Building your business in Mark’s house

Three years ago I taught an interactive marketing module at the business school of a private university in Barcelona. It was a great experience presenting to a number of senior executives and up-and-coming talent from various parts of Spanish industry including advertising and interactive agencies. I ended up learning from them as much as they learned from me.

One of the attendees talked about listening to what his clients wanted, but that he really focused on building sites that Google wanted him to build; when the client wishes and Google were in conflict, Google won out. At the time the phrase struck me as it illustrated the pinnacle of Google’s power on the internet. The internet maybe open, it may be based on standards which means that you can see broadly the same experience across different platforms and browser software; but that’s no good if no one ever sees you site, modern-day equivalent of the classic philosophical question:

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

However even if you don’t rank highly in Google, it can still be promoted in other ways. The other week I was at a conference when I heard one of the audience as a question about the wisdom of:

Buiding a business in Mark’s house

That is building a business on the Facebook eco-system. I was reminded of the earlier discussions I had in Barcelona around the power of Google.

Facebook wasn’t a new idea, there have been social networks for as long as there has been the commercial internet. AOL in some of its earliest incarnations as a BBS (bulletin board system) for Macintosh computers provided some of the functionality that Facebook pages and groups do now. AOL gave users 2MB to create their own personal presence on the web through a tool called Personal Publisher (it could be found with the keyword PP2 – it wasn’t called search back then) a kind of pre-Geocities.com page that does what your profile on Facebook does now. And if you enjoy Zynga’s Farmville or Cityville, these owe a huge debt to Lucasfilm’s Habitat developed by former Yahoo Randy Farmer and sat on the AOL platform some 25 years ago.

Many of the innovations that Facebook has since come out with like email and instant messaging, are features that AOL since the internet first became popular. The contrast between the two is more about scale, whilst AOL was phenomenally popular with 30 million subscribers at its peak (who also paid for line access), and still reaches 112 million unique users on a monthly basis; it was never omnipotent in the way that Facebook has become.

Facebook has an unsurpassed reach, kind of like a telephone directory for large swathes of the world – a de-facto real identity check. This powerful position is one that Clay Shirky won’t be changed for the foreseeable future. You have to be on Facebook, even if you don’t engage with it (and engagement is something that Facebook seems having issues with for a good while). So businesses have gone to the logical step of building their web presence on a platform that they think is most consumers online homebase (as I read it described in Larry Weber’s Everywhere). So whilst Facebook may not control as much advertising budget as it likes; it wields a huge amount of consumer power and power over businesses that decide to use the social network as a platform – and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

There are a number of factors to consider around Facebook:

  • Facebook abuses its position with consumers and I don’t need to discuss it here as it’s been well documented elsewhere already
  • Then there is the impermanence of web APIs, Nick Bradbury wrote a great post about this where he name-checked Facebook’s depreciated FBML, but to be fair, Google and Yahoo! have either changed the terms of APIs to make them less viable or got rid of them completely. So your platform may be here today gone tomorrow. From my experience, at the very least you are subject to browser compatibility problems and relatively high unpredictable down-times
  • It has become a crutch for marketing agencies in the way that the the answer to all consumer marketing used to be the 90-second television advertisement – I am surprised that so many brands are surrendering their reputation to Facebook given the concerns that had been voiced by marketers about Google’s power in recent times

Marketers would be well advised to take a more pragmatic approach, think about where they are sending their traffic – who ‘owns’ the customer experience and take a portfolio or multi-channel approach to a campaign.

More information:

Is it possible to replace Facebook? – interesting article by the research and development team at Norwegian state broadcaster NRK

How Ford Blew It On Facebook | Advertising Age – why drive people via advertising to your Facebook page when you can drive them to your own property?

The long-term failure of web APIs | Nick Bradbury