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Apr 16 2009

Should AEC businesses use Facebook?

Until the recent explosion of interest in Twitter, much of the popular interest in social media as a communication tool was focused on social networking sites such as Facebook (I was going to talk about other providers such as Bebo and MySpace too, but Facebook appears to be becoming increasingly dominant).

200+ million users

Facebook recently passed its 200 millionth user landmark, adding 50 million in just three months (if Facebook was a country, it would be the fifth most populous in the world), and – according to The Guardian – now accounts for one third of all online social networking time. In the UK, there were nearly 23 million Facebook users as at February 2009.

While Facebook has become a very compelling way for people to connect with each other, its value as a PR or marketing communication route for businesses is less clear, particularly for business-to-business (B2B) purposes such as in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector. But given its spread and the low cost of engagement with the platform (mainly time), it is easy for businesses to at least make a start – perhaps as part of an internal communications or recruitment initiative.

(Having written two blog posts each suggesting 13 things to think about before AEC organisations invest time and effort in social media (business blogging and business use of Twitter), I have stuck to the same approach regarding Facebook.)

13 things to think about

  1. Is your business already on Facebook? – Do not ignore Facebook completely. Most UK businesses with 10 staff or more will have at least one regular Facebook user among their employees; Facebook is also widely used to maintain alumni networks of current and former colleagues. During a recent social media audit for a UK-based manufacturer, I found an employee whose profile openly stated on Facebook who he worked for (better still, it was the “Best job in the world!” – a fabulous, unsolicited endorsement of his employer). There was also a Facebook group about the company with four members (all ex-employees) and six photos apparently taken inside the company’s premises. Like it or not, your organisation may already have a Facebook footprint; whether you simply monitor this or seek to expand it is another matter.
  2. It’s so time-wasting – shouldn’t we just block Facebook access? – Some organisations block employee access to Facebook completely. But people can bypass such constraints by using external computers or, increasingly, accessing Facebook from web-enabled mobile devices. A blanket ban on Facebook may cause some resentment among employees (perhaps particularly Gen Y staff for whom Facebook is often a staple part of their social interaction), may impact on recruitment/retention, and will also prevent corporate communications people from making effective use of the medium. Other organisations allow access so long as it doesn’t contravene corporate policies on internet access and use of company ICT systems (some organisations have revised their IT usage policies to include guidance on appropriate use of social media).
  3. Is the Facebook audience big enough? – Research suggests UK Facebook users visit the site approximately once every two weeks, generating some 8.5 billion page views, and spend about 20 minutes per visit. In terms of potential reach, it is a powerful vehicle for any PR and marketing people.
  4. Will my target audience be Facebook users? – Initially, Facebook traffic was dominated by Gen Y people born after 1980, but in recent months, the platform in the UK has seen increased adoption by older age groups (the 25-34, 35-44 and 45-54 cohorts are now all larger than the 18-24 age range), and white-collar workers, and – reflecting this – average annual incomes are higher on Facebook than on, say, MySpace (see Gregory Lyons’ post on UK Facebook demographics).
  5. What might we use Facebook for? – Originally established to help American students keep in touch, Facebook certainly has appeal as a business-to-consumer (B2C) channel. While it does not have the strong B2B credentials of business-oriented networking sites such as LinkedIn, there may well be opportunities to run ‘soft sell’ marketing, recruitment or cause-related campaigns on Facebook that complement other mainstream and Web 2.0 efforts (earlier this year, for example, I described – Targeting early career professionals – how ConstructionSkills used Bebo to encourage teenage girls to consider careers in construction; more recently, the American Institute of Architects used Facebook to promote the US National Architecture Week). And, as already mentioned, Facebook may already be used informally for  internal communications purposes, both between current employees and with former staff – extending into their networks in local communities, interest groups and other companies that they do business with. In short, I think Facebook can be used to creatively develop a community of friends and fans who can act as viral agents to promote and support your business
  6. Is Facebook too … er, trendy? With its combination of banners, applications, quizzes and other contests, polls, photos, videos, discussion groups, events, etc, Facebook can be a powerful way for organisations to reach audiences that more mainstream campaigns don’t reach, and to do so in a more human, people-oriented fashion. Recent design changes to Facebook have helped; corporate ‘pages’ (which function differently to ‘groups’) now behave more like individual’s profiles, including a Wall where businesses and their fans can post photos, videos and messages (the Facebook page for Construction News has almost 700 fans, while contractor Laing O’Rourke’s group has 360 members).
  7. How will we integrate it with our campaigns? – With such a large worldwide audience, Facebook has proved a lucrative platform for application developers, and thousands of applications can be plugged into the core platform. Only a few can or should be used to enhance an organisation’s pages on Facebook (beware of filling a page with too many widgets). It is now easy, for example, for corporate pages to display photographs and videos to enhance the brand.
  8. Who will manage your Facebook identity? – Just as with other social media,  if a Facebook page is to provide a human face to an organisation, the voices have to reflect those people. In a B2B scenario, this may mean multiple employees, perhaps with someone monitoring overall content and direction – last month, I published a guest post where international AEC design practice HOK described how its integrated approach to Web 2.0 included nominating a “Facebook queen”; HOK has both a corporate page and a HOK careers page on Facebook.
  9. How often should we update our Facebook page? – Adding topical notes – “Congratulations to Brian Smith who has just passed his CIOB examinations” – or details of forthcoming conferences, seminars, sporting or social events help keep corporate pages fresh. Having a nominated individual to update Facebook helps; with so much social media to manage it can be easy for some pages to become dated (sadly, the Construction News page doesn’t appear to have been updated in about seven months, while Contract Journal‘s is updated almost daily).
  10. Belinda05Is Facebook too open? – It depends on how you manage the division between your work and social life – and between the work and social activities of your colleagues. You may, for example, need to brush up on your Facebook skills so that you know which friends and networks are sharing information, photographs, etc. Be careful about privacy issues, for example, when it comes to photographs taken at company events – you may be tempted to tag everyone you know, but they may prefer to be allowed to tag themselves.
  11. Are we exposing ourselves to any risks? – Following on from the previous point, much depends on how you manage the Facebook activities of you and your colleagues. For corporate pages, you can make an explicit disclaimer regarding content – for example, Bovis Lend Lease has a Facebook protocol and privacy statement for its graduate programme in Australia, limiting its liabilities and explaining the privacy implications.
  12. What can we learn via Facebook? – Facebook members are usually open to networking and, in so doing, tend to unveil useful snippets of information about themselves, their work, studies or outside interests. These can be valuable in targeting individuals for particular communication campaigns.
  13. How do we measure our Facebook activities? – I don’t really expect many AEC businesses to pick up direct sales leads through Facebook (though I am sure there will be anecdotal exceptions), but modest investment of time on managing an organisation’s Facebook presence may support recruitment campaigns, help publicise events or campaigns, and provide a convenient way of monitoring the pulse of internal communications. Quantitatively, Facebook displays how many fans a page has, and the simple discussion and feedback mechanisms of the Wall can be used to provide qualitative feedback.

