Facebook Tabs & Apps, Dead or Alive? That’s not the question. Big or small, use them wisely, relative to your goals.

July 5, 2011
Posted by: Peter Friedman, Founder, Chairman & CEO

Quite a flurry has ensued over the last several days about the Pagelever study on Facebook tabs being down 53% since Facebook’s launch of Timeline. Hootsuite CEO, Ryan Holmes (@invoker), eloquently argues their near demise, and Strutta CEO, Ben Pickering (@bpicks), equally well taking the position “not so fast.”
This isn’t a matter of tabs and apps being good or bad, or the category large or small. As Samsung’s Estaban Contreras (@socainerdia) says, “Tabs and apps have their time and place.” In our view what matters is how you do it. Changes in use of these tabs and apps are more about their underlying value and how a brand executes its programs than they are about Timeline.
Our credentials in this discussion: Neither a tab/app maker like Strutta (or Salesforce/Buddy or Oracle/Vitrue), nor a brand content publishing tool like Hootsuite, LiveWorld is a user content management company and I am the CEO. We are experts in the dynamics of user behavior in social media and creating technology and services that leverage those dynamics (and we’re also a Facebook Preferred Marketing Developer). We have a platform and services to scale the human management of user content (moderation, insight, service/support, engagement) for global brands including the #1 global companies in each of retail, CPG, pharma, travel/financial services, microprocessors, and Internet auctions. We currently manage over 4,000 Facebook pages, Twitter pages, and community web sites — hundreds of thousands of user posts per month. Our team has been at social and online community for 28 years — yes, 28 (16 years since we started this company, focused on the management of online communities and then social media, and 12 before that at Apple, where we created and managed Apple’s online communities (AppleLink, eWorld, and assorted spinoff projects that became AOL and Salon).
It’s how you do it that counts.
As is the case with most social media, the outcomes here are more a function of the specific execution than of a structural situation or trend. Across our clients we’ve seen that user volume on tabs and apps is a function of the brand’s advertising and promotion execution rather than the change in Timeline. We’ve not seen a decline in volume that can be attributed to the changes in Timeline.
Most users did not and do not go to tabs and apps much anyway or even a brand’s Wall.  That is true before and since the arrival of Timeline
To Ben’s point, typically only 5% of users return to a brand’s Facebook Page after liking it; moveover, even fewer to tabs and apps. Ryan makes very good points about Facebook’s focus on deepening the user social experience and driving brands to do the same. Indeed, Timeline holds great promise for that. Most user engagement takes place on the user’s Wall, with the brand engagement being a function of how many brand posts get into that user’s News Feed. Driven by the underlying dynamics of user social behavior (which is our expertise), the black magic of Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm seeks to leverage and amplify those dynamics of social behavior. Brands that manage their Facebook Pages, brand content, and user content do well here. Brands that focus only on rich media experiences (tabs/apps) and/or brand content scheduling tend to miss out. (And that’s our bias relative to the tab/app guys and the brand content publishing guys 🙂 )
Yes, before Timeline brands could set a tab or app as the default landing page. Then as they drove users to their main FB Pages, on the first visit the users would see that tab or app. But once those users Liked the brand’s page, from then on the default page became the Wall. So all this talk about no longer being able to set the default landing page to a tab or app is a red herring. It was a one-shot effect anyway, usually driven by a one-time impulse discount or promotion, with less than 5% of users ever returning to see it again.
Know your goals and execute against them.
Acquisition: Brands that just want to acquire users and don’t care about engagement (we don’t recommend this approach) do so by substantial promotion and advertising. If the brand chooses, it can still drive traffic to a tab or app with this method. Why do this? Because the tab or app may contain content or experiences that support the promotional execution — the same reason TV and print ads often include coupons. This is okay to do, but the cost of the tab or app must be measured against its usefulness in the promotional campaign, and not against a goal of sustained engagement. We have partnered with agencies that build apps and tabs, and they tell us that even just a small number of users interacting with a promotional tab/app creates a word of mouth halo effect to draw more users to the promotion or the page overall — all good for some acquisition campaigns. Just recognize this does not get you relationship engagement; it gets you a larger number of fans on an impulse basis and may set a stage in which to pursue engagement. Be careful to avoid overdoing this tactic, as too much of it creates a spam effect that alienates and loses fans.
Relationship Engagement:  Tabs and apps are less useful to build sustained relationship engagement The advantage of lots of interactive, sharing, photo, and contest features is that they appeal to users, and might provide a catalyst to Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm to get more of your posts showing up in user feeds. But most users before and since Timeline will not go to these tabs/apps. Those that get there do so via very strong brand advertising and promotion of the pages. Again, you need to watch the time and budget investment relative to the return. Sustainable relationship engagement in social media comes from fostering dialogue and relationships among users, bringing the brand alive by socializing its cultural values and positioning.
Best Practices
1) Be proactive. Reach out with ads and/or promotions, provide engaging content (more social centric than brand centric), and create rich experiences (tabs and apps useful here).
2) Acquire fans by leveraging advertising and/or promotions, with limited use of tabs and apps as a supporting venue to acquire fans. But don’t overdo it or you may build a big fan count of disengaged users who turn away from your brand.
3) Build true relationship engagement based on a socialized brand model. Bring the brand alive with a cultural context, and foster dialogue and relationships among and with fans — leveraging the dynamics of social behavior. Fans want to talk with and about themselves and each other more than they do about your brand. Help them do that in social, and they will invite your brand into their daily lives. Tabs and apps can help here, but can easily get in the way, so be very careful when using them for this goal.
Two best practice brand examples for acquisition, relationship engagement and appropriate use of tabs and apps are are Oreo and Walmart (LiveWorld client).
Peter Friedman, Chairman & CEO LiveWorld  @peterfriedman   @liveworld   www.liveworld.com