What Marketers Need To Know About Facebook Nearby

Ever since Facebook acquired his location-based check-in site, Gowalla, around this time last year, co-founder and CEO Josh Williams (now a product manager of pages, locations, and events at Facebook) has been building the next phase of local-social discovery. Despite a roller-coaster year that brought the check-in industry plenty of ups and downs and a fair share of speculation as to what would come next, the scope of the new location project remained under wraps, until now. Last month, Facebook announced, to much fanfare, the release of a bundle of new and updated features collectively known as Nearby.

Industry pundits are already suggesting that Nearby presents a major hurdle for Yelp and Foursquare, particularly on mobile.

That’s big news for local businesses, hotels, restaurants, etc., but some global retail brands might (understandably) be wondering exactly what it means for them now and in the future. At Brand Networks, we’ve been able to glean some preliminary insights into how using Facebook’s local features can drive “butts in seats,” “heads in beds,” “turning turnstiles,” and “ringing registers” for businesses large and small.

Here’s what marketers need to know about the potential impact of Nearby:

The Landscape
With the proliferation of social networks over the past several years, smart marketers have surveyed the landscape and prioritized the right channels for their messages, rightly determining that some just aren’t worth the effort. Now that the dust has seemingly settled, it’s fair to say that most consumer brands today focus on Twitter and Facebook as their social networks of choice, while those with brick-and-mortar presences monitor Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other popular ratings sites, as well as check-in-based services like Foursquare.

But a site like Foursquare, with relatively few users (a respectable 30 million), is often an afterthought for marketers. Facebook, by contrast, has 250 million users tagging locations every month, Williams tells TechCrunch. That critical mass, he explained, results in a huge difference in the amount of data available to fuel the application. Since Facebook already has a wealth of photos, tags, and social data, Nearby is not about check-ins so much as personal context — knowing what local businesses to recommend based on social connections and data like reviews and tips, for example.

For marketers, Facebook Nearby changes everything, providing access to their customers en masse in the context of their daily lives.

So here’s what it all means for brands and marketers of all stripes.

Outbound Marketers

Ads

Search-based

It’s not clear yet what types of ad units will be created in tandem with Nearby, but if Yelp is any indication, brands may soon be able to pay for higher placement in local search results. If this happens, brands should take advantage, as many people searching for places on their mobile devices are in a hurry and will go with the first good option they see. These ads are likely to be very powerful.

Hyperlocal

There are also likely to be some ads that leverage near field communication and/or check-ins to offer hyperlocal promotion opportunities. This would be a great opportunity for brands to increase discovery and to pull people into their brick-and-mortar locations using supertargeted advertising. Although Facebook already provides the ability to target users based on check-ins, the added features of Nearby will give Facebook users new incentives to provide location data. This should make it easier and more efficient for brands to target people based on their whereabouts.

Friends’ Activity

Nearby leverages real-world friendships and connections to help people find businesses. As powerful as Yelp’s review system is, it’s still hard to connect with your friends on it (and most people just don’t bother — it’s not required, and the incentives are unclear.) On Yelp, you can find out what 1,000 strangers think of the sushi restaurants in your area, but if, via Facebook, you find out that six of your friends like the same one … well, you’re way more likely to check that one out. Right now for Nearby this will be an organic feature, but it’s likely that brands will start to leverage friends’ check-ins and reviews to serve ads for particular places to their fans, much the way sponsored stories currently work in the news feed.

Pages

Page Publishing

Facebook’s Nearby feature will inevitably mean more traffic to your local place pages. For small local businesses with strong Facebook presences, this may just mean ramping up business as usual. But for big brands with extensive local footprints that concentrate their resources on gaining national fans (and on publishing primarily to national pages) it may be a wake-up call. Most national and multinational brands have claimed their local pages, but they really aren’t publishing to them at scale. It’s time to start. Not a believer? Check out the customer outcry when Wegman’s decided to pull down a local store Facebook page. This local connection with loyal customers is undeniable, but not without its challenges to operationalize.

Nearby is a unique chance for large companies to drive people to individual stores, but if your local pages are stagnant, people may pass you by in favor of businesses that they can get more information about without leaving the Facebook application.

Facebook could also help local branches of national chains get more and better reviews than Yelp if brands can optimize their outreach to fans and publish great content to their local place pages. To accomplish this at scale, you’ll need to develop a robust content plan that combines automation and empowerment of local store managers to post on store pages.

For some brands, this may mean focusing less on their own properties (including their websites, iPhone/Android apps, etc.) and instead making sure that their presence on the world’s most popular social network is properly optimized. This leads us to inbound.

Inbound Marketers

Fan-Generated “Rogue” Pages

Rogue pages are often an elephant in the room, but they can become a huge problem, especially for national brands with local stores. It’s pretty common for people to start a place page for their neighborhood Starbucks if there isn’t one already, if it doesn’t appear in search, or if they just feel like taking matters into their own hands. These are fairly benign for the most part, but they represent loose ends for your brand, and every person who likes a rogue page instead of the real local place page represents a lost opportunity.

The best way to deal with rogue pages? Identify and report them to Facebook so that they can be merged with your legitimate page.

Social Profiles and Store Data

Most brick-and-mortar businesses know to keep their own websites and Yelp profiles up-to-date with information like hours, address, phone numbers and other pertinent information. The introduction of Nearby means that more people will be finding your business through Facebook, so make sure all of this information is up to date on your local Facebook place pages, too. Otherwise you could lose out on foot traffic.

Customer Service

Smart marketers already realize that how brands treat their fans on social networks is an important aspect of their brand identity. If you don’t already have a strong customer-care plan in place for Facebook, now is the time to get one. And if your national brand page is the only place where you respond to customer comments, it’s important to start paying attention to your local pages, as well. People are way more likely to find these local pages now, and to make decisions about which stores to visit based on the activity they see on these pages.

Comment Moderation

Similarly, you should pay attention to the conversations that are going on on your local place pages. Maintaining an active, civil dialogue is important, and even more so with the coming flood of eyeballs driven by Nearby. Make sure you have a strong strategy in place to manage this increasing traffic to your local pages.

So there you have it. Facebook Nearby should be a boon for both small local businesses and large companies with brick-and-mortar outlets. The key is in figuring out how best to leverage it for your business.

Readers: How are you planning on managing your local presence now that Facebook Nearby is here?

Jamie Tedford is CEO and founder of Brand Networks, one of 12 companies that comprise Facebook’s Strategic Preferred Marketing Developer program, and a leading provider of integrated social software solutions and marketing services for some of the world’s most liked brands.

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