As the chief executive of a global media brand put it to me the other day: 'Facebook is the new web.' He's not alone in thinking this; both in the UK and the US, more advertisers are putting their Facebook address in their print and TV ads; we are seeing progressively more-desperate pleas to 'like brand x on Facebook and we'll give you a thing', and the site is becoming more important for commerce.
Is there any need to have a website, now we have Facebook? After all, there are 750m people in the world Facebook claims as 'active users'. This is a remarkable number by any measure, and it's probably only a matter of time before it hits 1bn.
Yet, while we should be mining Facebook for all we can, there are compelling reasons for marketers not to put all their eggs in one basket.
As the Google+ service rolls out, Google has a huge mountain to climb to reach 1bn users; as I write, there's a debate raging about whether its latest number is 10m, 20m or more - although at any of these levels, it's equivalent to little more than a rounding error for Facebook. So the chances of the newcomer doing any damage are pretty thin, right?
Two years ago, the dominant force on the web was Google. It was seen as unassailable. How could any company reach, let alone beat, the audience powerhouse and money machine it had created? But Facebook did exactly that (while simultaneously sidelining MySpace), and the recent appearance of Google+ is the search giant's latest bid to wrestle back its lead.
This is a tough challenge, but it is achievable. And it has made a good start; Leon Haland's graphic, widely circulated online, shows the time taken to reach 10m users by Facebook (852 days), Twitter (780 days) and Google+ (just 16 days). The rate of acceleration is unmatched in history, far outstripping Buzz, Google's last go at the sector.
It's too early to tell whether Google+ will put a serious dent in Facebook's supremacy, but that's not the point. Establishment and tech costs are tumbling for start-ups; so, sooner or later, a chunk will get bitten out.
However powerful or successful Facebook is, it isn't the new web. Fortunes may be won or lost on it (as Farmville maker Zynga, whose revenues almost all come via Facebook, knows), but it's still a subset of the web.
Retailers commonly use accompanied store visits in the physical world to understand how customers 'work' in-store; Facebook can be a great way to replicate this research online, using it as a listening-post, allowing executives to hear what their customers are talking about, and how they talk.
It's also a low-commitment entry point for consumers to find out about a brand without the big step a website represents. This makes it a fantastic place to run competitions, events and other engagement devices among people who don't yet have your website in their repertoire. For both of these, Facebook is a place to connect with consumers, where its greatest virtue is that it represents neutral territory.Sometimes, though, neutral territory isn't what you want.
Owning and controlling your own assets, channel to market and data are vital; on its own, Facebook compromises all of these. So, unless you are prepared to go symbiotic like Zynga and Facebook (in a relationship; it's complicated), you don't need a Facebook strategy, you need a strategy that includes Facebook.
If you do, Google+ looks like an opportunity rather than a threat.
Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist
30 SECONDS ON ... Google+
- Google's social-networking service, currently in Beta, integrates existing services such as Google Buzz and Google Profiles with new aspects such as Circles, Hangouts and Huddles.
- Google+ launched on 28 June, by invitation only, for its 'field-testing' phase. On 29 June, users were allowed to invite others to sign up.
- On 14 July, Google said that Google+ had 10m users. A week later, it was reported that the total had hit 20m.
- Users do not have 'friends', as on most social networks. Instead, they can use the Circles feature to organise their contacts.
- The Hangouts options enables video chat between up to 10 users at a time.
- Huddle allows mobile users to communicate via instant messaging within Circles.
- Through the Sparks feature, users can identify topics of interest and share them with others, while the Stream allows users to see updates from others in their Circles.
- Rather than 'likes', Google+ has a '+1' button for users to recommend an item.