Why Facebook Browsing Annihilates Web Browsing

Recent research suggests that Facebook is overtaking search engines in terms of "time spent" on the web. Want to see where the trendline is heading? Take a look at young female Facebook users, who spend as much as 5 hours on the site per day—and almost no time on the wider web. You'd better get your brand's Facebook page in order. Here's how and why.

Back in April, Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook’s "Open Graph" initiative, an Internet-wide protocol for making any webpage "equivalent to a Facebook page." With a few bits of code, any web developer could add social networking functionality to a page, integrating tools such as Facebook’s "like" button. Six months later, it seems that the bet has paid off: Social plug-ins (ie, "like" "share" and "recommend" buttons) are now, according to Facebook, present on more than two million websites.

Marketers have been some of the most enthusiastic adopters of social plug-ins, which allow brands to convert impressions into lasting relationships. Once a consumer "likes" a brand, the brand establishes a dedicated communication channel, the Facebook newsfeed, for pushing out further messages. Last month, the Facebook "like" button began appearing in banner ads from J.C. Penny and Mountain Dew, entreating consumers not to rush to stores or the nearest soda machine but to simply engage with the brands in a new way.

Around the time of the Open Graph launch, this line of thinking caused speculation that Facebook was headed for a fight with Google. But recent research suggests that perhaps Zuckerburg didn’t need to expand Facebook’s reach in order to conquer the wider web after all; for certain groups of younger users, we’ve seen a trend toward the rest of the web moving into Facebook itself.

In a recent study of 21-29 year old females, we saw a surprising number spending as many as five hours per day on Facebook, with much of that activity being what the respondents nearly all called "nosing around" (we'll call it "social browsing.") This largely consists of seeing what your friends are or were up to: Reading status updates, clicking and watching video links, shuffling through photos of friends’ nights out and comparing those nights to ones own.

To people familiar with Facebook, this behavior, of course, is not unexpected. But what we found most interesting about it was that, for this group, social browsing had largely replaced all other forms of web browsing.

Yes, these women would occasionally go out onto the broader web to perform discrete tasks: to check the weather, or to buy something online. But when it came to idle Internet time—the kind of behavior we’d typically associate with reading news, or blogs, or gossip sites, or just trolling around "killing time"—Facebook had almost entirely monopolized their attention.

What’s most important about this behavior, from a brand marketing perspective at least, is that when many of these women needed to look something up—information on a venue, or a band, or a consumer brand—they were more likely to look first for information on the site where they were already spending all their time: Facebook. And once they found that information on Facebook, they weren’t afraid to express their approval through a "like" or a shared link on a wall post, sending their endorsement to friends who, through social browsing, were likely to find out immediately and check things out themselves.

What does this kind of behavior mean for online marketers? Well, for starters, brands primarily interested in targeting a younger, female demographic should focus on building brand Facebook pages at least as comprehensive as their brand websites. This point is worth emphasizing, because for all of the thinking and headscratching that has gone on in recent years as to how to best utilize Facebook for marketing, a surprising number of companies have only the most rudimentary of brand pages on the site.

When your customers are coming to your Facebook page as a first-choice source of information, you need to be prepared to meet them there. And once they’re there, you want to make it very easy for them to share their experience with their fellow social browsers—their peer group.

While this behavior has only been observed thus far in young adult women, brands marketing to other demographics should keep an eye out for similar behavior among their target customers; these young users have typically set the trends on online social networks. The trend toward users seeking branded content on Facebook itself also means that marketers should continue to pressure Facebook for more flexibility in designing their branded pages. While some brands have largely succeeded in replicating website-caliber content on their Facebook pages, the perception remains that Facebook places too stringent limitations on what can and cannot happen on a Facebook page.

Facebook first opened things up a few years ago, bringing flash capacity to pages, but the broad design rules (tabs at the top, banner ads down the right) remain fairly inflexibile. If Facebook is serious about becoming the social index for the entire web, it needs to do more not to just export social networking functionality but to make Facebook itself a more hospitable place for outside web page content to live.

Ultimately, this type of "social browsing" behavior by younger users may be an even stronger validation of Zuckerberg’s Open Graph thesis than the plug-ins currently populating the web. Yes, for these many years of the Internet thus far, people sure have seemed to enjoy browsing web content. But what happens if it turns out they prefer browsing content about their friends even more?

