Facebook borrows from Twitter's playbook

The social networking site lets subscribers pick user names hoping to make its service more marketing-friendly.

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By Maha Atal, contributor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Heads up, Facebook-users: in just a few hours (midnight in your local time zone), you'll have the chance to choose a user name and corresponding URL for your profile.

The social networking giant hopes the offer will have its nearly-200 million users staying home on a Friday night, boosting traffic and helping Facebook gain a new edge in its mind-share battle with rival Twitter.

As it turns out, the user name gambit isn't attracting much buzz among most Facebook subscribers, folks who use the social networking site to stay in touch with a close circle of friends and families. But for marketers and other self-promoters, the new program is a chance to turn Facebook into a "branded space" in advertising parlance. (More in a moment on whether this will rankle everyday users of the service.)

Indeed, says Facebook spokesperson Larry Yu, requests from marketers prompted the new offering. "Other services," he explains, "have a lot of people promoting themselves and we are offering this in case there are people on Facebook who want to do that."

Take MySpace. In 2005, just before being acquired by News Corporation (NWS, Fortune 500), MySpace moved from assigning numbers to user profiles to giving users branded urls: www.myspace.com/YourName.

The change made the site Ground Zero for entertainment companies and artists to design their own pages and post their work, a market MySpace still dominates even as its overall share of social networking falls.

Twitter's model

More threatening to Facebook, perhaps, is Twitter, the microblogging service where users post 140-character items to those strangers -- and friends -- who sign up to "follow them." The one-to-many model is ideal for companies in all industries who want to promote their brand, and for individuals who want to publicize their work: Witness the recent race between Ashton Kutcher and CNN to reach one million followers. (Kutcher won).

Though advertisers still clamor for space on Facebook, there's not yet an equivalent phenomenon of brands becoming successful as "users" with their own profiles. Admits Yu: "others have been ahead here."

Mike More of online video network Nabbr.com is one marketer who thinks Facebook has lagged. "This [new offer] is Facebook waking up and trying to get more marketing friendly, because it's currently not a very effective platform for marketers," More says. "It's very closed off, it's hard to reach a large audience in a short time as most brands are looking to do."

On Twitter, where URLs reflect user names, and a one-to-many megaphone is already the norm, content gets out fast and is easy for fans to locate in a Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) search. That search-engine optimization is one thing Facebook hopes to capture by changing its ways.

Benjamin Weisman, Digital Director for UK-based ad shop Iris, sees the new offering as "a little bit of an acknowledgement of Twitter," and an attempt to preempt the rival's momentum. "Facebook is using the opportunity to show that Twitter isn't the only one doing this, to catch up to MySpace, to say 'We offer this too; we're here, we hear you and we don't let moments pass us by.'" But, Weisman cautions, many casual users will balk at turning their profiles into "public-facing entities."

College students and recent grads who log on to share photos and play interactive games with personal friends aren't concerned about search engine optimization. In fact, speculates Jun Li, who'll be a senior at Harvard this fall, they may prefer, on privacy grounds, to have their profiles housed at a hard-to-find numerical link.

"When you search on Google for my name," she says, "my profile is on the third or fourth page of links. With this [change] it would turn up higher and I wouldn't want it to." With its history of battling users over privacy, Facebook would do well to take note of her concerns.

Then again, even as they opt out of user names, Li and her peers are creating buzz, by chatting, blogging, even tweeting, about the offer. What more could Facebook want? To top of page

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