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.

You Call This a Loyalty Program?

Try this episode on for size and tell me how it makes you feel about the brand:

I recently logged into one of my hotel loyalty accounts where I had amassed several hundred thousand points. That is, I thought I did. All my points were gone. Apparently this chain has a policy that deletes all your points if you don’t stay at one of their properties for a year. Did they send me a courtesy email reminding me I needed to stay there toward the end of the twelve-month lapse? They did not.

I called customer service and they recited the policy back to me, willing to say farewell to a customer who had paid the freight to accumulate several hundred thousand points in its loyalty program, just not in the past 14 months.

Then I tweeted my complaint about the forfeited points publicly. A few hours later whoever runs the company’s Twitter account tweeted back publicly that the company was very sorry for the situation and dedicated to my satisfaction. The Twit-master asked that I send a private tweet to follow up, which I did. Then we moved the correspondence to email.

I was then told that the company had a one-time exception to the policy where points could be reinstated, but that had already been done for me approximately 13 years ago. Silly how I could have forgotten their grace. However, they said that in an attempt to reinstate my customer satisfaction, they would restore half my forfeited points now and the other half if I agreed to stay at their properties at least three times in the next six months. I wrote back that it sounded a bit ridiculous to be playing Let’s Make a Deal – Loyalty Edition with them, but I would agree because, well, why not?

To their credit, they did return half my points upon receipt of our “written agreement” in that email thread, and I have booked one stay with them. I just wonder, is this what they really set out to accomplish in developing their loyalty program? Is it a loyalty program at all, or just a rewards program that effectively gives me a rebate on what I spend provided I do it on their timetable?

If you give me a reward for my business, then take it away because I didn’t precisely follow your rules, then give it back conditionally with an expectation that somehow I have become pleased by our interaction, how has this helped me as a customer or you as a business? It’s a quid pro quo. I don’t think a quid pro quo has anything to do with loyalty.

When I think about loyalty, I think about preference. When I think about preference, I think about what brand comes first to mind when I need a particular item or service. I choose that brand for a host of reasons, for the totality of my experience with the brand.

I prefer to fly Alaska Airlines because they tend to treat me better as a human being, so I am loyal to them. I am also a member of their loyalty program, but that has very little to do with my loyalty. The way we interact all the time has to do with my loyalty. There is a consistency in my interaction with their airline personnel whether I am flying in coach or upgraded to first class, whether I bought a discount or full-fare ticket. That consistency is what creates loyalty.

I prefer to shop at REI for sporting gear because they are patient with me when I come to their stores not knowing nearly as much about hiking or biking shoes as they do, and when I leave it is with the right pair of shoes. I am also a member of their co-op because that is required to shop in the store, and I get a member rebate every year, but that is not why I am loyal. I am loyal because when I am on a trail or in spin class and my shoes are comfortable, I remember how great they were about helping me get the exact fit and charging me nothing more for their time.

I don’t prefer the hotel chain that gave me back half my points now with a contingent promise for half my points later. We have a transactional relationship based on price and location. I wouldn’t seek them out. I could, but they have given me no reason. Now when I think of them I think of my Let’s Make a Deal experience rather than any experience staying under their roof. That’s sad.

Maybe the problem is terminology. Maybe there is no such thing as a loyalty program. Maybe they are all just rewards programs masquerading as loyalty programs. That’s kind of a punt when you think about it. We could design a loyalty program that involved every point of customer interaction to ensure your satisfaction, but heck, that would be hard, why don’t you just take these points instead and we’ll play like we’re loyal to each other even when we know, wink-wink, we couldn’t care less about each other. It’s a bed and bathroom and points if you follow our rules, so come here at least every twelve months and someday maybe you can cash in those points for a standard room on the house. Maybe, if we have availability, certain restrictions apply.

I recently attended an e-commerce industry conference where at more than one session I heard the phrase, “There is no customer loyalty, consumers only care about price.” If this cynical statement is true, then I wonder why we have marketing departments at all. Don’t believe it. All customers are not automatons who solely focus on what’s cheapest.

Brands are not dead. A brand is a promise. Brands compete on price, quality, and service. If a company wants my loyalty it is there to be won, like Alaska Air and REI. If a company wants to make it about points and rules, that’s something else, and yes, in that scenario why should there be customer loyalty?

You get what you give. Since you’re selling and I’m buying you get to go first. You want my loyalty, show me yours. You want my loyalty, enter into a brand-customer relationship with me. You want to make it about points, if you piss me off I’ll dump you at the next possible off-ramp.