Mark Kirby is a senior consultant at ReD Associates, an innovation and strategy firm with offices in New York and Copenhagen.

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9 Comments

  • jaysteele

    "In a recent study of 21-29 year old females..."

    I have a real problem with someone writing a bunch of content and coming to conclusions without citing their sources. I am hoping that I just missed it, but cannot find any reference to the source of this "study". How about providing some credibility to this article by sharing a link to the findings? Thanks.

  • Media Designer

    Good grief. Once more, one demographic is used as a basis for all people. Yes, FB can be an advertising medium, but you aren't going to grab people wherever they happen to be and convert them to customers. FB can be one of the first seven touchpoints your business needs to make a contact, but it certainly will not 'annihilate web browsing'. FB is still a gossip and trivia pool and is still having a hard time branding itself as a serious portal of any kind. If 'Suckerberg' wants us to consider Fecebook as more than a productivity killer and advertising medium, he has a lot of work to do.
    At this point, the real return is not any more tangible than good old fashioned word of mouth. If a friend likes a brand, he'll tell me and I'll check it out. FB hasn't changed that.

  • RBLevin

    There's potentially a fly in their analysis. Pre-Facebook, these women were spending their 5 hours a day on message boards -- usually one or two. The time spent on Facebook might not be coming from Google's hide, but rather, from the message boards that previously served as community for these women. That said, the articles primary point -- that brands should treat Facebook pages as microsites -- is well taken. Be where the customers are. Today, that means the web, Facebook, Twitter, blogosphere, mainstream press, search (organic and paid), etc. The opportunities keep getting better, if you have the budget, bandwidth, and people.

  • Morgan Barnhart

    While FB is definitely a leading role in finding a business, favorite TV show, favorite actor, etc, it's definitely not the end-all for information. It's definitely helping get the word out about news and new products in an easier fashion (which is the point of social media), but if we want to get the full story, we go the actual website. I, along with many others, rarely go to FB for all my internet needs. It's a great starting point, but not yet the 'go to' for all information on the web.

  • Brian Gillard

    Interesting article and comments. I think that whether FB's Open Graph is successful or not, it is and will continue to revolutionize the company brand website. What they're doing is finally moving brand websites from Web 1.0 ones to Web 2.0 by adding some REAL interactivity to them (when done properly).

    I don't think that they'll replace the search engine but I do think that they have a good chance to replace what we see in search results because branded FB pages may dominate.

    I DO believe that "likes" equate to “giving the company permission to market to me” in addition to it being a status symbol. Consumers are savvy enough to know that marketing messaging is the basis of offering them to "like" a brand and once they do messages will begin to show up in their feeds. It's similar to a RSS feed- you know you're getting it in your email box after you sign up.

  • Richard Meyer

    Let’s look at the BS point by point:

    BS point number 1: Recent research suggests that Facebook is overtaking search engines in terms of “time spent” on the web

    Reality: Let’s see, on a search engine I search for something and then I go to a website. On social media I read what others have said within the people that “like” and look at some other I follow via social media. So yes, I would spend more time on Facebook than on Google, I mean DUH !!

    BS point number 2: Social plug-ins (ie, “like” “share” and “recommend” buttons) are now, according to Facebook, present on more than two million websites.

    Reality: Facebook fan pages are a cause of advocacy. Instead, Facebook fan page “likes” are primarily the manifestation of advocacy that already exists. In almost all cases, people “like” companies with which they’ve transacted. Why would you become a fan of something you’ve never experienced? Think about your own use of Facebook. How often have you “liked” brands that you don’t already like in the real world? Rarely, if ever.

    BS Point number 3: Marketers have been some of the most enthusiastic adopters of social plug-ins, which allow brands to convert impressions into lasting relationships. Once a consumer “likes” a brand, the brand establishes a dedicated communication channel, the Facebook newsfeed, for pushing out further messages.

    Reality: people that “like” your company on Facebook already like you in the real world. Consequently, your Facebook fan page is just another way to identify, corral, and (hopefully) activate them. Facebook “likers” are eerily similar to your email list, except the Facebook crowd is less valuable on a per-person basis. This is because even though several studies show that the number one reason consumers like pages is to access to special offers, the non-deal seekers see their relationship with your Facebook page very differently. ExactTarget’s research on “Facebook X-Factors” shows that only 30% of Facebook “likers” believe clicking “like” equates to “giving the company permission to market to me”.

