Is Facebook the Next AOL?

 

I used to like AOL. Back in the day we called it by its full name, America Online. Prior to the broad penetration of the Internet, it was how we connected with each other. It was the company we paid on a subscription basis for both access to digital connectivity and content. For the ownership of AOL, it was a very, very good business, so explosive that it frightened the old guard in media and was merged into an even bigger entity, AOL Time Warner. If you were born after that wildly failed merger, it is difficult to convey just how powerful and influential AOL had become. Truth be told, I still have an active AOL account and get teased about that by friends. I wound it so tightly into my life it is still hard to completely unwind despite its deterioration.

I also like Facebook. As an individual enamored with words, I find it an irresistible way to communicate with a circle of acquaintances on everything from politics and social causes to MLB, The Beatles, wine, and business opportunities. As an author of fiction, I find it an essential tool to communicate with readers, let them know a new book is coming, tie that book into news of the day, and connect all of that with the monthly postings on my blog. Another confession: I was one of the earliest adopters of Facebook over the age of 40, invited for business reasons to create an account back when it required a .edu email to become a member. Companies I’ve led have been active buyers of advertising on Facebook at every stage of its evolution. Yet even with all that passion, I have been an ardent critic of Facebook. It reminds me of AOL. I hope it won’t suffer the same fate.

Is it alarmist to think that Facebook could collapse at the level of AOL simply because of its latest data breaches? Yes, I think that would be overstating the calamity of its current situation, and if Facebook does implode, it will likely be a slow and painful process much like AOL with a long-tail legacy business lingering into the digital future. I am not predicting that will happen. I am suggesting that it could if Facebook does not radically rethink its business in real time and take immediate action to course correct.

I am not specifically reacting to the gross abuse of Facebook’s members by Cambridge Analytica, but if ever there was a wake-up call to Mark Zuckerberg this bell is tolling awfully loudly. The sound of that alarm is the crying out of customers reminding the leadership of Facebook that they are not users as the descriptor goes, but human beings who have chosen to enter into a relationship with a brand. As I have mentioned here many times before, a brand is not a logo, a brand is a promise. When that promise is violated, all bets are off for the future of the brand. I believe AOL broke its promises way too many times and then sadly faded away. Facebook is now breaking many of its promises, real or presumed, and if the leadership there doesn’t do something material about it soon, they are rolling the dice against fate.

Here are the three most obvious areas of overlap I see between Facebook and AOL, and how addressing them now aggressively might change the course of history for the social network that changed our lives in the last generation much as the online access ramp that carpet-bombed the nation changed it in the previous generation.

DUMP THE MVP

I am at odds with many of my colleagues on the topic of “minimum viable product,” but I have always vastly disliked the MVP acronym and concept. I know how much Silicon Valley treasures the notion of The Lean Startup, and I suppose if a fast path to cash generation is primarily a company’s goal, a crappy first-generation product bounced off a wave of early adopters who will offer critique could make business sense. Because I favor brand development over fast monetization, I have never bought into the whole idea of “moving fast and breaking things.”

How did Facebook get into this fix with inexplicable amounts of customer data being exploited? Top management didn’t take the time to fully think through the implications of their product decisions. Likewise, AOL was legendary for releasing updates that crashed our computers and often made it impossible to even log onto the system. MVP is a shortcut that disrespects customers. Build excellent products tested thoroughly before deployment, and customer trust will compound rather than be wagered.

LEAVE SOME MONEY ON THE TABLE

AOL came to love hammering our screens with advertisements. We got them at sign-on, with our email, with instant messaging, with our stock listings, with our sports scores. The ad insertions were ceaseless and endless. When it was the onramp to connectivity we were already paying a monthly fee for the privilege of being an advertising target, but this additional banquet of media cash was a renewable feast of dots and spots. With so many eyeballs and so little competition they also assaulted advertisers with ever-increasing campaign rates.

Today on Facebook it isn’t quite that aggressive, but it’s getting there. What’s worse, the advertising depends on crawling through our personal profiles to target ads with astonishing performance response. The media business is certainly a game of haves and have-nots, but company leaders have to keep their eyes on the prize. Does the company think its demise is inevitable and thus seek to exploit its visitors with endless badgering? Or can it modulate the experience to show us a reasonable number of ads that are relevant but not beyond our comfort levels of intrusion?

SUSTAIN AN AUTHENTIC MISSION

Here we return to the luster or disposability of a brand, to the ability to make a promise and deliver on it consistently in the face of day-to-day business realities and financial opportunism. AOL’s stated mission was “to build a global medium as central to people’s lives as the telephone or television… and even more valuable.” AOL actually didn’t do that—the internet itself obviated its driving purpose—but rather than build on the goodwill of its access brand and attempt to enhance the customer experience through creativity, the company sought to keep customers in a “walled garden” and intervene in easy access to the open internet. Customers soon enough revolted and left in droves.

Facebook’s initial mission was “to make the world more open and connected.” That mission more recently has been revised “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Those are both lofty ideals. The question is whether Zuckerberg had the maturity to comprehend the implications of what path his company’s technology cut through the landscape as a result. Of course it seems like a great idea to be closer to our friends and meet new people along the way, but if that compromises our privacy and personal security, is it worth it? Who gets to decide that? I can’t navigate Facebook’s privacy tree and I work in the medium. If its brand offers us a lasting promise of sharing and collaboration, does it also offer any guarantees of protection? If not, then we arrive at the cynical conclusion: “If we aren’t paying for the product, we are the product.” If a company wants to build a brand for the long-term, that’s simply not a sustainable value proposition.

I would guess if AOL founder Steve Case had it to do over again things would have been different at his once pioneering enterprise. It was a younger audience that first championed AOL, but his demographics didn’t stay young as the massive brand quickly lost its cool factor. Facebook is already seeing a similar demographic shift as its relevance with younger customers is waning, ceding that excitement to newer brands. I wonder if Zuckerberg will someday have the same regrets as Case or if he will find a way to shift gears with thundering resonance and reinvent his company to achieve a greater destiny.

The answer isn’t in testifying before Congress, any more than it is about inescapable government regulation. The answer is in balancing business success against the real human needs of customers, about making a promise and keeping it, about building a brand that stands for something more than the dollars it attracts. Innovation is both challenging and valuable. Trust is much harder and worth so much more.

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