The Timeline pioneers

The launch of Facebook's Timeline for brands on 29 February has generated excitement in the corporate world as the ability to highlight posts, create larger photos, videos and link stories, has resulted in a far more visually appealing platform to attract and engage their target market.

But it is the milestones feature, in which companies can use a Timeline to plot important dates in their brand's development, may prove a particularly powerful tool for companies that have a long and rich heritage to share.

As Tony McMahon, strategy and development director at CTN Communications, says: 'Facebook - never missing a trick - has rolled out Timeline ostensibly to let individual users tell their life story. In truth though, it's corporates who may end up being the big winners on the social media site.'

Crucially, he believes the Timeline has moved Facebook away from being a message board between friends to a showcase for brands. 'A larger image on the Timeline page mimics what a corporate would traditionally have put on a billboard while a smaller inset houses the company logo,' he says. 'Maybe this is why many longer term Facebook users hate Timeline, seeing it as part of the social media site's 'sell out' to capitalism. Well, so be it. Facebook shows no sign of going back to the old design and there are plenty of reasons for communications professionals to be cheerful about Timeline.'

Richard Coope, head of digital at Radley Yeldar, takes a similarly positive stance. 'All companies have heritage,' he says. 'They'll usually have dates and significant events on their website already. This can be replicated on the Facebook Timeline, so keeping down spending by wisely repackaging existing content, but via an authentic story that people can connect to.'

'Timeline forces companies to think of their brands as stories and that's an essential prerequisite for communicating with target audiences through social media,' says McMahon. 'Business must now think about how to convey itself online as a story told through a mix of moving images, photos, text and graphics. There's really no alternative forconsumer facing brands other than to embrace this way of thinking. Selling in the future requires both storytelling and a conversation with consumers - a social media embrace that can start with Timeline.'

Creative communications agency andsome is so convinced that it has ditched its website altogether. It now uses its Facebook profile integrated into other social media platforms. 'We didn't think it was a radical step,' says co-founder Mark Rice. 'We do a lot of work in the social space across different platforms and we just thought we should put our money where our mouth is.'

But for all this enthusiasm, are we really talking about the same social media platform that has been ignored by many corporates? 'Facebook is still an under-represented channel for FTSE100 companies compared to other social media tools,' agrees Coope. 'But Timeline will change that.'

Harnessing heritage

And perhaps he has a point looking at some of the early adopters. Many companies are seizing the opportunity to showcase their heritage, and find new ways to engage with audiences.

Royal Dutch Shell launched its Timeline with a clever take on profile pictures, using an arc of Shell logos throughout the years to connect their audience with the company's heritage, stretching back to 1833 when a bric-a-brac stall in East London started selling oriental shells.

Beyond heritage, Shell also maximises new features, regularly pinning to its page photo-illustrated facts, quizzes, polls, sustainability reports and videos. 'It proactively manages the channel. It's not just pushing out content; it's telling a story,' says Coope. Sainsbury's also has the key advantage of a heritage dating back to 1869, and ready access to The Sainsbury's Archive at the Museum of London for images, dates, and accompanying stories. 'We've done a lot for our customers and are excited about being able to bring these more to the foreground using the Timeline,' says Joel Dawson, head of online marketing at Sainsbury's. 'Even better, we have great archives which present what we've built over time to a new audience that may not know some of our history. The new format also allows for a much more visual approach to our communication and an opportunityto use our great visual content on the page.'

The supermarket chain approached the Timeline by picking key stories that have impacted on customers, such as 'firsts', which have made a difference to their lives, and human interest stories, says Dawson.

These stories include the opening of the first branch on London's Drury Lane in 1869, the launch of its first own label product, which was tea, in 1882, to more recent milestones, such as the introduction of Fairtrade in 1994 and first convenience store with extended opening hours in 1998. It has used simple quiz questions to help drive people to the Timeline. A recent example invited fans to take a trip down memory lane. 'Can you identify the product from our retro packaging?' it asked, garnering 280 comments, with several customers reminiscing about childhood shopping trips - proof of the engagement power of a shared history.

'To humanise a brand, it's worth reminding consumers of its history. Timeline allows companies to lay out the brand history in a very colourful and fun way,' adds McMahon. 'Everybody loves to see how brand images have evolved over the decades and alongside those visuals, the company can tell its story.'

