What Facebook Must Do.

First, what is Facebook?

Of course, everyone knows its a social network. And we know thats a place where you connect with friends – both those from your real life and those who you connect with around shared interests – and share your life, photographs with.

Facebook Chatwala
Facebook Chatwala

Facebook itself says its mission is to “..give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

“How are you doing, Sameer?” it asks me very conversationally when I log in. I think this is the biggest indicator of its positioning.

Is it really, primarily a person-to-person social network?

You see so many updates on Facebook – people travelling to cool places, at cool restaurants, and parties, reunions, get-togethers. Very often, the timeline feels like one of those lovely ads from the glossies – what a wonderful world and life everyone is in.

But do you see people sharing grief, trauma, doubt, worry, anxiety about the very personal that often? There are people – yours truly included – who do share concern, worries, anger and anxiety about a lot of issues they feel strongly about. Of course, these mostly aren’t  personal issues.

(Sorry, I have no data and this is all anecdotal, and based on my own timeline, plus some inputs from people I spoke with about this.)

People do connect with old batchmates, ex colleagues, long lost friends, distant relatives on Facebook to “keep in touch” – but a lot of that keeping in touch rarely goes beyond the birthday wish (that’s a lifesaver!) or the occasional like on the picture of a child, a prized possession or a great holiday, party or other high in the other person’s life. Deeper, meaningful conversations of the personal kind with anyone are either in private messages, or even more on email, or over the phone, or, where possible, face to face. For many, the closer someone is, the less likely your one-on-one personal interaction with them is likely to be on the more public features Facebook.

It’s supposed to be the networks that connects us with friends, but doesn’t quite connect us as completely and as well as we do otherwise in life, does it?

Other activity that happens amongst people using other means of communication is also missing on Facebook. Not too many are using Facebook for sending out invites, or to get help for pre-purchase research and decisions. At least amongst the people I know directly/indirectly, not too many plan activities/trips/events on Facebook.

So what does Facebook do well?

Many are pretty certain they’re on Facebook primarily because they’re promoting a brand or a cause, and that it works great for them. Others are creating a personal brand around themselves built over their likes, dislikes, and their own self-image. This can help professionally, but often is its own end.

Facebook’s network-visibility heuristics for posts, images and likes and shares drive serendipity, and this throws up many interesting facts, and drives many interesting conversations. Many of these are around specific issues and causes, and one tends to connect with various subsets of people around various such topics of interest. The relationships do not always deepen, and – and I quote – “strangers do not become friends” too often. It still needs a coffee meetup to achieve that!

The extended and extensible social network also works beautifully to seek out, connect and engage with people who might identify and resonate with your cause, or a niche brand you’re trying to grow. It enables conversations, debates around the issues, it helps create a direct connect with people who like and endorse your brand and play the role of brand ambassador for what you believe in. This is something that happened for the first time with Facebook, and levelled the playing field to a certain extent for the small brand, and the lone person who believed in something.

The introduction of groups reinforced this use case. I personally know of groups of people on Facebook who trade used goods, share travel advice, review restaurants, encourage people to take public transport, and are a support group for fellow cyclists. These are not necessarily “friends” and oftentimes, have never even met each other. They share a hobby, or belief in a cause, and come together only for that purpose.

There are threads around certain topics around which certain folks from within my own network (1416, at the last count) and from their networks, usually come by and express an opinion or at least hit ‘like’. These I look at as a transient network which is purely interest based. Facebook has helped spread ideas, points of view and gather folks around issues very well indeed.

Facebook Stationary Shop
Facebook Stationary Shop

I personally manage a small brand called Linger that I’ve grown a lot (12000 people following the page) on Facebook with a personal touch, through many conversations and a lot of brand personality. This is something that was just not possible at this scale and this easily, before Facebook!

« Rewind

Its a pretty popular, well known story that started as “Facemash” with a hot/not feature within Zuckerberg’s campus at Harvard. It got popular, got shut down by the campus administration and privacy and copyright violation charges got the team an early taste of living on the edge of pushing notions of user privacy.

Facebook has never hesitated to change, and change bigtime. The newsfeed, redesigned timelines, frequently reworked visibility heuristics irked many, were lambasted by critics, but eventually not just got accepted but became a habit! Chat, messenger and groups started small but have become a major use case since. The Timeline view – both for personal profiles and pages – again elicited very sharp reactions, and people are still coming to terms with it, but Facebook has not shied away from introducing radical, different changes in the behaviour of the site, and their obstinacy has more often than not paid off.

Then came the most hyped and scrutinized IPO of all time, followed by enough controversy to take the team’s focus off the product itself for a bit. The new reality of handling shareholders and public filings also showed up in a few missteps on the monetization and privacy fronts, a rather contrived “mobile strategy” (including blowing up a lot of cash on Instagram) which they did not get right immediately and are still iterating through rapidly, a controversy around post visibility possibly linked to monetization pressures, deals, gifts, the whole FBML deprecation saga and more jitters and downtime issues than users had seen before. Only recently do they seem to have regained their sure-footedness again and the launch of the graph search might not only addresses the gaping discovery hole in Facebook, but might lead to a slew of third party applications and products that eventually help monetize the graph better.

So, what’s this whole piece about?

I have believed for a while now that Facebook is a great tool for how people interact with today’s brands, causes and issues. If they were to stop spreading themselves too thin and recognized this reality – of being the only – and a very powerful – medium for this purpose, they might not only create wonderful tools and features to enable these conversations much better, but be able to get away with less privacy since the content would be more public in nature, and be able to monetize the traffic much much better!

Am sharing couple of simple features and fixes as ideas that could take Facebook in this direction. This is not exhaustive, and certainly has not received critical inputs.

Nominal fee for pages : Hey, those are almost websites- and better in many many ways! Rather than trying to get me to promote a post, charge me a flat fee linked to the number of followers, etc. Keep the price low enough, exempt NGOs and pure community groups, and charge only businesses. Provide them a few add ons such as contact list, a few tools for FAQs, inquiry forms etc. – business microsites on steroids, if you will! Numerous small businesses have been possible because of Facebook, and I’m sure would be willing to pay for this.

Targeted Advertising around the graph search : This is probably coming soon anyhow! The graph can help target an audience in very very creative ways beyond the simple demography, geography based targeting.

Engagement Tools, Brand Ambassadors : Help organizations and brands identify and engage with brand ambassadors, regulars, happy customers as well as unhappy ones. Buy out and integrate a few CRM tools into pages.

Treat person-interest/cause/brand as an important edge : Many interact with others primarily around interests and causes. The person to person edge may even be irrelevant in the context. Once the person-interest edge is ascertained, Facebook can easily identify both implicit as well as transient groups – at least around popular, active threads which help bring together people who could be counted upon as influencers for a cause.

Hand-holding Big Brands : By and large, big brands have no clue to what to do on Facebook or interact with the end user out there, AND they have money to spend. A good dashboard that helps them navigate through this brave new world (better insights, qualitative metrics as well), and maybe even a few seminars to help them understand how to engage with this huge audience which is ready to engage! This may need third party consultants, or a Facebook sales team that helps big budget marketers engage their audience differently, but this is a big opportunity for sure.

While I do think Facebook could possibly grow in multiple directions, this particular one suggested itself very strongly from my personal experience and that of folks I’ve talked to this about. It certainly is a huge gap that they have inadvertently filled in playing connector between people with a brand/cause/idea and others interested in engaging with it. Lets see where this goes, or if they take it somewhere.