Companies should not rely on Facebook as a long-term strategy

If your company (or you, yourself) has invested a great deal of time and money on a “Facebook strategy,” you are probably not going to like what I have to say. You may find yourself getting defensive, angry, and probably mutter naughty words under your breath aimed in my general direction (or even place them in the comments section). Fine; so be it, but just remember when you fail to get what you expect from devoting your time, energy, money and effort into Facebook as a B2C strategy, well, you were warned.

Let me begin by providing a little background and place my cards on the table up front: I have a bit of a Cassandra complex. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was cursed with being able to tell the future with 100% accuracy… but no one would believe her. There have been many times when I’ve made predictions that were, sadly, correct, but also ignored.

One such case happened in February, 1995. At the time, I was a doctoral student invited to attend a special meeting at Time Warner’s executive offices in New York with the Product Manager for TW’s Full Service Network. Now, FSN was a $5 billion project that Time Warner had invested in the uber-hot buzzword at the time: Interactive Television. It was a confluence of services such as Video on Demand, Games, social chat, telephone, interactive news, etc. It was, truly, ahead of its time, and it was marvelously ambitious.

It was also not the way people use television.

TW had made a grievous error in their understanding of their audience, namely that each medium has characteristics that define its audience. In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan was the pioneer of this notion of medium theory (he even coined the phrase “the Media”), and sadly his notions were too esoteric for American Business (such as TW) to be able to understand the pragmatic consequences.

But I did. With $5 billion already spent on FSN, this wasn’t a consultation, nor was the meeting something that was open for debate. But being young, naïve, and politically stupid, I decided to “help” by expressing my thoughts.

“I don’t think it will work,” I said.

The product manager for FSN (yes, the PM for the project) looked at me wearily. After all, what could I know?

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because that’s not the way that people use television,” I replied.

There. It was out there. The emperor had no clothes.

And it was true. People do not use media in that way. McLuhan called television a ‘cool’ medium, one that did not require a lot of participation or investment on the part of the audience, unlike newspapers (for example), which he called a “hot” medium.*

I once called Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) a “lukewarm” medium, but companies want to use social media (what CMC became) as if it were a hot medium, much the same way that TW wanted to use FSN that way. This is a mistake – in TW’s case a $5 billion mistake.

This is not to say that companies haven’t used Facebook to great success, but that’s because of who those companies are. There is a marriage between the medium they are choosing and the fact that their audience uses the medium in the way that they do.

Take ThinkGeek for instance. They use Facebook to great success with a highly engaged audience. But ThinkGeek is a social/business hybrid. That is, their business is social technology. Other companies that use Facebook to a level of a modicum of success (as I pointed out in another post on social media) already have socialized themselves or their products and already have social followings. If companies wish to try to generatе a social following they are attempting to put the cart before the horse.

As they say in Maine, “You can’t get thah from heah.”

Think about this for a second. Did Ford create the social environment surrounding the Mustang by using Facebook? Or are they tapping into a social phenomenon using Facbeook?

You may be asking yourself, well, if that’s the case why are companies flocking to Facebook? Because they really don’t have any other easy way to reach 250 million users. What’s the other alternative, MySpace?

When put into context like that, it’s easy to see that it’s the audience that companies are trying to reach – because this just happens to be where they are. But it is similar to a salesman going to a funeral to try and sell life insurance. Sure, all the people might be there, and the subject matter might be salient, but it’s just not the right place for that sort of thing (even though it may seem like it would be).

Ah, but that’s just timing, right? Well, if more than 50% of US companies are banning social media from the work place, or severely limiting it because it kills productivity, then when do you think your business customers are going to engage in business interactions? During their private, social time?

Really? Really? I’ve got some really nice ocean-front property in South Dakota to show you…

This type of thinking is the reason why Facebook’s Beacon failed so miserably. Look at it as a social media strategy in reverse. Beacon failed catastrophically because Facebook users wanted to be in control over what they would promote or share to their friends, rather than be forced to create social links for the benefit of corporations. When a company attempts to use Facebook as a social media strategy, they must rely on this very activity in order to succeed. In other words, why would an individual company succeed where Facebook systematically failed?

The answer is they can’t. A company that succeeds using this methodology has done so for one of two reasons:

1) They are a business/social hybrid and lend itself to that intercommunication with Facebook members anyway, or

2) They got lucky. (No, really. I’m serious. Any company that is “successful” in using Facebook should be able to explain how they did it and prove that it’s replicable.)

Neither situation is something that can be forced.

What companies are trying to do is force user affiliation, something which I found in my doctoral dissertation doesn’t happen in the way that they are seeking. How does it happen? Well, that will take another post (hey, now, be patient: it took an entire dissertation to explain it, didn’t it!)

For now, though, corporations should look to having a Facebook presence as a means of observing trends and autopoiesis as they relate to their company. I highly, highly, highly recommend Duncan Watts’ research, as he has far better quantified numbers and longitudinal research since I completed my doctorate in 1997.

What do companies need to do? I’m afraid that’s going to need its own article. But for now I’ll leave you with this thought:

Forgetting the brand names of social media for the moment, what are the strengths of social marketing that would provide the most intrinsic value for a business? Once you have the answer to that question, what would such a social network look like?

* I’m severely oversimplifying McLuhan for my purposes here. Volumes have been written trying to interpret what he’s done, and for the McLuhan fanatics out there, just know that I know I’m not doing him justice!

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