The Microsite is Dead. Long Live the Microsite!

For a couple years now, “microsite” has been a dirty word. Facebook apps and tabs became the de facto home for promos, contests, and interactive apps. Fish where the fish are, right? But as Facebook has shrunk and pages and tabs, and as users access the web from mobile devices in ever-larger numbers, Facebook tabs are no longer the clear-cut choice they once seemed. What’s the solution? The venerable Microsite, of course.

Some background

Not that long ago, microsites were the obvious choice for short-term campaigns, promos, contests, and product launches. They were realtively quick to build, had easy-to-remember URLs, and allowed for exciting design that might not fit within the style and architecture of a brand’s main site.

Over time, microsites fell out of fashion. As Facebook grew, brands realized that they needed a presence on the social network. With over one billion active users generating more daily traffic than Google, brands wondered why they were investing in these microsites, floating off in the ether. Why not go where the people were, especially considering how Facebook made it so easy to share the content? Thus began the rapid move to Facebook apps, tabs, and pages.

From the beginning, Facebook had drawbacks. The easily remembered URL was gone. A buggy oft-unstable API and ever-changing documentation made development a headache. Apps and pages would break unexpectedly as Facebook added and removed features and support without warning. Analytics tools were limited at best. Additionally, the Facebook tab content still had to be hosted somewhere, meaning little savings in infrastructure or bandwidth costs.

Facebook apps and tabs begin to lose their appeal

For a while these negatives were overshadowed by the “social” aspect of Facebook and the perceived hipness of being on the ever-growing network. Now, the drawbacks are beginning to outweigh the benefits.

First Facebook reduced the width of tabs to only 520 pixels, which severely limited the amount of functionality that could be included. “App” pages remained 760 pixels wide, but are far less desirable to marketers since they take the user away from the brand’s page. Then with the Timeline update, Facebook changed brand pages to hide all but 2 tabs, greatly reducing their visibility and cutting page engagement by over 50%. Meanwhile, the platform API remained just as difficult and ever changing, requiring development hours just to keep the apps up to date with Facebook’s latest standards.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the dominance of Facebook apps and tabs is the increasing use of mobile devices. 680 million active users access the site through mobile devices each month, including 126 million who access Facebook by mobile only. In fact, Facebook’s mobile users now outnumber their web-only users, and mobile users are twice as active than web-only users. This is a huge problem for marketers because Facebook apps and Tab pages are entirely inaccessible through Facebook’s mobile site or their mobile apps. In other words, the most active users on Facebook are unable to reach your Facebook tab through their device of choice.

Welcome back, old friend!

So where do we go now? You guess it – to the good old microsite.

Microsites today maintain all the benefits they had years ago. Compared to Facebook tabs, they are more flexible in design and functionality. Through the use of Facebook’s social plug-ins, brands can add most of Facebook’s sharing, liking, and commenting features right on their external microsite, eliminating the need to have it live within

Perhaps most importantly, microsites allow mobile users to not only access the site or app, they can be tailored to provide an excellent mobile-optimized experience through the use of responsive web design.

Don’t delete your brand’s Facebook page just yet.

None of this is meant to suggest that branded Facebook pages are useless. Facebook remains an essential tool to interact with your brand’s fans and will likely remain so for a long time. Tabs can be used very effectively to build awareness and link to more interactive sites and apps, but they are a poor venue for anything multi-paged or requiring significant interaction. If you need true interactivity, more than a couple paragraphs of copy, or any mobile accessibility, make it a microsite.



* Note: Original post edited Feb 1, 2013 to add Facebook Timeline redesign information and updated usage statistics.