    BS Point #4: In a recent study of 21-29 year old females, we saw a surprising numberspending as many as five hours per day on Facebook, with much of that activity being what the respondents nearly all called “nosing around”. This largely consists of seeing what your friends are or were up to: Reading status updates, clicking and watching video links, shuffling through photos of friends’ nights out and comparing those nights to ones own. Social browsing had largely replaced all other forms of web browsing.

    Reality: Well let’s see woman are the number one users of social media and younger woman are more technology savvy than older woman. So again DUH !!

    BS Point # 5: What’s most important about this behavior, from a brand marketing perspective at least, is that when many of these women needed to look something up—information on a venue, or a band, or a consumer brand—they were more likely to look first for information on the site where they were already spending all their time: Facebook. And once they found that information on Facebook, they weren’t afraid to express their approval through a “like” or a shared link on a wall post, sending their endorsement to friends who, through social browsing, were likely to findout immediately and check things out themselves.

    Reality: For most people (~70%), “liking” a brand on Facebook is digital bumper sticking. It’s an expression of personality, preference, and predilection. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, it just means that Facebook fan pages – like email – should be viewed much more as a customer loyalty and retention tactic, than as a customer acquisition tactic. A quote in the AdWeek article from DDB study leader Catherine Lautier underscores how misleading the “Facebook creates new customers and new sales” brigade can be:

    “I was expecting (likers) to be a lot more benefits oriented, versus “I’m joining because I actively want to recommend it to friends.”

    But yet, nowhere in the research does it show that consumers “like” brands in order to subsequently advocate on the brand’s behalf. It doesn’t even make the list of top reasons why consumers “like” brands.

  • Kevin Lenard

    Here's something to think about:

    What do authors and young women have in common? They want to be worshipped.

    The former for their awe-inspiring insights proving they were the first to predict something important, the latter for their irresistable appeal within their social group. When given the opportunity, would-be authors like me take to the internet in blogs and on Twitter to self-publish and hope to see our hits (followers) grow into the millions -- young women spend 5 hours per day browsing Facebook pages trying to both increase their appeal and number of friends and desperately assessing their appeal against other girls'.

    What is interesting in both cases is that, for many of both category of individual, their efforts are frighteningly simillar to any addicts' behaviour. Blog consultants will tell you that you must blog regularly/daily and tweet, re-tweet constantly to become relevant to and popular with your growing audience, yet there is no money to be made by investing literally hours and hours of your time in these activities. Yes, a few people have, but the rest of the millions of bloggers/tweeters don't. The latter do it for free just for the hit of dopamine/oxytocin that their brains get from having their thoughts read on the web.

    My point? Unless your brand is targetting young females, don't expect Facebook to become a viable medium for your message. Yes, you need to pay attention to the point Mark is making above as Facebook looks like it will be successful in passing what I call the "Post-Novelty Test" (once the early adopters have moved on past your site/gadget/device will it continue to draw users? SecondLife, Friendster, even Widipedia's current gradual decline as volunteer editors lose interest all prove those concepts did not pass the test.). Your brand should have a presence on the site, but while all of us will likely spend incrementally more time on Facebook as time goes by and it increases it's usefullness/relevance to us, don't let young females' addiction to being popular distract you from the bigger picture, which is that, so far, there is zero ROI in what's being called 'social marketing'.

    As I've been posting about for several years, anything with the word 'social' in it is NOT compatible with the word 'marketing,' at least not with the concept of the latter that we have used for the past century. Only when we remove the concept of 'frequency' (i.e. GRPs) from the marketing equation and inject 'experiential' can we marry being social with marketing.

    More on "The Death of Frequency" and my insight into the future of marketing: AdvertisingBusinessModelRedefined.Blogspot

  • E L Smallwood

    This could explain why Facebook is so successful. One of my favorite social media lines: "The Bible is the original Face Book"

    Psalm 27:8/NIV: "My heart says of You, Seek His face! Your face Lord, I will seek."

    Give God thanks!