“Businesses now need to think about mobile as the place to share their story with customers,” says Ciaran Quilty, Facebook’s SMB Director for EMEA. “No matter what business you’re in, no matter what business you’re thinking of creating, you’ve got to think of yourself as a ‘mobile’ business. And I say that because that’s where your customers are.”
It’s certainly true that the world is becoming evermore connected and “always-on”, and with breathtaking speed. There are now more mobile devices than people on the planet, and the rate of change is so fast that developing nations are leapfrogging straight over their Western counterparts. Kyrgyzstan and Namibia now enjoy faster internet speeds than Italy, while Kenya has shot from a mostly cash-based economy to one in which 60% of the population pay using their mobiles.
Closer to home, meanwhile, 24 million Brits clock in to Facebook 11-14 times a day, with most of these visits, Quilty tells me, taking place through their mobiles.
Among this surge of heavy Facebook users are 30m small businesses – more than 1.5m of which, Quilty says, use the platform for paid advertising. As the site has responded to requests from SMEs for easier-to-use tools and better metrics, paid-for “boosted” posts have exploded, pushing Facebook’s advertising revenue up by 80% in a year. The company, says Quilty, is “delighted” with the uptake, and is now focussing its energies on developing relationships with SMEs on both sides of the pond.
This has manifested itself in two ways. First, in Facebook’s attempts to make itself more directly accessible to businesses, by offering online and phone-based support, and secondly, in a series of training “bootcamps”, the first UK version of which took place in London’s financial district on Monday.
To a cynical eye, some of the new features might look a little like Facebook is simply charging for functions that used to be free. To successfully market on the platform, businesses not only need to build up a solid basis of engaged fans, they must now also be prepared to hand over cash in order to talk to them. To their credit, Facebook doesn’t deny that this is the case (“Organic reach is on the decline,” says UK MD Steve Hatch, “but advertising based on relevance is upcoming”). Instead it highlights the potential “democratisation” of marketing that the system brings.
For some companies, certainly, Facebook advertising has proved wildly profitable. Among the success stories on the bootcamp’s SME panel was Asi Sharabi, co-founder of Lostmy.name, a company which makes personalised children’s books featuring the recipient’s name. In the run up to Christmas 2013, the team decided to invest £50 a day in Facebook advertising, and saw such high returns that, over a six month period, they scaled up to £200,000 a month – a figure that raised a gasp through an audience of small business owners – but saw their orders soar to £1m a month in the process. “Facebook allows you to grow your spend with your success,” Sharabi explained.
Other figures quoted were less eye-watering. Jules White, owner of the business consultancy The Last Hurdle said that she budgets £9 a day for Facebook advertising, mostly with the aim of bringing in website clicks, and uses this for everything from promoting professional services to advertising for apprentices.
That said, Facebook doesn’t just allocate adverts and boosted posts based on budget, it also takes into account how relevant the content is – whether the person on the receiving end has any interest in seeing it. As Quilty puts it: “Our job and our focus is to make sure that the newsfeed is an incredibly engaging, relevant, timely personalised newspaper delivered to over a billion people every day, respective of what device they’re choosing. And great content gets great engagement.”
To crack this code, it’s essential to experiment with the content and timing of adverts to figure out which combination have the best results. Malcolm Bell, who set up the Zaggora workout “hotpants” company in partnership with his wife Dessi, and who launched the brand on the back of Facebook advertising, explains that the most effective approach is to be as “granular” as possible, defining as closely as you can the age group, location, “likes” and other traits of your target audience, exploring retargeting options and matching your timing to when you see the most sales come through.
The importance of creating great content isn’t limited to hooking a prominent place in your target audience’s newsfeed: there’s also the accumulative effect to think about. Historically, Facebook has been a great place for a local business to connect with people precisely because it doesn’t feel like marketing, it feels like socialising. As the spontaneous, “organic” element is replaced by sponsored content, maintaining this personal feel will be a delicate art.
Quilty doesn’t seem particularly concerned (“Facebook is… an individualised, personalised experience, that is constructed and based on what people choose to like and choose to be interested in.”), but it seems fair to say that, for the most part, people see adverts as a necessary evil, rather than as an extension of their interests. Companies entering the personal space of a private news feed will need to work hard to create genuinely engaging content that doesn’t feel intrusive.
One way to do this is with video. Mobile video is fast becoming a primary means of sharing information, including between businesses and their customers. As a case in point, Facebook video has rocketed in popularity in the past six months, growing by 50% per month in May and June and hitting 1 billion monthly views in September. It is, according to Quilty, “the next transformational wave of communication.” Done well, video offers a personal and engaging way of telling a story – and crucially, on Facebook, it can be played, stopped and muted at will, creating a feeling of control on the part of the viewer that mitigates the intrusion of marketing in their feed.
Of course, with advertising on Facebook becoming increasingly popular, the fight over each slot is fierce, and it’s hard to imagine how a cash-strapped SME can compete against the huge budgets and full-time marketing specialists wielded by global conglomerates. But Quilty insists that, as long as they are telling a genuinely strong story and being smart about who they’re trying to reach, there’s nothing stopping a small business from challenging a far bigger one.
“The short answer is that they are voting with their feet.” he says. “More and more SMEs are using our ads to reach people where they’re spending the fast majority of their time, which is on their mobiles, in order to drive business results. And the reason they’re doing that is because they’re ringing the cash register, right? They’re getting hard business results.”