Why Brands Need a Local Voice on Facebook

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BrandNetworksOf the fourteen companies which Facebook has designated as Strategic Preferred Marketing Developer, two have earned each of the four accreditation badges offered by the social network: software megalith Adobe, which pulled in a little over $4 billion revenue last year, and Brand Networks, a Boston-based marketing firm that until recently had not raised a nickel in venture capital. That changed in May when the company, which has found a growing business in helping big brands go local, raised $68 million in a massive Series A round from AEA investors.

The firm made its name early on, building Facebook applications for brands in the years before the social media giant offered advertising products. One of its biggest hits was “Link, Like, Love,” the American Express application that allowed cardholders to link their accounts with Facebook and receive personalized discounts at participating stores. The company has expanded beyond app development, helping large brands engage and build consumers on the platform locally through decentralized content creating and advertising systems as well.

Street Fight caught up with Brand Networks’ chief executive, Jamie Tedford, recently to discuss the evolving local opportunity for brands on Facebook, the value in maintaining both a “brand” and “local” voice on Facebook, and the need to create a more responsive (and decentralized) approach to social media.

Brand Networks CEO Jamie Tedford
Brand Networks CEO Jamie Tedford

Tell me a bit about how the opportunity for brands on social media has evolved over the years, and where local fits into the equation.
When Facebook launched Pages in 2008, every Starbucks barista created a page and started publishing content — and they were pretty successful. They started to amass followers, and they were talking to them frequently. But then the message from most corporate communications departments was that allowing [a low-level employee] to speak on a brand’s behalf was a liability, leading many brands to centralize their social media operations. They consolidated those local pages into a brand page, and it just became the voice of Starbucks the brand, not the voice of Starbucks the store.

That’s great, but you’re missing that whole local component: that local voice, the voice of the store, the voice of the store manager, the voice of the deli guy or the voice of the car dealer. They are two very different voices, and we found that customers actually have a stronger affinity to their local store than  to the brand. So we really focused our product on helping large, multi-location marketers decentralize that messaging again by enabling their local marketers or local operators to create and moderate posts, as well as curate national posts that were relevant locally.

That’s a pretty radical shift in thinking. How much resistance have you seen from brands to turning this paradigm on its head?
As far as local is concerned, there’s no lack of want from brand folks. No one would argue that [creating more local engagement] is not going to push the needle. Every large company pays lip service to the concept of being a “local brand.” So often, they say “we’re your local grocer” or“we’re your local pharmacy.” And yet, they don’t actually do it in their marketing — it’s still very top down.

A lot of it comes down to whether people have the courage and the wherewithal to invest in a local infrastructure, and have the trust of their organization to put a microphone in a store operator’s face and let them speak on behalf of their company. That’s where we see the most pushback from brands, saying ”Wow. We can’t do that, we don’t know what they’ll say. How are we going to moderate it?”

So the biggest obstacle we face is the problem of creating infrastructure, systems and protocols to support truly local marketing that bubbles up versus that which trickles down.

So what’s your response to those concerns?
My point back to them is always: “Your store manager, operator or local franchisee is the face of your brand every single day. They deal with customer service complaints. They talk to customers. They’re doing it day-to-day. What’s the difference between doing that in person versus on social media? I’m realistic — I understand that there is a distinction, but the reality is that there’s a movement to empower local, and decentralize marketing.

We are starting to think a lot about this concept of responsive marketing, and I think it fits well for social because it really is this idea that in a truly local environment, you have an opportunity — maybe a responsibility — to be responsive to what’s happening in your community, with your customers, with the weather or any number of things that are truly local and don’t scale that well from a national messaging perspective. In that sense, if you’re an organization that’s built around being able to be responsive in real-time, then you have a leg up in marketing.

I was just reading earlier that Oreo received the Cannes Lion for their tweet during the Super Bowl. It’s just a great reminder that how important flexibility is in today’s marketing landscape: we gave them the biggest award in the industry for just managing to respond to an event in real-time, and get a tweet out in a couple of hours. So it’s more than just having kind of local infrastructure, it’s actually empowering individual agents to act on behalf of an international brand in real-time.

More and more, there’s a push among marketing folks for businesses to become publishers. Why should big brands become local publishers?
It’s about the distinction between the voice of brand and the voice of store — two very different voices and I don’t mean that in just a creative sense. It’s in the way in which you would talk to your customers if you’re Macy’s corporate versus a store manager at Macy’s Herald Square. It’s about urgency of messaging. If you’re a grocery chain, and in this region, at this market, at this store, only today, we have fresh strawberries and if we don’t move them today, they spoil, I need a real-time, responsive structure to get that message out and amplify it. Because it’s strategically important. Or maybe it’s raining around these four stores in this region, and it just so happens that umbrellas are on special, but it is only relevant for these four stores.

We’re starting to experiment with those brands who still have a hang-up, and say: “Hey listen, I’m not sure if I can organize publishing and moderation of hundreds, thousands of pages.” Our message back to them is: “Great, you still should launch your page and we can basically create it as an advertising channel so that if you give us data feeds and tell that, you have fresh strawberries in these 50 stores or there’s a special — say, buy one burrito and get a free Coke at these 85 franchise locations on these particular days.  We can put that message out in the feeds of those 85 stores. We can amplify that message programmatically from the top down or the bottom up, and you still have a really powerful marketing vehicle without all the headaches, if you will, of local publishing at scale.

What should marketers do today to make sure they’re well-positioned as Facebook starts to push into local search and discovery?
Most of us don’t visit local pages with location very often, but we’re starting to see people writing recommendations and using the features. It’s unreported, but certainly, it’s starting to look a whole lot like Yelp in terms of the recommendation functionality, the ability to like and check-in to businesses, the prominence of the address, and the ability to manage new locations or changes in location address more effectively.

Frankly, all this becomes a lot more important as Graph Search starts to roll out. So when we start to realize that Facebook is going to be, and already is a powerhouse in search, that’s the reason that’s another rationale for being sure that a) you’ve got your local pages created, b) they’re accurate and c) that you’re publishing content you have some activity from a fan perspective.

It’s going to be contextual search so if I’m searching for coffee shop near me that my friends like, the coffee shops that do a good job of local marketing with their local page on Facebook will be the ones that are going to come up at the top of my graph search on Facebook. Facebook, in my opinion, is in a nice position against a Google or Yelp or whomever, to claim and be that local graph, if you will, in mapping out the local graph of businesses in your area.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.