The Holes in Facebook’s Strategy–And How to Plug Them

I hate seeing a company make mistakes that a little good technology could solve. Especially a company as big and tech-saavy as Facebook. It’s a shame to see Mark Zuckerberg blowing holes in his customers’ trust and confidence in order to meet his business goals. Especially since, with some technical effort, he could hit the sweet spot, where business and user goals align, and satisfy everyone.

I’ve had this post in mind for a while. I finally decided to write it after reading Robert Scoble’s recent open letter to Zuckerberg suggesting that Facebook create two accounts for each person, one public and one private.  Robert’s headed in the right direction, but there are better solutions. First, let’s look at the problem.

Facebook wants to be squarely at the center: at the center of your content sharing and at the center of your content consumption.

The reason should be obvious. By being at the center, Facebook becomes the purveyor of information, a crucial source and channel for businesses.

In some ways, I applaud Facebook. As I blogged about in The Evolution of Social Networks, social networks need to look for ways to make money off of their business users, not consumers. Moreover, they need to find innovative ways to make that money, beyond traditional online advertising. Facebook is moving in the right direction offering business users features such as the new magazine subscriptions.

Facebook: Keep the User’s Goal in Mind

However, as I also said in my Evolution post, social networks have to walk a fine line. They need to provide value for businesses AND for their customers. The features they offer that help businesses connect with customers have to be features that customers want and find valuable.

Google has managed to create a thriving advertising network making money off business users. They’ve been successful because they keep their end-user’s primary goal front and center: to search for and find content on the web. Google doesn’t overly sacrifice the user’s experience by serving a page full of paid ads or allowing poor quality ads. Doing so would make them more money in the short run. However, serving their business customers at the expense of their end users would result in a poor user experience, causing consumers to leave. The only reason advertisers are on Google is because that’s where the customers are. Lose the customers and you lose the business users.

Facebook doesn’t seem to have figured this out, yet. They keep forgetting or ignoring the primary goal of their core users: to connect with and keep up with family and friends. Isn’t that why you joined Facebook? Most users didn’t join to use it as a source of content sharing and viewing. That may be a secondary or tertiary user, but not the primary one.

Facebook: Meet User’s Privacy Needs to Meet Your Business Goals

The funny part is, if Facebook was doing good job of user research and UX design, they would find they could meet their users’ goals while still making themselves the center of content sharing and consumption.

You don’t need a detailed study to know that people’s relationships both off- and on- line have varying levels of trust and disclosure. You might tell your close friends and family about the disagreement you had with your boyfriend last night. Most people aren’t going to share that with their customers or acquaintances. You might share a political rant you read with friends of the same political bent, but not necessarily with your co-workers.

Everybody’s circle of relationships is different, but you can expect most people to have circles of relationships similar to the one depicted below. The further out you move from the center, the less private information a person will want to share.

Mark Zuckerberg, if you want people to share more on Facebook, pay attention to the nature of their relationships and serve their sharing needs. Make it easy, obvious, and effortless to share different pieces of information and content with different circles of people. If you do that, people will share MORE!

Facebook makes it so easy to connect that most of us end up “friends” with people at all of the levels shown above: from closest friends to business associates. If your only option is to share a post with everybody you’re connected with, most people will choose to share less–or at least less personal information. Even young people, it turns out, care about their privacy, and many are showing greater concern about what they share with others.

That said, more and more businesses and business people see the value of being connected to customers on Facebook. A lot of us would share more professional and business content on Facebook, if doing so didn’t mean burdening our personal friends and acquaintances with that information. Most of my friends really aren’t interested in my analysis of Twitter’s latest feature. Nor do my business associates really want to know about every new escapade with my kids.

Facebook Solution #1: Leverage Lists for a Better User Experience

Robert Scoble’s answer is to create a personal and a private account on Facebook. Presumably he friends business associates via the public account and shares his technology insights there. His personal relationships and posts are reserved for his private account.

He shouldn’t need to do that. Facebook already has a List feature that allows you to create named Lists and add Facebook friends to one or more List. I’ve documented how parents can use this feature to post information they don’t want their kids to see (and vice versa). The problem is, Facebook’s List feature sucks. It’s not easy to discover, not easy to use, and not well-integrated into the user experience. For example, when you share something on Facebook, you can click the little lock icon to choose who to share the post with. Right now, to share a post only with people in a certain List, you have to select Custom and then go into a cumbersome dialog to select the Lists you want to share with.

 

Could you make it any more difficult? If I’ve created Lists, please put them at the top level in the Share dropdown.

Facebook needs to go beyond that, though. User experience isn’t their strong suit, but if they really want us to share everything through Facebook, they need to focus on designing a UI that makes it really, really easy to create Lists and share using them. Ideally, they add some smarts, leveraging all that information they’ve gathered about our relationships and behaviors around those relationships. For example, they might be able to guess who we want in what Lists or with which Lists we might want to share the album with the latest pictures of our kids.

