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Happy Birthday, Facebook! Have another Facelift…

17 Jan

Originally posted 10 February 2010 @

Facebook turned six recently and celebrated the milestone by giving its homepage yet another makeover, this time to “improve navigation to and discovery of commonly used features”. Six years is a long time on the interweb but, even still, Facebook has made impressive and significant gains in that time. It currently sits at number four on the list of biggest names on the web (behind Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, respectively) and with over 350 million users (and growing fast) it is poised to very soon become number three. It’s become the “face”, as it were, of the social media space, if not the brain. Facebook is sitting on a veritable gold mine of highly detailed and often intensely personal information about its users; things they would never dream of telling anyone but their closest confidants, let alone a market researcher, making Facebook a veritable marketer’s wet dream. But much like war, “woah woah woah, what is it good for?” What do users actually “use” Facebook for?

Marketers claim to be reaping the benefits, as evidenced by the explosion of ads in Facebook recently, but is it to users’ benefit or their detriment? What are We getting out of the bargain? Is it enriching our lives or just making it easier to sell us stuff? Where social media succeeds over other media is by convincing its users to do the advertiser’s work for them. Every time we click a link or join a group, we might think we’re engaging in solidarity (support single sex marriage) or activism (RATM for Xmas No.1) or showing off our pop culture cred (Invader Zim), but what we are really doing is posting ads in our friends’ news feeds and sharing ads with them. As Facebook UK’s Commercial Director, Stephen Haines, puts it: [P]otential customers can directly engage with your business by clicking on the “Become a Fan” link or the “RSVP to this Event” link…this action automatically creates a story on the person’s profile page and possibly in their friends’ home page “Highlights”, generating free distribution for you.” Facebook “fan” pages are never going to replace a corporate presence on the web, but social media offers an interesting way for marketers to gather data on users’ opinions, behaviours and preferences by allowing them to consciously identify themselves with brands they like without ever feeling like a corporate stooge. And chances are they’re spending a flip of a lot more time on Facebook than they are on the corporate site. Marketers know this and they get it, but I’m not sure users do. The distinction for users is that they’re not part of a brand, they’re part of a community which identifies with that brand…but for all intents and purposes it’s an online focus group.

Similarly, market researchers are getting in on the action with Facebook Polling. Next time you click on one of those seemingly innoculous polls at your friend’s behest, thinking you’ll get to see how closely your opinion ranks against your cyber-buddies, you’ll effectively be clicking on a banner ad. You’ll also be giving the marketer who paid USD$50 to set it up the poll a candid view of your opinions, behaviours and preferences in context with the 99 other people who clicked it in your geographic region. Ray Pointer of Virtual Surveys told “These polls are clearly not going to replace U&A or ad-trackers, but they could spawn new ways of working. Traditionally, we have expected everything to be designed before the research begins, but often the basic assumptions were wrong.” Any one else reminded of the opening lines of HG Well’s War of the Worlds?

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

I wouldn’t go so far as admit to the intelligectual superiority of our marketing bretheren, but they sure are some clever people.