Facebook is squaring off with Twitter once again for the attention of the social media world, and we're about to see one heck of a marketing land grab.
There have been all sorts of strange little revelations about Facebook popping up all over the Web recently: earlier this week, a bunch of documents that Facebook was distributing to advertisers, explaining the company's forthcoming language change in on-site marketer materials from "Become a Fan Of" to simply "Like." Previously, there had been a report that Facebook's 'like' button will be unleashed to the Web at large.
The universal "like" button will probably be pitched as an extension of Facebook Connect, the universal log-in product that Facebook says has now been installed on 80,000 third-party sites and is used by more than 60 million Facebook users every month. Instead of simply importing user profile and friend-list data, and exporting activities back to Facebook, the new "Like" button will mean that media companies, publishers, and marketers will be able to get Facebook members' stamp of approval on their own sites. Switching Facebook's marketing language from "Become a Fan Of"--which is used on the ads that many an advertiser buys to drive more Facebook users to "fan pages"--pulls the company's advertising program more squarely in line with the new "like" buttons.
A lot of early theories have been made about these developments, like AllFacebook's astute observation that these new developments at Facebook are steering Digg, once the top name in all things find-it-and-share-it, in a new business direction. But perhaps the most telling assessment is the fact that the news leaked just over a week after Twitter CEO Evan Williams' unveiling of "@Anywhere," the microblogging company's platform for distributing its data around partner sites in a deeper form than its developer API currently allows. @Anywhere is almost definitely an offensive move in Facebook's direction--and more than likely aimed right at Facebook Connect.
We'll learn much more very soon. Both companies are holding developer conferences, Facebook's F8 and Twitter's Chirp, in April. The ostensible focus on hack-all-night developers is a little bit deceptive: It's no secret that both companies want advertisers and marketers, in addition to the tech world, to take notice. The race between Facebook and Twitter, basically, is no longer about who can harness the most real-time information on their own domains: it's about who can get onto the rest of the Web. This, of course, requires the cooperation of third-party sites and the marketers who are whispering new digital dreams in their ears.
For the past two years, Facebook's offering of brand "fan pages," targeted ads, and Facebook Connect (at the age of three, the embedded app is already pass?) have been the Web's hottest marketing and promotion tools. The task for Facebook now is to stay at the forefront, so that with the fresh competition of @Anywhere, none of these products grow stale.
Historically, Facebook has been good at this. The company's legacy of constant redesigns, features pulled as quickly as they were added, and history of backtracking from bad PR (see here: News Feed, Beacon, the privacy controls overhaul) has caused some to think that the company must be so internally chaotic that it just can't make up its mind about anything, and the litany of changes has irked developers and marketers alike. But this is how Facebook has kept its products fresh, and has never allowed a rival the opportunity to sneak in and get ahead. It's turned Facebook into a destination that 400 million people around the world keep coming back to, and which has yet to experience a serious threat in the market.
The only arguable exception has been Twitter, which took the philosophy behind a Facebook status message and turned it into a craze of short, rapid-fire, real-time communication that first seized the attention of the Silicon Valley set and then eventually the rest of the Web. Somewhere during Twitter's rapid ascent, some people very high up at Facebook started to feel threatened.
This led to what was one of the most awkward of Facebook's abrupt user interface changes: after, we learned later, it had failed to acquire Twitter in an alleged $500 million stock deal, Facebook revamped users' home pages so that they pulled in a streaming feed of status messages from their entire friends lists, controversially cutting out other activity items like photo album uploads. Facebook later returned to a version of the news feed that looked far more as it had before the Twitter-inspired incarnation. Usually, Facebook is pushing the limits; here, it was playing defensively, and it failed.
There's still tension between the two companies, even though Twitter is still far smaller, its core product remains a single feature, and statistics about user activity haven't been as promising as Facebook's; one study after another indicates that the overwhelming volume of Twitter activity comes from a small segment of users. With Twitter now publicly courting brands and publishers for the first time with its @Anywhere platform, that tension is moving from the consumer side to the commercial side of both companies. Facebook's unleashing of all things "like" could turn out to be another relatively weak defensive move. Or, if it's executed well, it could be a powerful new product that could not only deal a blow to Twitter's @Anywhere, but could also turn all sorts of bookmarking, social news, and recommendation companies into collateral damage.
To put it dramatically, shots will be fired this April. And this time, the marketing world may be choosing sides.