Facebook Timeline for pages are no big burden for small businesses

Posted on March 6, 2012 2:54 pm by | Business | Facebook

Jay Baer is one of the smartest guys working in the social media space, but I don’t think he got it right when he claimed that Facebook’s Timeline for brand pages “betrays small business.”

I read the post and started applying Jay’s concerns to two Facebook pages I manage. Granted, they’re not small business pages. They’re even smaller than that. One is the page for my podcast, For Immediate Release, which I co-host with Neville Hobson. The other is the page for the Social Media Breakfast SF East Bay, which is a joint effort with my breakfast co-conspirators, JD Lasica, Dagan Henderson and Kenny Lauer.

While these are volunteer gigs rather than small businesses, the challenge is largely the same: ridiculously limited time and resources. We have not made the switch to Timeline yet, which gave me the opportunity to ponder the issues Jay raised in his post. And my conclusion just doesn’t jibe with Jay’s. I found the Chat Noir bookstore Timeline below in a review of 10 great Timelines shared by PC World, several of which are from small businesses. What do they get that Jay fears most small businesses won’t be able to handle?

Chat Noir bookstore's Timeline-enabled Facebook page

Incidentally, I was originally going to leave this as a comment to Jay’s post, but as I found I had thoughts one of each of Jay’s 14 points, I decided to flesh it out as a post of my own (and not as a slap at Jay—this is maybe the first post of his with which I’ve taken strong exception. There aren’t a lot of bloggers about whom I can say the same.)

Here are Jay’s points and my reactions when applying these concerns to these pages:

Cover image

Jay: For small businesses that lack existing photography and/or personnel with the creativity and time to get something created for the Facebook Cover, it’s a burden not an advance.

Me: Even the smallest business engage in some kind of marketing or advertising. Owners carry cameras in their pockets, built into their phones. They have physical locations. They have logos. They have staffs. Shoot a freakin’ picture or use an existing piece of artwork. Try switching it up with different images to see what resonates with your audience. This shouldn’t be a time suck at all.

Prohibition on Cover Promotion

Facebook won’t let you use the cover image to promote contests, list prices or issue calls to action. Facebook says the guidelines encourage people to create engaging content that people want to come back to and create and emotional connection with.

Jay: Creating emotional connections is a luxury that is out of reach for small businesses where the Facebook page manager is doing so on her lunchbreak.

Me: Follow the rules, but there’s no rule that says you have to use your Facebook page to create an emotional connection. There are other ways—good ones, in fact—to get that promotional message out to visitors so they won’t miss it. For starters, pin the post with the special deal to the top of the page and star it so it spans two columns.

Death of the Landing Tab

Jay: One area where small businesses could excel in “old” Facebook was with the default landing tab. This became a de-facto landing page/microsite for many companies, and made it relatively easy to drive fan behavior – especially when using inexpensive software. Of course, Facebook killed it in Timeline.

Me: The evidence suggests that using the default landing tab as a traditional marketing delivery mechanism actually reduced a page’s effectiveness. In an InformationWeek article, digital marketing strategist Ted Sindzinski said that trying to build a fan base with promotional material was counterproductive. ““We found that when we did gimmicky things, we saw the engagement go down.” Besides, if you want to get that promotional message out, use the pinned-and-starred post.

Pinning and Starring

Jay: For small business, having to now not only figure out what to post to Facebook but also what to star and pin creates additional editorial calendar pressure and complexity that many are unprepared or under resourced to tackle.

Me: Isn’t that like telling a small business to forget about blogging because they’ll never come up with one lousy idea per week? Besides, you could always just repin the same post as last week if you’re really so strained for ideas that you can’t come up with one post or image to share at the top of the page each week.

Direct Messages

For businesses that would like controversial questions or challenges to come to them directly rather than have them posted to the Wall for everyone to see, the ability to have visitors designate a message go directly to the page admin could well end up being a blessing.

Jay: For small business it’s now one more “inbox” that must be monitored and responded to in as close to real-time as possible.

Me: If that’s the case, don’t use it. Employing it on your page is a choice to make in the admin setup panel: uncheck the “Show Message button.” There’s no rule that says you have to use this. I suspect, like other Facebook updates, you’ll get notified in your regular email, too, which means you only need visit when you know you’ve received a message.

Activity Stream

Everybody visiting a page will see something different, thanks to the prominent display of activity your friends have had with the brand.

Jay: If a small business is not willing or able to update the Page on a regular basis (at least daily) the design of Timeline will make that lack of activity glaring and garish.

