Facebook is taking over the world, including publishing, shopping, and stalking. But what’s its fate in local? I recently dissed Facebook’s viability for local search, simply due to user intent: It’s regarded more as a place to find drunk pictures of my friends than someone to fix my roof.
Out of fairness, let’s examine the areas of local that it’s winning:
Facebook was first out of the gate in the current outbreak of social “buy” buttons (Pinterest, Instagram, etc.). But because online-to-offline commerce is eight times bigger than e-commerce, the greater opportunity will be a different kind of button: the one that calls local businesses.
Facebook’s call button will also come into play in its second battleground: Pages. They’re now the most popular SMB marketing vehicle with 45 million in total — two million of which are paid. That makes Pages’ SMB penetration greater than Google AdWords.
The reason Pages have grown so quickly is their simplicity — an SMB imperative. Not only are they highly templatized but comfort levels pre-exist, given that most SMB owners use Facebook in their personal lives. And a recent commerce-centric Pages redesign sweetens the deal.
But Pages’ easy onboarding could just be a Trojan horse for other things Facebook has up its sleeve. The real fun lies in triangulating disparate Facebook moves that reveal a potential trajectory. The term “sleeping giant” has come up more than once.
One such move is Messenger. The idea is to position the app as a tool for users to message and transact with local businesses the same way they currently message friends.
I remain skeptical that busy proprietors will stop everything to tap answers to customer inquiries about opening hours or inventory. But a leading indicator for Messenger’s viability comes from commerce-oriented messaging apps overseas like WeChat and WhatsApp.
If Facebook can condition local businesses (and users) to engage Messenger in this way, it could be a sticky tool with high switching costs (read: retention). And switching costs is the very concept on which Facebook has based its product and user growth since the beginning.
Another area Facebook has planted roots is beacons. It’s underwriting beacons for any local business that wants them, with the hope that it can attribute store visits to previous ad or Page engagement. This is similar to its offline attribution project with Datalogix, but better.
Beacons will more accurately detect mobile visitors for one simple reason: 1.5 billion users are often signed in to Facebook as it runs in the background. That sheer scale could make it the most successful crack at offline attribution yet — local’s holy grail. That’s where “sleeping giant” comes in.
But perhaps Facebook’s sexiest local aspiration is erstwhile the stuff of science fiction: virtual reality. Its acquisition and development of Oculus primes Facebook to create social experiences that are much more immersive — what Zuck believes to be the platform’s future.
Beyond a 360-degree news feed, one killer app could be local commerce. Think virtual immersive tours of restaurants, hotel rooms, or car lots. Tools are already being released to render 3D spaces. The next step is to get them into SMBs’ hands, probably for free.
Of course, none of the above addresses business models. In true Facebook style, it’s all about growth first, ad models later. Eventually, this could all tie in with native ads. But the endgame is more likely a sticky set of SMB utilities for getting, keeping, and communicating with customers.
Now all Facebook has to do is get us to think of it as a good place to find a roofer.
Michael Boland is chief analyst and VP of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.