Beyond history

The Timeline may seem to favour companies that have the heritage to build a compelling story. But smaller and newer brands are still getting in on the act. 'If the company is not that long established, it can still use the historical element of Timeline to convey the excitement of its start-up with the challenges it faced and, in effect, encourage other entrepreneurs with its example,' says McMahon.

Sandwich chain EAT only launched in 1996 so has little to show on its Timeline by way of illustrious history, but that has not stopped it from building a strong page to harness the additional capabilities of the platform.

'It's the visuality of the Timeline that makes the difference,' explains Mark Rice, co-founder of creative agency andsome, which has worked with EAT to create a 'careers community' operating in real-time. 'You could post pictures and videos to the Facebook wall before. But it's now much more user friendly, and more impactful.'

For EAT, this translates to large photos and videos, interspersed with a bold use of its colours, logo and characteristic 'in three words' slogans. It aims to give a more 'personality-led feel to the brand' by promoting shop openings, assessment days, and training and development as it happens and with real staff - the increased visual element of the Timeline giving a fly-on-the-wallfeel to the page that seems to suit what should be a vibrant café culture. 'There's an internal engagement piece to it too - you see staff getting congratulated on their promotions and staff responding to their promotions. It's become a kind of 360-degree process,' says Rice.

Engagement success or failure?

For all this early effort, though, the proof is in the pudding. Since the launch of Timeline, there has been a rush to assess whether it has enhanced brand engagement. One study conducted by social media analytics company Simply Measured found that, across a sample of 15 early adopters, there were average increases of 14 per cent in fan engagement, 46 per cent in content engagement and 65 per cent in interactive content engagement (video and photo) following the launch of Timeline. The sample may have been small, but the study is not alone.

McMahon adds: 'Research in the US by social media agency Wildfire has found that, for most brands, the experience of switching to Timeline has been positive. It found that there were double digit increases in both 'likes' and 'comments' per brand post, and a much better performance for embedded content like videos and photos. Interestingly, brands that had languished at fewer than one million fans got the biggest boost in activity on their pages.'

The study of 43 early-adopter brands also appeared to show that the new feature of pinned posts seems to be performing better than regular posts, generating 39 per cent more 'likes', six per cent more 'comments' and 32 per cent more 'shares'. Pinned photoposts boosted engagement further.

But there is a problem with early statistics. Much hype heralded the launch of Google's Timeline. It is also perhaps no coincidence that Simply Measured's study showed that Ben & Jerry's and Red Bull enjoying a 38 per cent and 70 per cent increase respectively in overall engagement at the time of the launch. Both were used as case studies by Facebook to advertise Timeline.

A detailed study by Edgerank Checker has also contradicted such findings, publishing data that appears to demonstrate that Timeline has no direct impact on engagement for brands. 'As a vast majority of all engagement takes place within the newsfeed, this data is not surprising as Timeline has no direct impact on content within the newsfeed,' the study concluded.

But McMahon still believes that Timeline offers brands an opportunity to tell their story 'more visually with a fun and engaging mix of video and still images'. But if most engagement still occurs in the newsfeed, does this take brands down a blind alley? Sainsbury's Dawson believes that companies still need to increase their position in Facebook's EdgeRank to gain more visibility in newsfeeds. 'If brands think that they don't need to be as compelling in their calls to action and rely solely on images, they might see a reduction in engagement,' he says. 'Brandsnot only compete against other brands [on Facebook] but against people's friends and family for attention.'

For Sainsbury's, the answer is to combine the new features of Timeline with a long standing strategy to gain traction. 'Most users get our updates through their newsfeed, so we're always looking for that strong visual accompanied by an immediate compelling call to action to catch their eye and entice them to comment, 'like' and share the post with their social graph,' says Dawson. Its retro quiz is a good example.

Other companies will have to take a similar tack especially when users return to their normal habits and are less likely to specifically seek out brand pages. Facebook's Timeline has excited many people. The success of the early adopters will, Coope suggests, encourage more brands to follow suit, and launch their own Timeline. But others will undoubtedly wait to see how those engagement statistics really pan out.

Perhaps a more difficult question is whether companies have the resources to maintain their Facebook Timeline, ensuring an ongoing visually lively and interactive brand page that actually gains traffic.

For all the new possibilities of Facebook's Timeline, finding the additional time and money to make it work, especially in this ongoing economic climate, may be the one challenge that just won't go away. Such reticence will give early movers greater advantage through. For those brands with the resources, and knowledge to apply them wisely, it seems that there is everything to play for when it comes to Timeline.