Fans Grow On Farms

What would a brand need to give you to become a fan of their page on Facebook? A free hamburger? A pair of underwear? Virtual cash to support your virtual farm?

These are all real examples. T.G.I. Friday's gave out the burgers in September 2009. Victoria's Secret first gave away panties in June 2009, and then it offered fans two pairs of underwear in September to celebrate getting 2 million fans. Just last week, Microsoft ponied up (pun intended) 3 Farm Cash, the virtual currency of Facebook's leading application FarmVille, to players who became a fan of Bing.

On the surface, it works. Bing grew its fan count from over 100,000 to over 500,000 overnight with the one-day promotion March 2, and it now has 593,000 fans, indicating continued residual growth. By comparison, Google has 529,000 fans. Microsoft's Bing only needs another 18,000 fans to overtake Chandler Bing (of "Friends" fame), and the page is now far more popular than "I just realized that Bing stands for ‘Because Its Not Google'" with its 258,000 fans. So it was successful, right?

This is the question marketers need to ask. Was it a success? And then you can break it down further - in what ways was it successful, and in what ways wasn't it? I haven't seen the press tackle these questions. Even a story yesterday from Silicon Alley Insider, a publication that makes a sport of ripping into large tech and media companies, treated it with kid gloves.

There are several reasons Microsoft should celebrate:

1) The creative in FarmVille was beautiful, showing a massive farm with Bing's logo, instantly visible in the game.

2) Zynga, the company behind FarmVille, made it relevant for its audience, with a prominent call to "become a fan," and then the hook to "get fun FarmVille tips on Bing now."

3) Microsoft "owns" these fans now. It can directly communicate with nearly 500,000 more people than it could at the start of last week. That's tremendous.

4) Microsoft has cash to burn. When you're sitting on billions of dollars, paying a few million bucks for this kind of promotion might be a relatively good use of ad spending. The cost of this promotion wasn't disclosed and I know it wasn't anywhere near that ballpark, but the one-day spend undoubtedly trumped what most marketers spend on social media in a year.

5) The press value alone probably helped with some of the incremental fan gains, and its public relations team can add the media love to their clip files. In this bizarre world where Microsoft is the David to Google's Goliath (or "The Hurt Locker" to their "Avatar"), it's going to get the ink.

Yet the promotion's hardly perfect. There are several reasons why this might not be the best use of marketing dollars:

1) Die-hard fans will do anything for virtual cash. Zynga games often have two kinds of currency: the kind you earn by playing the game and the even more special currency you have to pay for. There are items and other in-game boosts you can only get with that special currency. As a Mafia Wars player for about a year now, I'd become a fan of Stalin for Godfather points. Getting FarmVille players to become a fan of an innocuous brand like Bing is a cinch when you're dangling Farm Cash. Without a doubt, these same people would become a fan of Google, Yahoo, Apple, the Burlington Chamber of Commerce, hedge funds, or the Senate's latest version of health care legislation (hey, Obama, you might want to try that). It doesn't mean they're fans.

2) A week later, the vast majority of comments from fans on Bing's page are still about FarmVille. Consider the latest post from Bing about a maps app. The first ten comments are mostly relevant, though largely negative. And then the FarmVille comments come: "I just joined this group for the FV$." "I got my 3 FV dollars - and what other search engine offers you anything? So thank you to Bing!" "My son got his fv cash, but I didn't."Its wall is also full of fan posts such as, "Need some farmcash ASAP thanks in advance." These will drop off in time, but it's doubtful that these FarmVille players will ever contribute meaningfully to Bing's Facebook presence.

3) Another way to look at engagement is by the number of people who "like" a post. Bing's two official Facebook updates since the FarmVille promotion garnered about 150 likes. Bing's post about the FarmVille campaign garnered 1,280 likes. And before that? It's a mixed bag. A post about someone from Bing riding a mechanical bull in Dallas got 325 likes - and that was when it had 117,000 fans, according to All Facebook. Typically, posts netted around 50 to 100 likes - and occasionally far more, such as a Christmas update with 222 likes. Microsoft will have to figure out what resonates with the new crop of Bing fans now that they're overwhelmingly FarmVille fans too (do they search for virtual animal husbandry?). Or perhaps Bing will fare better letting that FarmVille contingent remain a fallow fan field, while continuing to reap the fruit of the organic Bing fans.

All in all, size only matters so much. Bing could have had a successful page with 10,000 fans if they were passionate users who could spread Microsoft's messaging further, or Bing could buy 10 million fans that give Microsoft nothing but bragging rights.

My final recommendation: next time, run the promotion in Mafia Wars for 100 Godfather points, and I'll be Bing's biggest fan in the whole wide world. Burlington Chamber of Commerce, that goes for you too.  

3 comments about "Fans Grow On Farms".
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  1. David Shor from Prove, March 9, 2010 at 11:39 p.m.


    As always, a thoughtful post. Surprised you have time for Mafia! ;)

    But one thing that I don't think you touch on is the economic equation of simply being able to message to that half a million people directly because of their status as a fan. How many banner or online video impressions or PPC clicks would we have to generate to get another 400,000 people to connect with the brand--perhaps a million?

    So are fans bought with cash incentives any better than people subscribed to email lists who were brought there through another type of incentive?

    I'd still say yes.

  2. Rick Graf from Digital Communications (Graf Inc.), March 10, 2010 at 9:45 a.m.

    Yes, a thoughtful post.

    You can buy fans (hoping a fair percent become customers) directly with an incentive like cash, coupons, etc., which often generates a big response in numbers, or indirectly with paying for a targeted banner or text ad, whose response is most often less than the direct incentive response.

    But and that's a big but: There will be 10 times more qualifying work (the hidden cost that few measure) with fans from an incentive group than those from an ad group. The same is true of responses from supposedly "free" publicity.

    A banner or text ad self-screens prospects (fans). It's very transparent, not so with freebie offers.

  3. John Egan from Wayfinder Analytics, March 11, 2010 at 6:23 p.m.

    Great topic; this is a fascinating exchange since the value of a Bing "fan" is quantified by a virtual currency.

    Our media development team spent a long lunch talking this over and came to the conclusion that most of the "Fans" are really fans of the promotion, not the sponsor.

    The analysis and some data on actual Bing usage change are on the Betawave corporate blog:

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