According to the Facebook blog (as of April 2010), the average Facebook user “Likes” nine pieces of content very month. With over half a billion users worldwide, that translates to more than 4.5 billion Likes per month and 54 billion Likes per year on everything from news articles, to jeans, to movies, and even real-live activities and events. Each of these Likes is tied to a real person for whom Facebook has detailed identity information. Although it hasn’t yet been monetized, this data and the analytics applied to it, could become the basis for Facebook’s core revenue model. On Facebook, you are the product.
For every Like that is made, Facebook is able to correspond a product affiliation to demographic information such as sex, age, geography, and education, as well as social graph data about relationships and influence within a group. With Places, Facebook can even correlate product activity to mobile location data. If mobile payments ever take off, they could get actual sales data as well.
Ad Age recently asked the very poignant question: What Happens When Facebook Trumps Your Brand Site? (alternate title for the article is: How Facebook Became the Biggest CRM Provider). The online article was accompanied by the following graphic showing the top ten brands on Facebook (in terms of total Likes):
Top brands are garnering millions of Likes, yet only driving a couple hundred thousand visitors per year to their branded sites. What this all means is that Facebook has better data about customers than most consumer products companies do. As Ad Age notes:
For many marketers, their Facebook fan bases have become their largest web presence, outstripping brand sites or e-mail programs either because a brand’s traditional web-based “owned media” is atrophying or because more consumers are migrating to social media.
While fan pages may work a lot like a marketer’s traditional “owned media,” they’re not actually owned by the marketers. Facebook hosts the pages and provides analytics for free, but growing marketer dependency on the network for CRM programs, combined with simultaneous declines in traffic for many of their own brand websites, could give Facebook a valuable revenue opportunity.
Of course, it would be difficult to sell granular individual data about users (people would object); however, Facebook could sell aggregate data (trend analysis and market research) and act as a “black box” CRM (Customer Relationship Management) solution whereby companies offer targeted promotions and messaging to individuals with select profile characteristics, mediated through Facebook. Already some companies are using basic Like data to hone their retail strategies. In one example, Urban Outfitters is arranging clothing in its online store based on Like activity and offering select promotions to all those who have liked products. Additionally, Facebook is making information about the Like activity on ads (i.e. “social context” data) available to advertisers on its site. Armed with this data, advertisers can decide to further optimize campaigns by targeting people who have expressed a Like for the ad.
With the Like button, Facebook is benefiting from the power of weak tie relationships (Facebook calls it “lightweight sharing”). Many markets point to the fact that people that Like a product aren’t real fans or brand advocates in the traditional sense. This is s feature, not a bug. By lowering the bar for Liking something, Facebook has opened a channel to—and is gathering data about—ordinary consumers of the brand who otherwise would have no formal connection to the company or its products other than isolated, anonymous purchases. This connection can be potentially valuable in terms of loyalty programs and promotions, market research, and customer support.
A number of factors suggest that the number of Likes will probably continue to grow, including: the continuing growth of the Facebook user base (see chart above, which shows no indication of plateau), expansion in global markets (70% of Facebook users are outside the U.S.), the recent proliferation of the Like button on a range of products and services (the Like button is now on over 350,000 sites), and the growing use of mobile technologies that allow users to Like physical products and experiences. With this in mind, it’s by no means hyperbolic to think that Facebook could be the largest single CRM provider in the world.