Facebook for the masses? Hmmm…

Plenty of folks, my students included, think Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg dropped the ball facebook1.jpgearlier this month — not once, but twice. One mistake involved public relations, the other marketing. So your old professor is using this story as a “teachable moment,” even if none of my students is reading!

Facebook’s first mistake was in public relations. On Sept. 5, the company radically altered the format of its member pages, shifting emphasis from the individual profile and large photo to a section of message feeds that update members on the activities of folks in their networks.

As we know, all hell broke loose when Facebook made the change. It was all students talked about for days on my campus.

But when you think about it, Facebook’s redesign made sense. As a social network, the old Facebook didn’t function well. To get the scoop on folks in your network, you had to visit their pages individually. In contrast, the new design instantly brings news from those folks right to your page.

But it remains a PR nightmare that even now the software designers understand.

From a PR perspective, Facebook violated two very simple rules.

First, few people readily embrace change. We’re creatures of habit and routine. It’s human nature, and when you mess with it, you need to lay some groundwork. People don’t like surprises. And Zuckerberg delivered a big one without asking his core constituents if it was OK.

Second, Zuckerberg violated the fundamental “rule of participation” that every PR person should memorize. If you read my Saturday post about Pat Jackson, you know this one: People expect, and I will argue, are entitled to a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. Zuckerberg failed to give them that voice.

While Facebook may not seem like a big deal to us in the over-30/40/50 crowd, it IS a big deal to college students. In fact, one IT person at my school told me students log onto Facebook between 4 and 5 times daily.

The 22-year-old Zuckerberg knows this, and to his credit he recovered quickly, acted responsibly, and did a textbook job of crisis management. Within the week, the Facebook controversy had quieted. But not for long.

Facebook’s second mistake was in marketing strategy, and it came one week after the redesign incident. On Sept. 11, Facebook announced plans to open its pages to the masses. Facebook’s core constituency was horrified again, though the fallout appears far less than that of Sept. 5.

On my campus, reaction was predictable. Front-page news announced the ultimate horror: Your parents, and the rest of the world, will soon have access to Facebook. The story also revealed a quaint naivete with one freshman Facebook member saying: “I like to keep my personal life to myself. My life is my life.”

(Aside: Employers have been snooping on Facebook, too, but when I’d chastise my seniors for having “unprofessional images” on their pages, I generally earn a cold stare that says: What are YOU doing in MY playground?)

On one hand, Facebook’s expansion is a clear marketing mistake, because the site gives up its niche as the “exclusive” student network. But it may also be a marketing coup. Truth is, folks other than students have accessed Facebook for a good while through regional, corporate and alumni networks. Those pages expand Facebook’s membership and its market value.

So that’s it. Facebook WILL no longer be the “exclusive” domain of students. But before you write Facebook’s obituary and call this a bona fide marketing miscue, check last week’s news/rumors. By now you’ve heard that Yahoo may soon offer up to $1 billion for Facebook. After all, an expanded network means more eyes on the advertising, thus more cash-laden clicks for the Facebook coffers.

Whatever happens, it’s a sure bet that the students’ Facebook playground will never be the same.

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One Response to Facebook for the masses? Hmmm…

  1. [...] I found a nice readable entry about Facebook… click here to get to it.  I’m on Facebook myself, so I can attest to a lot of what this guy’s talking about. [...]

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