Posted on Monday 22 November 2010 by Ulster Business

Colm Long

Ulster Business caught up with Facebook's Dublin-based director of online operations Colm Long to discuss the company's support for innovation on the island of Ireland

A survey by the Forum of Private Businesses recently found that more than half of Britain's SMEs now use social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. However, of that 52% over half (27%) had serious doubts about the value of these sites to their businesses. The FPB said its findings indicated social media is not necessarily useful for all types of businesses. However, Colm Long, Facebook's director of online operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa, says it is more likely those companies that are not convinced just haven't found the best way to use it to their advantage. "I would hope it would work for all businesses – even B2B type businesses are finding a purpose for Facebook," he told Ulster Business. "Two years ago when I joined it was less obvious why a business or a brand should be present on Facebook. But we now have tonnes of great examples of brands, businesses of all sizes and especially SMEs who managed to find another channel of distribution, sales and sometimes customer support through Facebook that they wouldn't have been able to build by themselves. It is a great way of getting out there and engaging with communities." Of the benefits he adds: "The reality is the pages are free, anyone could tomorrow get their brand up there, get their logo up there and start to build an audience around that. That's something that before would have been hard to do. You typically would have had to build your own site, with all the infrastructure and investment that goes behind that. What we're finding now is that for an SME, they should be able to do a lot of what you would do through a website on Facebook. It gives access to a very large user base and we can help them target based on their interests, likes, where they are, and other targeting options." A native of the Northwest, Long was in Derry to help launch the InterTrade Ireland/Irish Times Innovation Awards 2011, which he will help judge. He is keen to raise awareness about the awards and encourage firms of all sizes and across any sector to think about applying to showcase the innovation in their businesses. Despite the perception it is a massive company, Facebook still only has 1800 employees across the world, which means its staff are "expected to innovate on a daily basis", says Long. "People assume we're the size of Google, but we're not. That means we have to be really snappy with everything that we do, whether that is on the product side or sales side. The headline innovators with the company, the guys that are responsible for building products and features that end up being integrated into Facebook, they operate like mini-startups within the business, bringing ideas through. Innovation is happening all the time - the key is for us to keep that innovation going. The moment we stop being innovative is when people start to become less engaged or find less value in it, or when competitors can start to take over," he adds. Most of Facebook's growth is happening outside of the US, and the Dublin operation was set up in 2009 to support that growing international user base. With 180 million users, just under half the population of Facebook users are in the EMEA region. "In my world, where we are focused more on sales and operations, some of the problems we are dealing with in supporting 180 million users, some of those challenges haven't been seen before, so you have to really innovate on process and structure and organisation and communication to do that. We look for people who are not just good at communication but also good problem solvers," says Long. Facebook has around 200 staff in Dublin – including several from Northern Ireland – covering advertising, development, technical engineering support and other competencies. Though the company has no plans for an office in Northern Ireland, Long sees great potential for Derry to evolve into a hub for hi-tech businesses. "The potential is huge given the goodwill that has been around here for the last year and now leading up to the City of Culture, there's a lot of buzz around what's possible. Technology is one part of it," he says. "Everything I've seen from academia, right through to Government and local government as well as industry, there are a lot of stars aligning, there is a lot of goodwill behind making this a reality and creating a legacy," he adds. "The challenge now is taking that and turning it into something people in the community and in the region can understand and get involved in. Otherwise it's just talk."

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