- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2012

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are among a slew of popular corporate brands due for a Facebook face-lift that will change the way they use the social network to market to their fans.

Facebook began offering its new Timeline layout for personal accounts late last year, with users required to make the switch from the old format. Now the world’s most popular social network is expected to expand the feature to company brand pages by the end of the month.

Timeline changes the social-media marketing playing field, said Howard Greenstein, founder of the Social Media Club in New York City. It is designed to offer a more visually friendly interface that includes a cover photo in addition to the traditional profile photo. It also makes it easier to navigate through a company’s history - in reverse chronological order.

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“For regular users, it’s sort of like personalizing your room,” Mr. Greenstein said. “For a brand, it would be like personalizing the experience customers have when they come into your shop.”

Many companies say they are excited about what Timeline can do for their brands. The only problem: Facebook users tend to be afraid of change.

Posters already are complaining that Timeline is confusing, a complaint that may affect corporate sites as well. “Many people will be confused by a brand’s use of Timeline because they are still confused about their own Timeline,” said Matt Nowak, a social-media consultant based in Raleigh, N.C.

While this problem initially might plague brand pages, most social-media analysts think Facebook users will embrace the new design over time. “Customers are getting used to Timeline on their own pages,” Mr. Greenstein said. “By the time Facebook brings it out to brands, they will be used to that format. That wouldn’t be something I would worry about.”

In fact, companies that don’t adapt to the new Timeline could be left behind. Steph Parker, community manager for social media at Neiman, a marketing and advertising firm in Philadelphia, can’t wait to help her clients catch up.

“Brand pages have remained relatively untouched when you compare them to their personal counterparts,” she said, “and since Facebook is a conversational space, brand pages need to adapt like the fans who flock to them to remain relevant.”

One of the most noticeable changes under Timeline is the cover photo displayed at the top of the screen, which companies can use to brand their pages. “They can use the cover photo to tell a story,” said Brandon Chesnutt, social-media director at Identity Marketing and Public Relations near Detroit. “It can pull you right in.”

Timeline also will make it possible for companies to tell the story of their brands. That could be an advantage for companies with iconic brands like Coca-Cola and McDonalds, experts agree. “I can see a brand like Coca-Cola educating consumers on their own humble beginnings and how they transformed their products as consumers and the world changed,” Mr. Nowak said.

Companies could use the Timeline format to show off their different logos and advertising campaigns through the years, said Noah Sacksteder, business development specialist at Bonneville Marketing Group in Phoenix. “The Timeline brand page can give those users who really want to get to know a brand a chance to dig deeper into finding out what that brand is all about.”

Companies also could ask customers to participate in building their brand Timelines, Mr. Nowak said. This would be a great way for companies to engage their Facebook fans.

“Imagine if Coca-Cola asked consumers for pictures of them using Coca-Cola during family vacations in the 1950s or going to old five-and-dimes to buy a Coke from those old fountain drink machines,” he said.

But it might not be so easy for less established brands to exploit Timeline’s features. Mr. Nowak said he fears newer companies will try to create a history that is not relevant to their fans.

Facebook is getting very close to having too much ‘visual noise,’ ” Mr. Nowak warned. “I fear that the average brand will not know how or why to implement Timeline, and it will only become more wasted space.”

Timeline also will make it easier for companies to clean up their profiles, such as erasing public relations disasters that happened in the past, Mr. Chesnutt explained. “You can go back and hide specific moments and dust them under the carpet,” he said.

Others fear it will bring up bad memories for both regular users and companies.

“People have posted things in the past they don’t want to remember,” Mr. Sacksteder said. “Whether it was words posted, an ex, a drunk photo or a past job, there are certain things from people’s past they don’t want to bring up again.”

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