a string of posts, in Spanish, from people raging against the arrest of Argentine Greenpeace activists in the Russian Arctic. Shell was guilty by association, it seemed, because of its partnership with Gazprom, the local oil giant drilling in the region. Scanning Shell’s recent posts showed almost all comments were on the same subject – regardless of what the post was about.

Corporate communications managers must (or at least should) scratch their heads when they see this sort of thing. In 2010 Nestlé was driven off its own Facebook page by a mass attack, once more Greenpeace-led. Several times this year Nestlé’s page has again raged with criticism: it looks quite bizarre among the sugary recipes.

Ever since the Nestlé débacle I have been intrigued by corporate use of Facebook. Corporate giants are flak magnets, and that is not going to change, so on the whole ‘What’s the point?’. Using Facebook to talk to young jobseekers – fine. To support a consumer brand – lovely. As part of a customer service operation – why not? But as part of the main communications effort? To me, the risks seemed to outweigh the benefits.

But comms teams have been thinking otherwise, and general corporate Facebook pages are now widespread. Clearly we needed to look further. But while our research is work in progress, and will produce detailed analysis in due course, I have some early thoughts.

Don’t count on the quantity…

Shell and Nestlé’s social media people must feel a buzz as their ‘likes’ head towards 5 million. But should they be more worried than cheered? First, it is much more difficult to keep up useful dialogue if there are huge numbers trying to chat. Second, just who are those people and how much good are they doing the business?

It is easy to conclude that the answer is ‘not much’. Looking at Nestlé’s Wall (‘posts by others’) at the start of the week, there were nine posts saying ‘Do you want to be part of an international football tryouts?’, 13 linking to a YouTube video advertising wedding songs in Arabic plus many others that were meaningless. A Shell post in April celebrating its centenary in Brazil attracted 153 comments. None of them was anything to do with the story, and none of the names looked Brazilian.

I assume that multinationals do not buy ‘likes’, and anyway these are comments – so what’s going on? Spammers explain some of it, but would-be spammers are a subtler problem: posting comments apparently builds credibility with Facebook’s algorithms so they can get up to no good later.

… look for the quality

On the other hand, when Shell asked its followers to identify a refinery, it had 435 comments within six days –the great majority of them serious answers. These are people who really are interested in what Shell does.

How to sort the wheat from the chaff? Sophisticated monitoring tools can go so far – but can they really tell the difference between a useful and a useless post? I doubt it. Real humans examining samples can surely tell you much more. Big data is in abundance here; I wouldn’t trust it.

Reputation risk is the big problem

The examples of Shell and Nestlé make that clear. There is little you can do stop people criticising or abusing you; and it is easy for them to so.

You do not have to provide a Wall (BP does not), but that will not stop them posting where they want – the volume of comments with no link to original posts is impressive.

Risk management is achievable

A Facebook post is ephemeral. Most people will see these comments as they pass through their own Facebook News Feed – which tends to happen pretty quickly. Same for your own company page, as long as you post regularly. Unlike YouTube, even the most damaging comments disappear quickly – which is why critics have to work hard to keep their points in view.

Most companies take advantage of this by ignoring criticism. But recently some have changed their tune, seeing Facebook as a place to fight back directly.

Nestlé mounted a lively defence when it got into trouble over a YouTube video that had resurfaced, using prepared responses and links. GSK has provided some impressively detailed responses to hostile posts. BP America is diligent at replying to posts, whether supportive or not.

As Facebook is seen less as a pure marketing tool this willingness to engage will, I hope, become more common. It is, of course, a governance question: who manages social media?

Where the value lies

But why have a Facebook page at all if it brings new pressures that can simply be avoided? There are good reasons, though they may not be ones the companies would list.

The most striking, from our research, is that it can boost employee morale. BP America’s page is full of posts from employees praising the company – who would have guessed? When companies post news of an achievement, employees line up to say hurrah. (So, I gather, do their relatives.) The fact that Facebook can be seen by all is important – the employees are not only proud, they want the world to know they are proud.

These comments must also be good for recruitment. Facebook is already well used by HR departments, but most people seriously considering a job will check out a company’s other Facebook pages. There is a risk they will hit a storm of abuse, but the default – even for a much-criticised group like Nestlé – is a generally supportive atmosphere.

Support for partisans

More subtly, a Facebook page can be used to build a tribe. When BP’s Gulf of Mexico crisis blew up in 2010 it had little social media in place. It worked its website well, but had no one to spread its messages. Faced with the same crisis today it would use Twitter and Facebook as a high-speed response mechanism – but also as a way of making sure those responses were passed around again and again. For that it would need a tribe of followers – not necessarily employees, but people who bear enough goodwill to pass on the company’s views. May be the same people who are so interested in refineries? Think of them as the equivalent of a dark site, to be brought to life when crisis hits.

Of course the most obvious use for Facebook, to engage with customers or others, can bring value. The best pages respond to queries, complaints and praise – ‘traditional’ social media stuff. But this is much more difficult to do if you have a vast number of followers, most of whom are generating garbage. Back to quality against quantity.

What works

One answer so far from our research: questions.

The Shell refinery post is just one of the many, across all the pages we have looked at, which show that a straightforward question is the best way of getting a serious response. Why? Everyone likes a quiz, I suppose.

It does feel a bit basic, however, as though this is just a starting point. We are in the earliest days of real corporate engagement on the internet: there is a need for more original thinking, experimentation and research.

First published 23 October, 2013
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