Me: Seriously, how much interactivity do people think their friends will have had with a small business? Will they honestly be looking at the date and saying, “None of my 327 friends have interacted with this page in months! I wont’ do business there!” For a small business, this just isn’t what people are looking for. Jay does add, however, “Perhaps that’s a good thing, and companies that can’t update their Page shouldn’t be on Facebook at all, but it’s still a change that doesn’t favor the small guy.” The favor it does the small guy is getting him to think about just what he’s trying to accomplish with a Facebook page.

Penalty on 3rd Party Apps

For companies that use a third-party tool (like HootSuite) to post updates, they may find Facebook has displayed them with “less visual prominence” than if they are posted directly from the Facebook.com site.

Jay: For small business that rely on third party tools to save time and boost social media efficiency, this is a problem.

Me: This is a bigger problem for the large companies using social media management systems like Sprinklr.com than it is for a mom-and-pop venture that is more likely to use Facebook directly. The pain is at least shared with this change.

New Tab Width

Jay: To provide additional real estate for apps, Facebook has changed (again) the maximum width from 520 to 810 pixels. This isn’t a catastrophe, as legacy, narrower apps will float in the center of the newly wide page. But eventually, apps will need to be widened or overhauled entirely, creating another issue that small business needs to address.

Me: Everybody will need to address this one, not just small businesses, but I chalk it up to knowing what you’re getting into. If you created a Facebook page and apps without knowing that Facebook frequently changes up its format, you didn’t perform due diligence required for using a third-party platform for your business. Deal with it.

Premium Ads

Jay: The new Premium Ads (larger, more dynamic) will be sold to large companies on high-dollar, cost-per-impression deals, reducing the inventory available for the (mostly) cost-per-click Marketplace ads favored by small companies.

Me: I’ll go along with this one, although the real impact on visibility of smaller traditional Facebook ads remains to be seen. So far, most of the ads I’m seeing are still from smaller organizations.

Reach Generator

Initially available only to large companies, the Reach Generator lets businesses buy greater (wait for it) reach for their status updates.

Jay: It’s maddening that (Facebook has) now essentially admitted that they have been artificially reducing the reach of status updates as a precursor to the rollout of Reach Generator ads (which can put your status updates in front of the eyeballs of ~75% of your fans). Essentially, Facebook has said that companies need to spend time and money (on apps and such) to acquire “likes” but that the vast majority of those fans won’t typically see updates from the brand, unless the brand pays for it. This is the end of Facebook as a “free” option for brands, and demonstrates such gall and guile it makes me want to scream at my laptop.

Me: Near as I can tell, small businesses will have the same reach they had before. While it’s not as great as it would be with the purchase of additional reach, this doesn’t actually diminish the effectiveness the page was already producing. So keep doing what you’re doing, up your game if you can, and reap the benefits of your Facebook presence.

Real-Time Insights

The idea of the real-time feature of the Insights panel is to advise you when posts are resonating with people so you can convert them into paid ads.

Jay: This is a nifty opportunity to be sure, but of course will be beyond the reach of small business due to budget and lack of staff to sit around and stare at real-time data streams.

Me: In the conduct of business, there will always be things large businesses do that small ones can’t. Facebook page owners may not have had the real-time data, but the ability to convert posts to ads isn’t new. The fact that small businesses won’t take advantage of it to the degree that large businesses will is, well, the difference between large and small businesses. It hardly rises to the level of betrayal.


In the Timeline, brands can create posts from throughout their history. Ben and Jerry’s, for example, includes posts detailing the launch of their flavors as well as key dates in the company’s cherished social responsibility history, many of which predate Facebook’s launch.

Jay: For small businesses that may not have the photos to post, the time to post, or the inclination to figure out a backwards-looking historical record, it’s probably a bridge too far.

Me: Many small businesses have been around for decades, passed down through a family’s generations. Just visit an old diner and look at the pictures on the wall! Nobody’s suggesting that you have to get all these pictures and posts up at once. Even Ford Motor Company’s timeline is evolving and growing over time. If you add a milestone or two a week—a matter of just minutes, really—you’ll do fine. And if your organization isn’t that old, there’s no reason to fake it. Just populate the years for which you actually have something to share. Remember, people have to click the years in the Timeline to see anything at all. Mostly, they’re going to look at the updates that are visible when you first get to the page.

Auto-play Content

Timeline can auto-play multimedia content.

Jay: A newfound playground for big brands, but probably not something most small businesses will have the dollars or desire to embrace.

