Thursday, December 13th, 2012

A Facebook-Free Future

A Facebook-Free Future
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Too many marketers are hopping in the sack with Facebook – without even stopping to ask whether it’s a good idea or even whether the right protection is being used

While I’m hearing you go on about your favourite new band, weekend in the tropics or some other random minutiae, I also take a moment to reflect on Mr. Zuckerberg, computer programmer and co-founder of Facebook. Maybe he’s a technological genius, or perhaps he’s just a nice, well-meaning kid. I don’t know. As I look at his shit-eating grin, though, I have to wonder whether he’s sitting naked in his office, eating a bag of corn chips, maniacally laughing at us, while inspecting plans for his secret underground lair.

Facebook Scares Me

There was a day when we were all pretty pissed about Microsoft bundling its browser with its OS. How things have changed. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the same sort of thing getting any attention from the news media now, not to mention the U.S. Justice Department. Google doesn’t just own search, it has you sucking at the teet of its apps and blunderingly opening your e-mail up to its ad engine. Meanwhile, the “walled garden” folks over at Apple seem intent on establishing an iron lock on publishing through iTunes and its App Store—and other, rather questionable, stuff.

From a brand management perspective, though, Facebook seems scarier. Any good drug dealer knows that offering the first taste free isn’t an expense, but rather an investment. Similarly, Facebook tempts us with “tastes” of so many delightful things: a sense of community and connection, methods for perpetually engaging a brand’s audience and “moderation-free” commenting widgets for use on your site. I use a lot of this stuff and I should love it. In truth, it freaks me out.

As of late last year, Facebook accounted for one out of every four page views in the United States. That’s a shitload of traffic running through one site and it proves almost impossible for today’s marketer to ignore. Like that taste of meth, it isn’t without risk. As you pin your brand’s user engagement to this technology, you effectively hand the keys over to Mark’s little empire. If that isn’t bad enough, the allure of the commenting widget (used on sites as substantial as TechCrunch) ultimately hands your Website’s conversation over to others. (I’d continue my list here, but I have less than 1,000 words to work with.)

What if?

On weekends, most people watch movies, play with their kids or take in a game. I’m one of those sad souls who does the first two, and then daydreams what a future without Facebook might look like. I’m quite convinced that any digital platform can fail (think AOL, MySpace, Friendster) and that tying our client’s brands to any such entity brings with it substantial risk. What happens if the tides change for “The Mighty F”? How do you deal with unexpected API changes that break your branded Facebook app? What if Facebook starts censoring content due to its own brand of morality? I’ve skimmed some of those user agreements, and let me tell you: They certainly aren’t written in your favour.

While there are occasional rumblings of alternatives and open networks, for the most part, these are non-starters. Brands go where the people are, and the people are most definitely on Facebook. What if… just, what if… there were another way? I’m thinking a distributed network with common elements, a network with no central ownership or just a selection of community tools that you could implement on your own Web property, without having to give up the farm.

Ignoring some of the logistics around this leads me to wax all poetic. I imagine a “wall” that lives on your site, “likes” that stick with you regardless of platform, and a community that is comprised of you and your members – not owned by a third-party technology provider. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but in practicality, the things we’re talking about aren’t actually that complex, from a technical standpoint. It comes down to how you encourage broad enough adoption to reach a necessary critical mass.

In the Meantime…

I acknowledge that my ponderings on such topics may be compared to the same sort of nonsense good ol’ Cliff Clavin spouted on Cheers. At the same time, I feel like too many marketers are hopping in the sack with Facebook—without even stopping for a moment to ask whether it’s a good idea or even whether the right protection is being used.

While I dream of a distributed and open social network – and perhaps a hovercraft – I leave you with one brief notion we’re sharing with our clients (sorry, you’ll have to pay for more of ’em).

Reconsider the role these networks play in your marketing. Instead of posting everything there—and allowing them to leech your content—consider treating Facebook, Twitter and the like as places to just tease. For example, post a status update that reads, “See photos of our CD drunk at last week’s award show here:,” versus just posting the photo. This means that instead of the dialogue ending on Facebook, people are coming to your site, where you can show them other stuff, present offers, whatever. (I know this is a pretty lame example, but you catch my drift, yes?)

You Can’t Touch This!

I could be looking at all of this the wrong way. As a chorus of brand managers discusses moving “everything” to Facebook, though, I’m left to wonder if these same folks invested all their wealth with Bernie Madoff. I wouldn’t trust my cash with any single individual. Likewise, I wouldn’t trust too much of my brand’s future with a single social network.

BTW: As for you and the new lair, Zuck, I suggest the inclusion of a cognac-filled hot tub.

This article originally appeared in Applied Arts Magazine.

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