There is an unsettling buzz about the future of Facebook. Some analysts report that Facebook usage is declining, or at least slowing in some parts of the world and if that is true, it is a problem of Facebook’s own making. The company has made two critical mistakes: It stopped focusing on core customer needs and it has ignored its business partners.
First, serve your users
Facebook is foremost a place to connect with family and friends. That was its premise at the beginning and it is the reason most people are initially drawn to the network. Secondarily, Facebook provides a place for self-expression. Thirdly, it provides a place for users to discover content. Yet, for some years, Facebook has failed to effectively innovate on any of these fronts!
As Facebook has moved through its IPO, it has increasingly lost focus on serving its primary customers. Instead, it has been sidetracked by the need to monetize its user base through advertising and to extend its influence outside of Facebook itself, via its Open Graph protocol. That distraction is evidenced by repeated privacy snafus — Facebook erred on the side of data gathering and data use, at the expense of its users’ privacy, thereby weakening their trust.
No doubt, it’s a fine line to walk: making money while providing a great, free service. But it has worked for Google. For all Google’s faults, it has steadfastly remained an ever-improving search engine and has easily kept the number one spot. If Google failed to be a good search engine, it would lose its user base and therefore advertisers. Their revenue depends on a great product. So does Facebook’s.
Facebook is a subpar utility
Facebook’s user interface has always been subpar. It’s amazing that a company so successful has been unable to focus on creating a stellar user experience.
It hasn’t offered significant new user-focused features in some time. Ticker and Open Graph were clearly built more with an eye toward data gathering and opening up additional promotional avenues rather than improving the user experience. Users weren’t crying for Facebook to automatically report the minutiae of their lives on the Ticker. And while personalization sounds good, when the result is websites using your interest information to promote certain deals over others, personalization is just another form of advertising.
If Facebook were truly focused on their users, they would have found new ways for us to find our friends online and connect with them in the moment. They would have helped us find new friends with similar interests. They would have given us greater control over what appears in our feeds, instead of forcing us to rely on Edgerank, which is used to serve advertiser’s and Facebook’s interest over ours. They would have implemented something akin to G+ Circles ages ago.
The back is turned on business
Facebook also should have focused more effort on their business partners and helped them better connect with consumers in innovative and fun ways. The missed opportunity on this front makes me especially sad.
Zuckerberg and his gang spent so much effort getting businesses to build Facebook pages, amass followers, and create tabs and apps for them. They have managed to make us all believe that a Facebook page is practically a requirement for any business, and that having a large number of followers is the badge of a “real” company.
But they’ve been slowly undermining businesses who have invested in these pages. They changed the structure of pages and took away the ability to make a custom tab the default landing page. They’ve always restricted the ability of businesses to reach customers directly via Facebook. And they are using Edgerank to reduce visibility of business posts while simultaneously telling page owners they can pay for greater visibility. Their efforts are designed to push businesses to pay for advertising on the platform.
Facebook sold us on “engagement” but failed to provide businesses with tools and methods to truly engage consumers. While Facebook touts comments and likes—and its Timeline has delivered increases in those—what ultimately counts is whether people go to their own website or eventually make a purchase. Comments and likes don’t mean more money.
Some third party companies, like Wildfire, have entered the Facebook app market, providing tools that work within the limited confines allowed by Facebook. Yet, Facebook could have developed exciting new tools itself and created interfaces that enabled businesses of all sizes to easily create custom tabs and application to reach consumers in ways that were exciting and desirable to those users, while also beneficial to the businesses.
For example, when Facebook Social Actions came out, I thought it created some interesting business opportunities for letting users express their individuality in a way that happens to also increase the likelihood of click-throughs to the business website. A win-win for users and businesses. But now, the feature seems all but abandoned by Facebook.
Yet, with a little effort, they could have offered an interface to help businesses of all sizes create social actions without having to hire a programmer.
If Facebook was really dedicated to better serving customers, they would have a research group that would have come up with ways that businesses could interact with customers, ways so compelling that customers would promote or advertise these business themselves—because it made them look good, feel good, got them swag or discounts, added new features to their Facebook page, or was just plain fun!
Instead, Facebook has chosen to focus on features that benefit advertisers over features that truly benefit users. It’s chosen to focus on fairly traditional advertising, which users hate and businesses find largely ineffective in the social space. Facebook has turned its back on the businesses that have invested in pages and left them to vie for visibility with the same old standby of posting pictures and comments. In so doing, Facebook is creating its undoing.