(I still like the alliteration of “13 things to think about”, but does this list cover most key points about business use of Facebook? Do you think I have missed something? Let me know.)

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  1. David Milne

    I am UK citizen , with permanent residence status in US.

    I have no UK residence but a permanent home in Arizona.

    I am currently employed by a US consultant as Team Leader on various World Bank, ADB and similar aid funded projects in exciting locations such as Afghanistan, Liberia and Pakistan.

    I am of a certain age where continuous full time employment is becoming increasingly problematic; it was ever so in the civil construction industry.

    Finances are severely constrained by recent economic upheaval and have pushed the concept of retirement completely out of consideration for at least the next 10 years.

    Thus I am looking for a way to obtain long or short term contract work with consultants or contractors, on a continuing basis

    My career to date has inclined to specialise in civil construction management and contract administration, with a bias (90%) towards working overseas.

    I have a Facebook registration but I am reluctant to simply dive in head first and promote myself as seeking employment without any control on the consequences, in particular unsolicited mail, spam and scam, opening myself to identity theft, etc.

    Where do you recommend that I look for methods of presentation and protection?

    How does Facebook compare with other “social networking” sites and paid sites such as sologig.com?

    Should I develop a website, should I pay for professional developer, what sort of content should be there, should it be static or regularly updated?

    This is of interest to a number of my immediate colleagues and I am sure to many others.

    Any assistance or advice would be gratefully appreciated.

    I will respond directly to any non-spam, scam, sales, financial services, emails

    Regards

    David Milne

    1. Paul

      While I would normally delete such comments, the current recession probably has other people thinking along similar lines.

      David,
      First, have you considered LinkedIn? This is perhaps a more appropriate channel than Facebook to look for employment opportunities, and it has a whole host of construction-oriented groups, many of which are used by both job-seekers and recruiters. You can also control how much personal information you display (you also have similar controls in Facebook), but if you want people to find out about you, then you will have to reveal something about your qualifications, background, experience, etc so that potential employers or collaborators can learn what you have to offer. Importantly, it also gives opportunities to connect to current and former colleagues so that you can network your availability.

      Second, why not create your own blog? Similar to a website, but more personal and can be regularly updated, a blog can be used to highlight your observations and professional insights on projects, current industry working practices, the recession, etc. Platforms like WordPress (used for this blog) and TypePad (used for one of my other blogs – extranetevolution.com) are no or low-cost, easy to use and come with ready-formed templates that you can tweak to create a professional yet personalised presentation. And as you start blogging, look for blogs that you find interesting and that relate to your personal situation, and add useful comments on any relevant posts so that readers of those blogs might also find your’s.

      Third, link your blog to your profile on LinkedIn, and vice versa.

      Fourth, keep your eyes open for industry discussion forums. Many act as online bulletin boards, sometimes including details of vacancies, and they are also another way to raise your individual profile if you have something interesting to say on a topic.

      Best wishes, Paul

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