Facebook Graph Search: One Group's Early Lessons

Farm Sanctuary shares lessons learned during its first steps with Facebook's new search engine, including privacy considerations.

Debra Donston-Miller

February 13, 2013

5 Min Read
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Farm Sanctuary is experimenting with Facebook Graph Search to help with research, advocacy and engagement. The organization's first steps with Facebook's new search engine provide some insight into Graph Search's potential and its power, as well as a reminder about what should come with great power. (Hint: it begins with an "r.")

Farm Sanctuary is an organization whose mission is to protect farm animals from cruelty and to promote vegan living. It has three locations where more than 1,000 animals from a variety of settings and situations are cared for. Farm Sanctuary's Compassionate Communities manager Nick Cooney spoke with InformationWeek's The BrainYard about how the non-profit organization is using social media in general and -- lately -- Facebook Graph Search specifically to help further its causes.

Cooney said Farm Sanctuary uses a variety of social networks to engage with existing and potential members, but that it focuses on Facebook for the bulk of its engagement activities and for advertising.

"We do a very large volume of advertising on Facebook, where we target those people most likely to be open to moving toward vegetarianism or cutting back on the amount of chicken they eat," said Cooney. "Not only does social media allow us to reach these targets, but it also allows for incredibly detailed analysis of different groups we're reaching out to. For example, we may run 30 different advertisements. Using the analytics that Facebook and Google provide, we can compare ad vs. ad which is creating more reach for our audience and which is creating more positive change for farm animals."

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When the Facebook Graph Search beta program was made available to Cooney, he jumped on it. He said he felt Facebook Graph Search would enable his organization to more effectively target people whose interests align with Farm Sanctuary's.

Facebook announced Graph Search just last month, and it is being gradually rolled out to users. Graph Search is a very powerful search engine that lets users do extremely granular searches on anything shared or done publicly on Facebook.

Farm Sanctuary is only beginning to tap into the service. With that said, in the short time it has been using Graph Search, Farm Sanctuary has already seen return.

For example, Farm Sanctuary is in the process of conducting a "massive" research study on vegetarianism, and Facebook Graph Search saved the organizations thousands of dollars in what it would have had to spend to reach a good representative sampling of vegetarians around the country, said Cooney.

"We're working with a couple of university researchers to do a large-scale study on vegetarianism," said Cooney. "We were able to use Graph Search essentially for free to reach a representative sample of people for the study. I could search for people who live in a certain area, who like animals and animal welfare. What it will show me is all of those people. I could also search on employer, relationship, school and any number of likes or interests that they have on Facebook."

Cooney said Farm Sanctuary also plans to use this functionality to identify people in specific locations where farm and animal-protection related legislation is being debated.

"Let's say there was a bill in New Jersey that would ban a particular farm practice," said Cooney. "And say I know that there are a couple of key senators that are not on board, and one of them represents Trenton. We want to find people in Trenton to contact their representative to ask him to support the bill. There's a way to use Graph Search to find these people."

Of course, what's good for Farm Sanctuary and other organizations can be the stuff of privacy nightmares for users.

From the moment Facebook Graph Search was announced, security experts and end users alike have expressed suspicion about Graph Search. And people are leery not just because of Graph Search's deep-dive capabilities, but also because the service comes from Facebook -- a company not exactly known for making people feel comfortable about its security policies and practices.

Security experts are advising Facebook users to mark as private any personal information they don't want showing up in search results. Users should also be aware that actions such as liking and sharing content can show up in search.

Organizations using Facebook Graph Search have an obligation, as well. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility, and Facebook Graph Search provides great power. Organizations must be sensitive to users' privacy concerns and wield that power with caution.

Will your organization be using Facebook Graph Search? Please let us know what you think of the service -- and of organizational and individual responsibility around it -- in the comments section below.

Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.

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