Is Facebook Swallowing Up the Internet’s Data?
he data that we throw off as we move around the Web—browsing habits, navigation paths, origins and destinations—have always been enormously valuable for the sites we visit. The software to analyze Web traffic is a $500 million business and growing, dominated by Google, Adobe and IBM. Consulting and services to help people parse the data is another $150 million, by Gartner’s estimates.
But Facebook is eating into big swaths of the measured Web. As people spend a larger portion of their time on Facebook, the social network is developing tools that make it easier for marketers to reach their targets, and customers are increasingly interested in engaging with brands on Facebook. In switching their emphasis to Facebook, marketers give up control over much of the valuable data that their users leave behind.
While Facebook can provide real names of people who “like” a product, it doesn’t provide data on what sites are sending traffic to a fan page, how long visitors are spending there and how they’re moving around inside it. No additional analytics services can be installed on Facebook pages.
“We are absolutely at the disposal of Facebook regarding these metrics,” says Chris Bowler, social media vice president at interactive ad agency Razorfish, which builds Facebook pages and freestanding websites for brands such as Axe and Carnival Cruise Lines. Facebook’s own advertising platform is roughly as sophisticated as the big networks’, but it’s harder to integrate with other data services. “We can’t connect the dots,” says Bowler.
Facebook now has 750 million users and reaches 43% of all Internet users worldwide, according to Alexa, up from 35% a year ago. Facebook now hosts perhaps 4 million fan pages, branded sites operated by companies, celebrities and enthusiasts.
One of them is the President of the United States. Barack Obama’s campaign website was attracting 8 million unique visitors per month as the 2008 election approached. This year Obama announced his reelection campaign on Facebook and has integrated Facebook’s registration system into barackobama.com. “We may never see another [freestanding] campaign website that gets that kind of traffic,” says Mindy Finn, a partner at social media advisory EngageDC. “All of that activity has just moved on to other platforms.”
The most common interaction between consumers and brands on Facebook is to either “like” a brand as a fan or “share” some piece of that brand’s content such as a video or photo. The meaning of these gestures is ambiguous. Some users “like” a page in order to announce their affinity to friends; others respond to an incentive such as a free sample in exchange for publicly associating themselves with a brand. Once a user has “liked” a page, updates from that page show up in her Facebook news stream where her friends can see it, too—an important hook for viral marketing.
Lots of marketing types have tried to peg the value of a Facebook fan. Their methods and estimates vary widely, reflecting the new-and-unsettled nature of Facebook marketing: Group-sales service ChompOn found that the average Facebook “share” led to $14 in sales at the company’s website. Vitrue, a consultancy, figures that bringing a customer on as a fan is worth between 44 cents and $3.60 in increased sales from the engagement that Facebook encourages.
Facebook has suggested that people who want to use Google Analytics or Omniture should use links on their Facebook pages to send visitors to sites where those services are installed and then analyze the traffic that results—sort of like watching shadows on a wall to figure out what’s going on in the next room.
Facebook says it is expanding the metrics available to page owners. “As we choose which metrics to prioritize, we will focus on those that allow page administrators to most effectively optimize their content for the Facebook ecosystem,” says Annie Ta, a Facebook spokesperson.
In theory all the rich data on Facebook—such as age, gender, geography, schooling, entertainment tastes and brand preferences—are available to marketers whose customers give them permission to see their personal data. Estimates of how many users elect to share their full profile data when asked to do so by a pop-up warning vary between about 5% and 50%. Some app designers, like game developer Zynga, have signed up millions of users despite the opt-in requirement, but many operators end up with data describing only a small subset of their users.
Still, that should be enough data to satisfy any Facebook page owner, says Hiten Shah, cofounder of Web analytics firm KISSmetrics. “This is a new medium, and it’s always hard to measure a new medium,” he says. The data that marketers are used to getting from Google Analytics and Adobe’s Omniture software, such as the names of referring sites and time spent on site, shouldn’t be part of the world of social marketing, says Shah. “Facebook is giving you data that are relevant to the Facebook model,” he says. “The page-view game is done with anyway. We want to track people, not page views.”
Data junkies may have to wait their turn until the next social site arrives and occupies all our time.