With quite some foresight in 1987 Malone et al (PDF) wrote that:
“Advanced developers of computer-based marketing technology should begin by thinking about how to develop intelligent aids to help buyers select products from a large number of alternatives… They may also, in some situations, be able to provide detailed information to suppliers about their customers’ preferences”
It is this strategy, to supply information about customers to deliver business advantage for their partners, that have landed Facebook in trouble over privacy once again.
What Facebook has been poor at is capitalising on the wider opportunity available to them. This has not been grasped because their business strategy has been to seek attention (or members) for the sake of attention, on the basis that they may literally be sold afterwards. In an insightful criticism of this troubled journey, Blain Cook describes it as a ‘boatcar‘:
Pursuing the entire social market, Facebook has attempted to adapt itself to every new feature of the social web. They started out as a Friendster-alike that emphasised intentional communities, and did it well, providing elegant social utilities to university students. But since then, they’ve systematically bolted on features in an attempt to build a vehicle that does everything that Flickr, Twitter, Foursquare, Email and IM do, to name a few examples. Increasingly, they’re trying to become a framework for the web in general so that everything a web user does is done through Facebook. Instead of offering a carefully constructed vehicle that offers amazing social experiences, they have a created a clumsy boat-car that can never truly compete with more focused sites.
In theory, there is no reason why we cannot have webs within webs, and for there to be highly commercially or socially useful communities within them – even across massive platforms like Facebook.
But the problem is that Facebook have developed a quite modern technology that allows people to share and communicate, progressively added more and more features to enable this, but then sought to monetise according to a straightforward economic rationality.
Facebook have a huge user base for whom they could cultivate safe spaces for marketers, product developers, consumers and other stakeholders to come together and enhance business efficiency, success and sales in a more collaborative way. But their development trajectory does not indicate any realisation of this.
Take for example its recent alteration which allows people to ‘like’ (previously ‘fan’) a page. This implies a straightforward one-way interest. More importantly, it implies only one type of interest, a positive one. But our associations with brands or organisations are often as diverse as our associations with eachother. We don’t just ‘like’ them – we might want to challenge or change them – we might own a product and want to share our experience before making up our minds just how much we ‘like’ it.
A recent survey found when it comes to products and brands, women value most the opportunity to test out a product. If a Facebook page can help generate initial awareness – why does it require consumers to say they ‘like’ a product or brand before they have even tried it?
Another barrier to using a Facebook page for consumer engagement is that there is no easy way to manipulate and store important interactions that take place. Organisations can therefore gather consumer insight (detailed conversations from interested parties) but not export or manipulate it with ease.
A Facebook strategy to develop the facilitatation of many to many product and issue collaboration and social CRM would be ultimately more valuable to Facebook, interested organisations and consumers than the sale of attention / preference data.
Of course such data can be fantastic for helping people make purchase decisions and find information of interest, but this needs to be a specific and seperate undertaking from the core Facebook experience. This is because:
a) social websites must facilitate intimacy and loyalty and there is nothing more destructive to this than the betrayal of trust
b) there is a wider business opportunity for the platform in cultivating loyalty and providing a space for collaboration