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February 26, 2009

What Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz and Facebook Can Tell Us About Engagement

Did you see the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress presentations at the Oscars? This year they tried a new format in which five former winners take the stage and each in turn speaks to one of the nominees. More than their male counterparts, the women winners spoke from the heart. And in almost every case the nominated actress seemed on the verge of tears (Best Supporting Actress nominee Viola Davis clearly wept). Each seemed genuinely affected by her peer’s personally and intimately expressed admiration. A hundred million of us were eavesdropping on these tender moments.

In a way Facebook is like that, I am discovering. And it is leading the way to deep connections that really define “engagement” for any Web publisher willing to learn. Facebook is showing us the potential for people to reach each other in unexpected ways. People who seek and find us there and can then engage us in ways that really transcend traditional Web site experiences.

I say this because of several experiences I have had on Facebook over the past month.

When I was in sixth grade, I was crazy about the girl who sat next to me, but I didn’t think she could possibly have the same feelings about me. When Mrs. Rothaar changed everyone’s seats, the girl sent me a note through an intermediary, Sheila, who was now sitting next to me. The note said, “Do you like me?” I turned around and saw her sheepishly smiling. After recovering from a brief but intense panic attack, I sent back a note that told her I did. Ah, first love!

Last week I got another note from her. This time the intermediary was not Shelia, though. It was Facebook.

Facebook is affecting my life in ways I wouldn’t have imagined just a few short months ago. In addition to the innocent hello from my first flame, I have had a dialogue with a cousin I haven’t seen in 25 years. And based on these two compelling connections, I reached out to a guy I was close to in high school but haven’t seen since graduation. And I have had a series of chats with a friend whom I haven’t seen since I was 11 years old. We told each other our about our lives since childhood, and I had a chance to make amends for some things that I was not surprised he remembered well. All these years later — we were friends again.

And when I tell people in the media business about these Facebook moments, I find that I am hardly alone.

My experiences with Facebook over the past month are probably old-hat to my nephews in college and the most passionate users of the site. But they tell me that at as it approaches 200 million members worldwide (probably tripling the viewership of the Oscars!) Facebook is only in its infancy of potential.

When you think about the metrics that matter most to people in this business — audience reach, composition and engagement — you realize that there is no site in the world that will be able to compete with Facebook in delivering results to advertisers. Who will have greater reach? Who will know more about who comes to their site? And Facebook no doubt will become the master teacher of what engagement really means. The best online media companies — those that know a passionate audience is their raison d’etre — will be the ones who learn these lessons well.

Kevin Mannion is founder of Sky Road Consulting,which provides management, sales, and marketing solutions for online publishers.