wasted potential: facebook

This is one in a series of posts about brands have failed to live up to their potential — from Jonathan Salem Baskin, author of Branding Only Works on Cattle, the “dim bulb” blog, and Ad Age/CMO Strategy columnJonathan has taught me a lot through his insightful analyses of brands and businesses — and he’s entertained me with his dry wit and occasional rant.  What I appreciate most is that, along with his critique Jonathan provides thought-starters for how to do things better — his post below is no exception.

I’ve asked Jonathan to share his thoughts on a brand disappointment  — he chose Facebook.

From Jonathan:

I know, I know.  You’re already thinking that the Facebook brand is a poster child for the social media movement.  Everybody and their brother (or third-cousin, or that dork from high school who needed to be avoided like the plague) has a page, and probably checks it at least somewhat regularly.  Also, founder Mark Zuckerberg is a famous brand, right?  Like a post-bust market proto-Steve Jobs, or something.

Only I say not really, and so what?

Functionally, Facebook is a glorified address book combined with a chatroom, allowing for incessant updates that create an experience of intrusion that is glowingly labeled ambient awareness.  It’s great, for sure: I post my daily Dim Bulb essays, created a page for my new book, and I occasionally comment on news from a friend (or get a funny little comment on mine).  I was particularly involved right after I first opened my account, trolling my address book and failing memory to reconnect with all of those names from my past that had otherwise slipped from my daily life.  Done.

Now, I’m sort of running out of things to do.

There seems to be a usage curve based on social media functionality, and I’d suggest that it’s the inverse of 1) total participation numbers, and 2) number of functions or add-ons.  It was fun the first or second time I was gifted or poked, but now I just ignore that stuff (and usually de-friend whatever numbnut bothered me).  I’m ambiently aware of the things people I barely know are doing, but for the life of me, I can’t see any reason why I should care.  Awareness is certainly not the same thing as recognition, let alone relevance.

I’m reminded of the fun I once had receiving and then forwarding jokes and funny video links via email.  It was a blast…and then it got old.  For that matter, I remember the thrill of downloading every song I could even think of via Napster.  Finally, I owned that Bay City Rollers song I’d remembered from high school, although I’d lived a productive and fulfilling life without ever hearing it again thereafter.  So I proceeded to continue ignoring it on my hard drive.

I worry the trend with such functionally-based technology tools is to skew heavily to the ambient part, and not so much on the awareness end.  The functional attributes of the Facebook brand could become a part of the background of my day, just ahead of the buzzing I hear from my fridge when I choose to hear it.  What makes the brand unique?  From an functional perspective, not much.

Conceptually, the Facebook brand is even more dicey.

It’s original brand proposition was that it was only open to college students, so it provided some protection from the vast wash of numbnuts who might otherwise want to look at your pictures, or chat with you.  But now it’s available to anyone, or to anything, as corporations can issue pages, run promotions, etc.  Lurkers are still somewhat stimied, but commerce isn’t.  Facebook’s owners are madly trying to figure out how to exploit…er, monetize…its members, just as some members are already working hard to exploit one another.

So is the Facebook brand about being safe, or transparent, or useful, or responsible, or what?  I’d suggest that there are no obvious or meaningful brand attributes that differentiate it, or that preclude it from slipping into the miasmic muddle of purposelessness that embraces MySpace, Second Life, and most other mainstream social networks.  It’s WOW without trolls, or Eve Online without spaceships.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however.

Facebook could adopt and promote specific behaviors that define its brand, and establish a framework for its user participation and future growth.  It’s not a marketing or branding challenge, per se, but rather a business strategy question: how to create, via real commitments and actions, a brand purpose that defied the general trend toward becoming generic (and losing out to the next tool embarking on the same path)?

Here are four starter ideas to illustrate what I mean:

Become a truly user-controlled referral community: Instead of selling commercial conversation to businesses, why not let users own it, a la eBay?  People could recommend things to one another, and receive credibility rankings (or some other accrued value).  Members could opt in or out of such activities.

Provide platforms for multimedia: Go one step past YouTube and merge membership with art, thereby creating user-controlled channels for original music, video, and audio works.  Make Facebook the brand that excludes professional art; make it the tool for everyone else to use.

Give up management authority to the collective: Transform Facebook into one gigantic town hall, and give members the responsibility (not just the opportunity) to vote on activities, allowable tools, functional additions, etc.

Monetize membership, not eyeballs: Figure out ways to make members want to pay (or subscribe) to Facebook, instead of trying to exploit their visits.  Think public television…what would the brand have to deliver/stand for in order for it to be valuable to people?

Fundamentally, though, the business would have to function differently in order to claim and substantiate its branding.  There’s little evidence that such actions are likely.  It’s just too easy to quip about members and time spent on the site, and relegate the issue of finding a sustainable, long-term business proposition to some future inevitability.

But that future is not a guaranteed outcome; in fact, the evidence is that, without real brand behaviors, the Facebook brand proposition has already reached its peak (and perhaps passed it?).

Now is the time for it to put a stake in the virtual firmament, and make the brand stand for something(s) real, different, and meaningful.

Good stuff, Jonathan — thanks for your post.  I’m particularly intrigued by the membership monetization idea – I’ve often thought that the problem with sites like Facebook is that they’re free, thus falling squarely in the category of you get what you pay for.

Jonathan and I would love to hear your feedback — and next Monday:  John Moore offers his thoughts on another brand that has failed to live up to its potential — can’t wait!

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