Loyalty is hard to win. It should be, because it’s valuable. That’s why the great brands think in terms of lifetime value rather than rules. If I have to publicly embarrass you with a tweet to get your attention, you don’t care about me a hoot, especially when you just had me on the phone. Think about that the next time a company penalizes you for breaking its loyalty rules. Those are stupid rules. You don’t need the points that badly, and if you don’t prefer the brand, you sure don’t need its crappy rewards program.

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Image: Stefan Hatos – Monty Hall Productions

Stop Dropping the Ball

MittBallI get called frequently to help companies with their brands. Usually this involves helping identify the competitive advantages in products and services, articulating the unique selling proposition around innovations that constitute a customer promise, and then devising a sustainable communications strategy around that promise. That’s the hard part.

There is also an easy part. At the potential obviating of substantial advisory services going forward, here is an exceptionally simple way to solve half your problems. Ready? This applies equally to your personal life and your professional life. Copy and paste the following two words on the palms of your hands so you can see them every hour of every day:

Follow through.

Yes, it is that easy. A brand is a promise. There are three potential paths that follow a promise: (1) you fulfill the promise, wherein you satisfy and keep a customer, at least until someone leapfrogs you; (2) you exceed the promise, wherein you create an evangelist who markets for you; or (3) you violate the promise, wherein you create nasty noise in the marketplace that speaks ill of your offering at every possible turn.

When you break a business promise, you undermine the brand. When you break a personal promise, you undermine your own credibility. This is not negotiable. This is as hard-core real and irreversible as it gets. You need to follow through.

Here are several recent examples of broken brand promises:

  • My wife left her mobile phone on a plane. We went to baggage services. They couldn’t find it. They said they would call us the next day. They didn’t.
  • I went to pay my health insurance bill online as I do every month (I’m told recurring billing is for some reason not available on my plan). This time the system was broken. After on hour on the phone, I got a customer service representative who said she saw the problem in their system, that it would be fixed in 24 hours, and she would call me back. She didn’t call me back, and it wasn’t fixed. A week later I called again and began the process anew. This time another rep gave me entirely different instructions and said he had no idea why the previous rep had instructed me as she did.
  • We hired a contractor to do some work at the house. He didn’t show up. He didn’t call. When we rescheduled and he did show up the next time four hours late, my wife asked why he missed the previous appointment and was now four hours late. He said, “Well, I’m here.”
  • I filled out a time sensitive form online with a state agency. About a week later, I received a personalized letter via snail mail acknowledging my inquiry, conveying that the signer of the letter would get back to me promptly with an action plan. I never heard from him again.
  • A journalist for a high-profile financial periodical contacted me by email to conduct an interview about my book. I agreed and suggested a time. She asked if I could change that to a time that was more convenient for her and I agreed to that time. I gave her my mobile number. She did not call me at the appointed time. After 15 minutes I emailed her and asked if we were still on. Two hours later she emailed and apologized for missing the call because of an emergency. She asked if she could email me the questions. I said yes and she said she would send them. She never did.
  • A producer from a media company emailed me an inquiry to help his company launch a new venture. I said I would be happy to talk about it and suggested some times. I never heard from him again.

Yes, I know, everyone is busy. It’s completely normal to leave loose ends open in our fragmented, email overloaded lives. It can happen to anyone. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave people hanging if you have a good excuse. They will forgive you as soon as the words “I’m sorry” cross your lips.

Baloney! You’re living in a fantasy world if this is what you’ve convinced yourself, no matter if you are a rookie or a veteran. And you’re not as good as you think you are. Not even close. Otherwise you wouldn’t have left me blowing in the wind to be picked off by a competitor.

Winners say what they are going to do and then do it. I don’t care if you have to make lists of your lists. If you aren’t going to do something, don’t tell someone that you areand you’re scot-free off the hook. If you say you are going to do something and then you don’t do it, you lied. Yes, you lied. Or your company representative lied. And by transitive logic, your company lied. To a customer. That is the customer’s perception.

Think you can buy a big bubbly bag of advertising to win back the trust of that customer? Have fun calculating the ROI.

Think you can apologize and win back my trust? You can’t.

Maybe I have choices at the moment, maybe I don’t. If I don’t have choices now, I will soon. That’s what creative destruction is all about, old failed systems being replaced by better ones. Constraints on distribution are lifted from entrenchment every day. No matter what you have to offer, no matter how good you are at what you do, if you don’t show up as promised, you will be replaced. No one will feel sorry for you. No one will bat an eye when you crumble under your own incompetence or arrogance.

This really isn’t hard. In fact it’s as easy as it can possibly get. Make a promise, keep a promise. Follow through all the time. Do that and call me for the other half of your brand problems.