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Facebook is for kids

There’s a panic amongst grey-haired business execs. “Surely we’re missing out on the Social Media revolution. 600m people we can talk to. Although I don’t bother personally with Facebook, and Linkedin is only for chaps looking for work, I’m worried my customers are expecting us to do something with social media, and we’re not”.

Don’t panic! You’re almost certainly not missing out on anything. At least not urgently. If you’ve watched the Hollywood film, The Social Network, about the rise of Mark Zuckerburg and Facebook, then you may have missed the original point of Facebook and its ascendency to world domination of Social Media. The film missed it completely. The clue is in the name. Social Networks have existed on the net for decades before Facebook appeared. Originally called bulletin boards, early forums, members (‘friends’) could ‘post’ comments on ‘boards’ (today’s ‘walls’) for other members to read and join in. At the time pictures and other media weren’t included. Not only were modems far too slow to accommodate them, but sharing and viewing protocols for ‘multi-media’ hadn’t been widely established – but which today are standardised by browsers like Chrome and IE.

So what was the reason that Facebook won over the likes of MySpace and Bebo (the contemporary competitors, and now all-but dead and forgotten.. although MySpace is about to be sold for $100m, so not quite dead). True genius! Enabling people, mainly young ones, to ‘tag’ pictures of other people on images they loaded. 1 picture, uploaded into one person’s album, could be viewed on everyone else’s profile who had been tagged in it. Brilliant! Every other SM site at the time had let you do most of the things that FB does today, but you couldn’t see pictures of yourself (assuming you wanted to) loaded by someone else into their own ‘gallery’.

So once young people started laughing over shots of themselves throwing up in fancy dress, or doing something they’ll regret one day with another person’s girlfriend (try taking pictures of yourself doing these things. They HAD to be taken by someone else, and then shared), FB realised there were a few other things people might want to share (but none of them as much as pictures of themselves). For young people these were Events, Contact Details of similar youngsters – especially good looking ones, and Messages – almost always banal.

Then the ‘like’ thing started happening. Theory was that if you spotted something you ‘liked’, a product, an event, a film, some music, a website etc, then by telling your ‘friends’ about it, they might like it too. Perhaps more importantly, other people could also get a better idea about you without you having to define exactly who you are. And that’s pretty important for young people looking for boy and girlfriends. Why waste time hoping someone interesting and good-looking will ‘get to know you’, and you get to know them, when you can get a good idea as to whether you’re suited before you even meet (or after the first exchange of FB names). It’s simply easier, and far less embarrassing than finding out the traditionally slow way. No-one wants to be rejected, and no-one wants nasty surprises on a first date. Why else would someone want to tell a disinterested world about the music they like, the films they like, the food they like etc, except to make it easier for future friends, sexual or otherwise, to find out more about them?

And it’s at this point that businesses started waking up to the opportunity. “If I know more about the people who buy, or might buy my products and services, I can better target them. I can also encourage advocates for my own products and services to announce their liking for me to their ‘friends’ who might in turn ‘like’ my products and services, thereby becoming viral marketing.”

And so what we used to know as Word Of Mouth, is becoming Word Of Click. At least that’s the hope of business.

But let’s back up a minute. Does Facebook and its ilk have relevance to all branches of society? Does its original concept of seeing pictures of oneself, followed by finding out about parties I’m invited to, followed by a shortcut to fewer rejections and fewer nasty shocks, automatically mean that people will want approaches from businesses ‘snooping’ into their private lives? And even if we do identify a car that we liked, or, heaven help the boring fool who declares this, a car dealer we liked, does this mean that we’re happy for that brand or service provided to announce our allegiance and use it? What happens if one of our friends has a poor experience? Are we prepared to feel responsibility for simply having ‘liked’ that product or service?

OK, so perhaps such products and services are a longshot with respect to whether we exploit them within Facebook etc, but what about sites like Trip Advisor and Amazon, or Ebay, where ‘society’ clubs together to share ‘scores’ for what they think about something. Unbiased (we hope) opinions from people who have had direct experience. Indeed many people value such feedback very highly. The more positive feedback you see, the more you ‘trust’ what you are about to buy, and from whom you buy it. Conversely, poor feedback suggests, ‘don’t trust’. Best avoided. And if you are confident that this feedback is being made by people who have similar values to you, then the more you will trust their judgement, without having to take the risk yourself. Sounds familiar? Avoiding nasty surprises?

So if businesses are going to grasp Social Media, and all that this massively over-used expression represents, we need to build our strategies around the word ‘Trust’. We need to consider how we can offer customers and prospects a way of increasing their trust in us and our products by learning about the experiences, good and bad (for which we need effective strategies to defuse) related by other people whose opinions they might respect. Word Of Click is not about jumping on the Facebook wagon. It’s about creating ways of exchanging views between people who get something for expressing them, and people who need to build ‘trust’ in you.

Facebook is apparently about to have an IPO later this year. $100bn we’re told. Well my guess is that Mark Z and his chums have worked out that FB is a zeitgeist. Today’s young people are not the Facebook Generation, forever destined to use and love what it offers. I think Mark and co have worked out that FB only works for 15-25 year olds and for all the reasoning I’ve mentioned above – that is, until they mature into people who don’t particularly want to see themselves in everyone else’s photos, aren’t constantly nervous about what people are saying about them, don’t want everyone to know everything there is to know about them, and don’t call people they’ve met once, on holiday, in a bar, a friend. I believe kids will all get bored with Facebook. In fact there's evidence to show it's use is already declining in the US and the UK. So there will always be a Facebook generation – it’s just that the rest of us have grown up. 

So let’s not panic about making our businesses friends with kids. There are better ways, and bigger prizes to be won in finding out and sharing what people think of us, our products and our services. And ultimately turning them into our salesmen.

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