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Facebook Page Welcome Tabs: Big Loss Or Good Riddance?

Facebook Apps In Action
Facebook Apps In Action

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"Move fast and break things."

When Facebook filed for an IPO at the beginning of February, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a letter to potential investors contrasted Facebook's hacker style with mature companies that "slow down too much because they're more afraid of making mistakes than they are of losing opportunities by moving too slowly". He concluded, "The idea is that if you never break anything, you're probably not moving fast enough."

The Timeline for Pages redesign Facebook announced Wednesday at a marketing conference in New York broke things, or is about to break them, for businesses that relied on the ability to provide a welcome message to newcomers, nudging them to click the "Like" button. The pages Facebook provides for organizations and celebrities (as opposed to the profiles for ordinary users) actually include several pages, or page tabs, and Facebook is taking away the ability to set a default tab for display to visitors. Instead of being greeted by a billboard urging them to like the page, they will go straight into the conversations in the timeline--so those conversations will have to be the main thing that convinces them this is a community they want to join.

The ability to create a tab that shows a different message to newcomers, as opposed to fans (the people who have clicked the button, becoming subscribers to posts on that page) has not gone away entirely. Brands can drive visitors to that tab with a link in a post, an ad, an email newsletter, a Web page, or any other vehicle. They just won't get the "free advertising" of the default tab display.

[ Will Facebook stock be a good buy? Read 3 Things To Remember Before Investing In Facebook. ]

However, as of mid-day Friday the old "like gate" functionality--where after the visitor clicked the button, the page would refresh to show the fan-only content--wasn't working for pages that had activated the Timeline layout. It took Facebook a couple of days to respond to a bug report, beyond the placeholder response of a developer liaison saying, "We are looking into this." This prompted some anxiety over whether Facebook considered it a bug or a feature; that is, whether it had intentionally removed the gate tab function, along with the ability to set a default landing tab. However, Friday afternoon brought a reassuring answer: "This is a bug and the fix should be in soon. Thanks for your patience!"

It's quite possible I'm exaggerating the importance of this aspect of Timeline for Pages (see disclosure below). It only took me a few hours on Wednesday to rejigger the BrainYard's Facebook page for Timeline, and I hope you'll stop by and click the like button even in the absence of a welcome page--which we didn't have anyway. Many developers, designers, social media professionals, and Facebook users will be glad to see welcome tabs go away, considering them obnoxious.

"I will firmly say I'm glad to see them go," said Ted Sindzinski, a digital marketing strategist based in Orange County, Calif. Welcome page tabs were "not necessarily bad as a concept," but too many marketers "took welcome tabs and turned them into these static advertisements." In his experience, building a fan base with a gate tab promising a $5 off coupon was typically counterproductive. The people who respond to an offer like that aren't looking to join the conversation, they just want the coupon, he said. "We found that when we did gimmicky things, we saw the engagement go down."

"We've always said Facebook success and social marketing was about brands engaging with people," agreed Hearsay Social chief technology officer Steve Garrity. Although Hearsay's software for managing accounts on social media services supported Facebook welcome tabs, their use was never high on Hearsay's list of recommendations, he said. "We always saw landing tabs or welcome tabs as a quick step into social" but not a long-term strategy, he said.

"It's going to penalize the older style of throw up an ad and let people hit it when they come to your Facebook page. Change is hard, and it's always going to be more work," but on balance, brands will be gaining more than they lose through this redesign, Garrity said.

John Nolt, director of product management at another social media management player, Vitrue, had a similar take. Although Timeline will require some adjustments, that's more than made up for by "the really beautiful layouts that can be achieved with the new Timeline, versus the previous page layouts," he said.

Then again, as launch partners for the new design, Hearsay and Vitrue had more warning and time to prepare.

Tim Ware, president of the Web consulting firm HyperArts, has written some of the best guides to developing for the Facebook platform that I've seen, but he did not rate a heads-up, nor did the broader mass of Facebook developers who saw the notice at the top of their Facebook pages after logging in Wednesday morning. "We were all taken surprise by the suddenness and the 30-day deadline," said Ware, who has since developed a Frequently Asked Questions document with some answers for developers.

Ware has learned to take the surprises Facebook delivers in stride, however, and is pleased overall. Under Timeline, page tab creators now get an 810-pixel-wide area to work with, as opposed to the old 520 pixels, which will allow for much greater design freedom. "That's what we got in return for the ability to set a default landing tab--they giveth, and they taketh away," he said.

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