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.


Mara Roberts said...

Awesome blog post! I'm not the only marketer trying to cling to the facebook thing ;)

BrandCowboy said...

Thank you! It's funny how people miss the old Facebook. It proves that they had discovered a great purpose, but it only makes the changes harder to understand.