Rachel Hawkes: What Facebook's changes will mean for charities

Now is the time to start developing your Facebook strategy before changes to it take place, advises our online columnist

Rachel Hawkes
Rachel Hawkes

Unless you’ve been hiding under a digital rock, you’ll know that Facebook has a pretty big change coming very soon – the Timeline. It has been met with the usual disgruntled groans of those resistant to change, but it’s a big step forward for the social network and one it had to make with Google+ chomping on its tail.

Facebook changes are never welcomed at first, which is understandable when you consider its track record of forcing changes (sometimes questionable) on its users with no notice. These new changes will be no different. However, unlike Beacon (its advertising platform, which made a brief appearance a few years ago), Timeline will be sticking around, so I’m going to give you a quick overview of the changes that are afoot and how that will affect engagement with your supporters and your charity’s Facebook page.

At this stage, Facebook hasn’t officially announced how or if Timeline will be implemented for brand pages, but the general consensus is that it will be, and it will work almost exactly as it will for individuals.

Interestingly, there have been reports that Google+ brand pages will go live very soon. Whether it will be Timeline or Google+ brand pages that launches first is anyone’s guess. Timeline is going to be more visual, with the introduction of a ‘cover’ (a big image that is featured across the top of the Timeline) and the ability to feature specific content that is most important or relevant.

We all know the expression "a picture tells a thousand words". As a charity, you will understand, more than most brands, the importance of having compelling imagery to help tell a story. Having a cover image will mean you can have your logo as your profile image while not sacrificing a visual opportunity to compel visitors to your Facebook page to take action.

As it stands, every item you post and update on Facebook gets pushed down the wall by newer activity. Ironically, it works like a timeline. The problem with this is that important updates about work being undertaken, fundraising targets and similar posts get pushed out of eyeline and with them any conversation with supporters. This means we often have to repost important information, being mindful not to do so too frequently and have people tune out, which is the opposite of what we want. The ability to feature specific elements is a great thing: much as you would feature an ongoing appeal or campaign on your home page, you can feature it on the Facebook Timeline.

Timeline will allow each charity to be more engaged with and more interesting to its Facebook audience. It will be a more user-friendly experience – rather than having supporters land on a ‘dry’ wall, you will be able to navigate them towards different sections. The actual Timeline feature will also make it easy for people to get a better understanding of the charity's work down the years – milestones, events and so on. Particularly if your charity does work in multiple locations (both nationally and internationally), the integration of maps will be a really rich feature with which to demonstrate work.

Another big change will concern apps. The new Open Graph protocol will mean that you no longer have to seek the user's approval at every interval (for example, "do you want to share this with friends?"). Instead, Facebook will now assume that if they have authorised the app in the first place, they will be happy to have it automatically post to their Timeline. These won’t necessarily be visible on the person’s Timeline at first glance, but they will be fed through to the new Ticker Feed in real time – as will everything they do, such as commenting on a photo, listening to a song or 'liking' a page. This will bring even deeper engagement with your supporters and will help you to reach a wider audience when they update their friends and family in real-time.

This is already in use by a lot of publishers, including The Guardian. For example, if one of your Facebook friends has posted or shared a link with an article, then you are taken to The Guardian’s Facebook app, where you can not only read the article, but also see which articles your friends have read. The comments section underneath means users can have a conversation about the article with other Facebook users, just as they would if they were visiting the publisher's website. You can also implement tiered comments, making a richer and more authentic conversation. You could apply this to your charity, budget allowing, by developing an app for your news and/or your blog. 

Aside from Open Graph, all of the above is speculation for now. Until Facebook officially starts rolling out Timeline for users and then brands, we won’t know exactly how it’s going to work. But now would be the time to start developing a Facebook strategy (and how that might be aligned with other direct and digital channels) for your charity if you’ve not done so already.

Rachel Hawkes is an account director at communications consultancy Elemental @elementalcomms

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