Me: See “Real-Time Insights” above. Why do small businesses feel like they have to compete with every little thing a big business does with its Facebook page? Besides, there really isn’t a huge investment in video or audio (as YouTube and podcasting demonstrate).

Rollout schedule

All pages will be converted on March 30.

Jay: A frighteningly short period of time for small business – who do not sit around and ponder their Facebook best practices every day.

Me: Agreed, but the Timeline doesn’t have to be completed on March 30. If you have your cover image set and the update you want everyone to see pinned, you’re gold. You can deal with everything else incrementally. Keep in mind why people visit a small business page. It’s not to see every last element of the page in place. In fact, a recent survey of small business owners showed that 85% generated business just by sharing basic information about the company and another 62% did it by sharing content like videos and pictures. The aggressive rollout schedule and the inability of many small businesses to get their page in order by March 30 won’t change that.

In conclusion…

There’s a reason so many businesses, large and small, have established a Facebook presence. It’s free and most of your customers are probably already there. In fact, many have come to expect your business to have a presence.

Unless you’ve been actively ignoring Facebook’s actions over the last several years, you knew you were prone to changes. So make them to the extent you can and get on with it. To help, here’s a how-to guide for small businesses from IT World and another from ReachLocal.

As long as I’m talking about Jay, if you’re not listening to his new Social Media Pros podcast, you’re missing out. Do yourself a favor and put Jay in your ears.



  • 1.Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Shel, and even more so the kind words.

    I hope you're right, truly.

    But I'll say that you do not represent the typical small business. Your ability, aptitude, and interest in the new Facebook is far greater than average. That of course doesn't mean that new Facebook is not viable for less technologically adept small businesses. It is.

    My point was not that Facebook is now impossible, but that as a collection the new features and changes favor large business over small business. That is an intentional, strategic, financially-motivated decision on Facebook's part, and one that I believe will erode small business loyalty to the platform over time.

    More than anything though, I'm just glad I got a conversation started, because the Greek chorus of "isn't this grand?" that typically accompanies any Facebook change is short-sighted and incurious. I'm not at all putting you in that camp, but you of course know what I mean.

    Jay Baer | March 2012

  • 2.This is very useful indeed. It sounds like that there will be an adjustment period but over time small businesses will make the transition just fine.

    I still think Timeline does solve a Facebook problem - i.e. they want people to spend more time on the site and they want brands to spend more money. All of this makes sense given that they've got to make money to serve 850M+ users.

    At the same time though the Facebook Page resource can be leveraged to a higher level. There is an inherent reach and engagement challenge. I wrote about this in an article in Silicon India (also available here: http://mofans.co/problem-solution/). I acknowledge that I am coming at this problem from the mobile marketing perspective and others may have other ideas/solutions.

    Amit Nanda | March 2012 | SF Bay Area

  • 3.Nice counterpoints Shel. I caught your link as I was commenting on Jay's post, my thoughts how a small business could use some of these (like milestones) to their advantage - or at least, get them actually thinking about their FB 'strategy.'

    "Unless you’ve been actively ignoring Facebook’s actions over the last several years, you knew you were prone to changes. So make them to the extent you can and get on with it." That's my biggest issue: the mistake of over-investing in someone else's platform; FB (Twitter, LI, Google) can, do, WILL make changes in THEIR best interests so you better learn to adapt. Any business - big or small - is using 'free' FB at their own risk, so they need to think about how to use it to their best advantage (one size will not fit all) and move on. FWIW.

    Davina K. Brewer | March 2012 | Atlanta, GA

  • 4.I agree with Jay, and in fact I followed your comment on his blog post to this blog post, because I was curious about the alternate take. You, unlike a lot of small businesses (at least the ones in my area) have the knowledge and aptitude to differentiate yourself from the crowd and take on these changes to make them work for you.

    Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of small businesses in my area that are doing it right! And will continue to do it right, because they care more about having a conversation with their customers, than using Facebook as a straight marketing platform.

    Anyway, it was a great article, and a good resource to point to businesses that are having a hard time coming to grips with the new changes. :)

    Cassie Witt | March 2012 | United States

  • 5.Thanks for taking the time to point out the positive aspects of Timeline for Pages. I have shared this out to my Social Media Pinterest Board.

    DJ Smith | March 2012 | Seattle, WA

  • 6.Many small businesses still struggle to understand the value of social media and the more complex the feature set the greater the fear they have. As Facebook, Twitter, etc., move toward monetization, we will likely see more complex choices for small businesses.