Facebook: Killing the Golden Goose

The same thing applies to viewing content. I know Zuckerberg thinks he’s done a great thing, putting those Like buttons everywhere. I’m not so sure he isn’t killing the golden goose, though. With Open Graph, when we Like something, the website owner can now publish content to our wall, whenever they want, whatever they want. Do you trust all those businesses to be prudent about how often and what they publish to your feed?

I don’t. My feed is already too cluttered with the three pages I’ve fanned inside Facebook. I have to parse through the multiple postings from these businesses in order to find the stuff I really care about, my friends’ posts. That problem is only going to get worse if I go out and Like a bunch of pages on the web.

Again, it’s all about the user’s primary goal. Facebook wants us Liking everything so that businesses can get their content right in our main stream, where we live. We want to connnect with our friends and see their posts, though. That’s why I think Facebook may suffer a backlash on the Like plugin, not just from people aware of and concerned about their privacy, but from average users who get tired of seeing all those business posts cluttering up their page.

This is a hard one. The obvious solution for the user is, again, to make Lists easier to use. Right now, if you create a List and then click on that List, your feed changes to display only the posts from “people” in that List. For instance, I have a BFF list and if I click it, I see only the posts from my closest friends and family. Facebook could enable a Public or Business List by default so that users can click one of those Lists to see just the business posts, without cluttering up their main feeds.

But, as I commented on Robert Scoble’s post, that defeats Facebook’s business goals. Our feeds are prime real estate. Businesses want to reach us where we live. Given our primary goal in Facebook, if we have to click a List to view the posts from businesses, we’re not going to do it very often. Businesses will lose all the valuable impressions (user views) they get from posting directly to our stream, reducing Facebook’s value to them.

On the other hand, if we all get sick of having to parse through posts from businesses in order to see our friend’s status updates, we’re going to stop Liking pages. Businesses and Facebook are going to lose those impressions anyway.

Facebook Solution #2: Leverage Your Ad Network

Ok. Given: this is a more challenging problem than the sharing one. To fix sharing, Facebook primarily needs to improve its user experience and adjust the List features to make it easier to share individual content with specific people. To solve the content viewing problem, Facebook needs to get smarter about filtering content for the user.

But, Facebook already has much of the technology it needs. They’ve built and are refining an ad network. Much of the technology they use for their ad network could be leveraged for a better user experience.

Ad networks like Facebooks are all about delivering relevant ads to you. Facebook uses all the information it gathers about you in order to serve you the best ad–the one you’re most likely to click on. Let’s say that I’ve put in my profile that I like hiking and biking. I’ve put my location as Seattle. I’ve fanned Outdoor Magazine, the local biking club, and Gregg’s Cycles. When I post a link to an article on the latest, coolest mountain bike, chances are Facebook is going to serve me an ad about that or other mountain bikes, and likely from local bike stores.

Hmmm, technology that serves me the most relevant ad-content based on my actions, likes, and so on. Gee, couldn’t you use that same technology to filter the posts from all the businesses I’ve fanned, to show me just the most relevant ones today? For example, if Outdoor Magazine posted five items today, just show me the one about mountain biking. If Gregg’s Cycles has posted six times, just show me the one about discounts on bikes this weekend.

Sure, it means that businesses don’t have full access to our feeds. But it also means that we see the most relevant items they’ve posted–without any effort on their part. Besides, we’re likely to actually “see” a page’s posts if they don’t post as often. There’s a known saturation problem in online advertising. After a user has been exposed to an ad a certain number of times in a short time period, the likelihood of the user clicking on the ad decreases dramatically. The user has been overexposed to the ad.

I think the same is true of posts from “fan” pages on Facebook. You can post too much to your fans. For example, I’ve fanned Mashable. I love Mashable. However, they’re constantly posting. It’s too the point that, now, I just skim past the familiar icon without actually reading the posts. I’d be more likely to read them if I only saw one or two a day, and especially if intelligence behind-the-scenes showed me only the type of posts I most often clicked on, say studies related to Twitter or business use of social media.

By leveraging the ad serving technology they already have, Facebook could improve the end-user experience, instead of diluting it. We’d be more likely to become fans of more pages if we felt like we weren’t going to be inundated. Facebook would also have a better story for marketers trying to reach customers.

Conclusion

Like I said, it pains me to see a company as large as Facebook making business mistakes that could be avoided with a little serious analysis and applied technology. Facebook can meet its customers’ goals and its own business goal. It doesn’t have to give up either one. It already has the core elements it needs to solve the content sharing and content viewing problem. I just hope they figure that out before the backlash gets too big.

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