The Timeline Pioneers

This is a shortened version of an article that appeared in the May 2012 edition of the magazine – “Corporate Communications” where our Director of Strategy and Development, Tony McMahon, was interviewed.

Caroline Poynton considers how brands are using Facebook’s Timeline platform to showcase their heritage and engage with users.

 

Burberry Timeline on Facebook

The launch of Facebook’s Timeline for brands on 29 February has generated excitement in the corporate world as the ability to highlight posts, create larger photos, videos and link stories, has resulted in a far more visually appealing platform to attract and engage their target market.

But it is the milestones feature, in which companies can use a Timeline to plot important dates in their brand’s development, may prove a particularly powerful tool for companies that have a long and rich heritage to share.

As Tony McMahon, strategy and development director at CTN Communications, says: “Facebook – never missing a trick – has rolled out Timeline ostensibly to let individual users tell their life story. In truth though, it’s corporates who may end up being the big winners on the social media site.”

Crucially, he believes the Timeline has moved Facebook away from being a message board between friends to a showcase for brands. “A larger image on the Timeline page mimics what a corporate would traditionally have put on a billboard while a smaller inset houses the company logo,” he says.

“Maybe this is why many longer term Facebook users hate Timeline, seeing it as part of the social media site’s ‘sell out’ to capitalism. Well, so be it. Facebook shows no sign of going back to the old design and there are plenty of reasons for communications professionals to be cheerful about Timeline.”

“Timeline forces companies to think of their brands as stories and that’s an essential prerequisite for communicating with target audiences through social media,” says McMahon. “Business must now think about how to convey itself online as a story told through a mix of moving images, photos, text and graphics. There’s really no alternative for consumer facing brands other than to embrace this way of thinking. Selling in the future requires both storytelling and a conversation with consumers – a social media embrace that can start with Timeline.”

Royal Dutch Shell launched its Timeline with a clever take on profile pictures, using an arc of Shell logos throughout the years to connect their audience with the company’s heritage, stretching back to 1833 when a bric-a-brac stall in East London started selling oriental shells.

Beyond heritage, Shell also maximises new features, regularly pinning to its page photo-illustrated facts, quizzes, polls, sustainability reports and videos. Sainsbury’s also has the key advantage of a heritage dating back to 1869, and ready access to The Sainsbury’s Archive at the Museum of London for images, dates and accompanying stories. “We’ve done a lot for our customers and are excited about being able to bring these more to the foreground using the Timeline,” says Joel Dawson, head of online marketing at Sainsbury’s. “Even better, we have great archives which present what we’ve built over time to a new audience that may not know some of our history. The new format also allows for a much more visual approach to our communication and an opportunity to use our great visual content on the page.”

The Timeline may seem to favour companies that have the heritage to build a compelling story.  But smaller and newer brands are still getting in on the act. “If the company is not that long established, it can still use the historical element of Timeline to convey the excitement of its start-up with the challenges it faced and, in effect, encourage other entrepreneurs with its example,” says McMahon.

Sandwich chain EAT only launched in 1996 so has little to show on its Timeline by way of illustrious history, but that has not stopped it from building a strong page to harness the additional capabilities of the platform.

For all this early effort, though, the proof is in the pudding. Since the launch of Timeline, there has been a rush to assess whether it has enhanced brand engagement. One study conducted by social media analytics Simply Measured found that, across a sample of 15 early adopters, there were average increases of 14 per cent in fan engagement, 46 per cent in content engagement and 65 per cent in interactive content engagement (video and photo) following the launch of Timeline. The sample may have been small, but the study is not alone.

McMahon adds: “Research in the US by social media agency Wildfire has found that, for most brands, the experience of switching to Timeline has been positive. It found that there were double digit increases in both ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ per brand post, and a much better performance for embedded content like videos and photos. Interestingly, brands that languished at fewer than one million fans got the biggest boost in activity on their pages.”

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