    Dennis | March 2012 | Chicago

  • 7.Totally agree with your assessments. One small business' challenges is another's opportunities.

    Ellen | March 2012

  • 8.Thank you for this post, I agree wholeheartedly with this post. Most of the things I was thinking when I typed my response on Jay's post, http://fyre.it/P0V you covered here.

    I think one of the most important things that sets your post apart is the fact that this is not a shot against Jay, but a respectful disagreement and response.

    Dust Bunny Mafia | March 2012 | Los Angeles, CA

  • 9."The favor it does the small guy is getting him to think about just what he’s trying to accomplish with a Facebook page."

    That's the most resonant line of this entire post for me, Shel. While I see both your points and Jay's, it really comes down to that -- the why. Why are they there in the first place? What are they trying to accomplish?

    I've recently found myself in yet another situation of a business insisting that they "want" or "need" a Facebook page, but they don't really want to be involved at all, they just think they need to be there because everybody else is and that's the thing to do. I tell them over and over again that if they don't know why they want to be there, or what they're trying to accomplish, nor who their target customers are or how (if?) they even want to engage, they probably shouldn't be there until they figure those things out.

    I appreciated your point/counterpoint with him, thanks for writing this.

    Stacy Lukasavitz | March 2012 | Detroit, MI

  • 10.Thanks, Dust Bunny -- I find attacks against people's positions to be pointless. Readers are so busy focusing on the vitriol that they miss any substance. As I noted, I like Jay personally (based on our single face-to-face meeting and everything other encounter I've had with him (like his podcast and his blog). I just had a different view on this issue. It's his post I disagree with, not him.

    As for the assertion Jay and a few others have made here that I'm not a typical Facebook user, I beg to differ. We've entered the era of technology populism, where people don't need an IT specialist to do most of their technology work for them. There are plenty of small business people who figured Facebook pages out; it's just not that hard, even for folks who don't do that kind of work all day. Just as they've figured out (or paid for) their other marketing, they can figure out or pay for this. And Facebook has the added advantage of being free, which you can't say about a lot of other small-business marketing channels and platforms.

    Of course, there are elements of digital technology that you do need help with. I didn't design or build my website. It runs on a CMS that I could figure out if I wanted to take the time. I didn't -- I have other things to do -- so I hired someone and pay a monthly fee for updates, fixes and additions. It's worth it to me to have Kurt from NetRaising.com on my team. What small business owners have to figure out is how much it's worth it to THEM to take the time to get facebook pages right or pay someone to do it for them. I just don't see how that's any different from any other marketing channel they may opt to use.

    Shel Holtz | March 2012

  • 11.This is a great message about the power small-businesses have using the new Facebook Timeline. I am the first to admit I was totally against timeline when it first came out (as everyone is to changes of the Facebook layouts at first). However, after reading your blog post I may change tonight! I love how you embraced the timeline feature and found the positives that the old Facebook did not have. The key for small businesses, or all businesses in general, is to get creative with Facebook and take full advantage of all the platform provides for potential content. I am currently enrolled in a Social Media class at Tulane and I will be sure you share this post with my class.

    Tulane- A.B. Freeman School of Business

    Lauren P. | March 2012 | New Orleans, LA

  • 12.Thanks from Spain Shel, I totally agree with your article.
    I run the marketing department of a small car dealer and your article has brought confidence with the idea that came to my brain this morning.

    We have a cute and coulored table for kids to paint car draws while their parents are looking and taking seat in the cars. So I was thinking to take this draws with their permission an put one different each week for our big picture at TimeLine.

    What do you think? Would you take us as a serious company? and would it produce engagement?

    You can check out how looks our facebook TL right now. http://www.facebook.com/varadequart
    Any idea of the readers will be welcomed ;)

    Maria | March 2012 | Valencia, Spain

  • 13.Great post Shell! I think you're right and you're typical of Facebook users who understand how to use their pages. Unfortunately most do not The move to timeliness isn't going to change that. Those that care about the space will make the transition. Those that don't will continue to flounder. A small investment in time allows small business and charities to take care of the basics. Some changes like milestones can be done incrementally or not at all without consequences. Changes designed to get brands to spend more do favor bigger organizations but organizations with larger budgets already have an advantage and always will. There is still room for small orgs to build relationships and benefit from creating an online community something that the alternatives are likely not doing.

    I'm looking from forward to hearing you speak to IABC Waterloo. I just wish you were here in person to also speak to the Social Media Breakfast that I organize.

    James Howe | March 2012 | Waterloo Region, Canada

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