What is the Right Way to Market through Facebook Applications?

In yesterday’s Adweek column, Digital Editor Brian Morrissey fired a shot across the bow of branded Facebook applications as a viable Facebook marketing tactic.

Calling sponsored apps “the newest brand graveyard,” Morrissey pointed out that several applications built for big brands like Nike, Ford, Microsoft, and Fedex that have not gained lasting traction. Says Morrissey:

Brands, in general, have found Facebook unforgiving terrain for marketing. It’s well known, for instance, that banner ads perform poorly on the site. (A recent IDC report called advertising on social networks “stillborn.”) But the Facebook Platform, launched 18 months ago — which lets developers create social applications for users — was thought to offer the perfect opportunity to move beyond banners to provide “branded utility.” So far, however, Facebook apps from brands like Coca-Cola, Champion, Ford and Microsoft are as popular as desolate Second Life islands…

Application experts pointed to several other reasons so many top brands have fallen short. In some cases, they said, brand apps are too complicated. Some provide little worthwhile interactivity and are overly branded. And despite Murphy’s admonition, most exist as one-off experiments, tied to a launch-and-forget campaign approach versus one created with the mind-set of a developer, which leaves room for tinkering. What’s more, many companies build applications on the cheap, frequently relying on “viral” distribution rather than buying media. One overriding criticism: They’re often little more than ads.

Morrissey’s disappointment with the ongoing metrics enjoyed by branded Facebook applications makes sense, and sheds light a much deeper problem: designing a good Facebook application that will engage users over time is really hard.

The Challenges of Application Design

At the end of the day, branded Facebook applications are a hybrid between an ad unit and a consumer product. Designers of branded Facebook applications must be experienced in the ways of product development on the Facebook Platform, or the engagement graph is going to shark fin pretty quickly.

For many brand advertisers, getting a lot of engagement during the focus period of the campaign that then decreases quickly afterward is still a satisfactory result. For example, many contests and event promotions fall into this category.

However, for many other advertisers, sustainable engagement may be quite valuable. If the application dynamic generates sustained gift giving over a longer period of time, campaign ROI can often be several times higher.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple formula for building a winning Facebook application. But for those interested in learning advanced Facebook application marketing tactics, check out the Facebook Marketing Bible. It goes into detail on all the vital ways applications can grow virally and engage users on the Facebook Platform, and is a valuable resource that can be clearly applied to your specific marketing context.

There are also several firms which specialize in branded application campaigns, including Votigo, AdParlor, Buddy Media, and Context Optional. This blog often features examples of their work as reference cases for the advertiser community.

An Alternative: Branded Integrations With Existing Facebook Applications

Designing your own branded Facebook application isn’t the only way to engage a broad audience on the Facebook Platform. Many large application developers offer advertisers interesting avenues for brand integration with parts of their product.

Brands interested in reaching a large audience in a vertical where good applications exist, but who don’t want to design, build, and drive traffic to their own Facebook application, may be interested in working with the application developer directly or through a rep firm.

For example, brands interested in reaching a large movie viewing audience can work with Flixster, those interested in music can work with iLike, and those interested in reaching a large sports or television viewing audience can work with Watercooler (note: I work with Watercooler). For example, Target recently ran an integration with the trivia feature in Watercooler’s TVLoop applications, combined with a rich media awareness campaign, promoting the launch of the “Sex and the City” DVD.

Brands can also work with rep firms that work with Facebook app developers, like Federated Media or Appssavvy. These firms help match brands with developers who offer applications which could be a good fit for the campaign’s goals.


While branded Facebook applications are not easy to create, they can be vehicles for delivering engagement well above and beyond what most advertisers see in traditional display campaigns.

Advertisers interested in building the deepest connections with Facebook users should look to the opportunities Facebook applications afford – whether it be by creating their own application or working with an existing application developer, the rich social and viral opportunities found in well designed Facebook applications are hard to match elsewhere.