Monday, June 29, 2009

Rust never sleeps.

Dear Facebook,

I’ve tried. I really have.

I’ve tried to understand your new thing. I’ve even tried to like it. I’ve tried to consider your titanic social media stature and the wisdom that it implies, and told myself that it must be me who doesn’t get it. That there is some inherent brilliance in your feature-bloated interpretation of Twitter I am just not seeing. But I can’t. And I’m not alone. Everybody I know shakes their heads sadly about the new Facebook, speaking of you in the same wistful tones they do about hot in-flight meals. I think, just possibly, you have blown it.

Because I care – and I do – I’d like to tell you a story. Stop me if you’ve heard this:

Once upon a time – the ‘70s, say - in a land called Detroit, the powerful brands who invented the auto industry were fighting a pestilence. They called this pestilence ‘the imports’, and its incursion would not stand. After conferring about the problem, they decided that the answer was to beat ‘the imports’ at their own game. “This,” said the brands, “must be what the people want. So we will give it to them, too. It will be awesome.”

And so they did. Mind you, they did not change their way of thinking. They did not change the way that they made their cars or how they worked. They did not adapt their business models to lower margin products. And, worst of all, they did not ask the people what they really wanted that they could not already have. They continued making cars as they had always done. They just made them smaller, and they called them ‘import fighters’.

And, lo, darkness descended upon the land: The people who wanted imports just kept buying imports. The people who wanted cars as they had always been felt abandoned. And neither of them was ever shown a third, cooler alternative. Nobody was happy. And the eventual decay of this industry the powerful brands invented began.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I think this little parable has four lessons for you Facebook guys:

1. Disaster stalks a brand that doesn’t see its value from its customer’s point of view. You thought you had invented a machine that would let people who care about each other stay close. But you didn’t realize that Facebook’s slight asychnrony was part of its appeal. Opening up your Facebook account was like going home. It was a bit pastoral, a bit static. More like a newspaper than like radio. And we liked that. You should have asked.

2. Comparison is surrender. The minute you reveal that you’re trying to outgun somebody else’s standard, you’re anointing that standard. You made Twitter look like The Next Thing, when all you needed to do was be clear that Facebook is a different thing.

3. Imitation commoditizes. Someday, someone will have to make some money at this stuff. It will not help your cause if you create a situation where consumers can choose between you and your competitor and not risk losing much either way. Besides which, there isn’t much margin in commodities.

4. Marketing is still a skill. There are too many 21st century Masters of the Universe out there who think that writing kickass code is the new everything. But believe me, the big money is still in relevance. Fire an engineer, hire a marketer. Even just one.

Give it some thought, Mr. Zuckerberg. Remember, if we’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that nobody is too big to fail.

Not even MySpace.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Consider the source.

So, there’s another ferryman on the internet’s River Styx : Bing. Microsoft’s new entry into what some people are surprised to learn is a competitive category, search. Yes, yes, I know. The propeller-heads in the audience will point out that there’s a pantload of search engines out there and always has been. They will point out that Bing isn’t even the only piece of major news in this ‘category’ right now, and will solemnly gesture to the impenetrable Wolfram Alpha as proof.

But, the fact is, for millions upon millions of people who use the internet with the same level of engagement as they do their kitchen faucets, Google is search. The hydro company delivers electricity, the municipality delivers water, the phone company delivers maternal guilt, and Google delivers answers. For all those people, Google is the public utility for finding things online. We believe, because we need to believe, that they’re almost like a government: a bit too powerful, but omniscient and commercially agnostic.

What makes this new brand interesting to me is that I think there are about 17 people in the world who could call themselves connoisseurs of search. I think the rest of us operate on the naively hopeful assumption that the answers are the answers. Our relationship with this product is based on faith. And faith is based on imputed motive. In other words, we’ll judge a new brand like Bing summarily on the basis of what we think it’s really up to.

On this score, I think Bing has some challenges, and they all have to do with the assumption that we wanted choice – and thus brands - in search. They have a lush, designery interface. They have a slogan. They have an advertising budget, and it’s twice the size of their main competitors’. And most of all, the parent of this brand is not a mythic duo of Stanford University nerds on a mission to save humanity, but rather one of the world’s largest and frankly wealthiest corporations. A corporation for whom search is but one of many profit centers. Where Google has always felt like a library, Bing feels like a mall.

I think they’re in for a rough ride. I’m not sure most of us really wanted to have to choose a default search engine. And if we did, I’m not sure Microsoft’s is the one we’d choose. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether it’s any good or not. It has to do with our natural suspicion of any brand that grandiosely promises to solve a problem we didn’t know we had.

Especially when they’ve done it before. Those of us with a little grey hair will remember the launch of Windows 95. There, at the moment when most computer users were desperately hoping the whole operating system thing would settle down so we could get on with the future, Microsoft wheeled out the Rolling Stones. And Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry. And Wheezer. And lit up the Empire State Building and the CN Tower. They came across as arrogant and rich. And three years later, they were in court on anti-trust charges. Proof, possibly, that of all the things you should never assume about your brand, benefit of the doubt is perhaps the most perilous.

Bing won’t turn out quite like Windows 95, I’m sure. And, partly, that’s because we aren’t quite like we were in 1995, either. But if I were Microsoft, I’d give some thought to humility. And empathy. And to listening a little harder to what people need instead of assuming they’ll buy whatever you can invent.

Apples’ already got that market cornered.