What made Facebook a crazy success was that college kids had a place to hang out virtually, free of adult supervision. It played right into endless connectivity, a trend that began with Gen Y using e-mail, instant messaging and Napster. Shared experiences, 24/7. Eventually, their parents, little brothers and sisters and even grandma and grandpa joined the party.
Now, Mark Zuckerberg has gone and spoiled all the fun by taking his billion-member social network public on the NASDAQ stock exchange. The reportedly greedy guru may have cashed out, because now he’s taken his cool idea corporate.
Ironically, when Zuckerberg and his partners first launched Facebook, while at Harvard University, he adamantly opposed the idea of selling advertising to monetize the burgeoning social media experiment. He didn’t want to prostitute the “coolness” of the concept until it became more viable. It was an online global village that belonged exclusively to college students.
But as the number of Facebook members grew to astronomical proportions, comparable to half the population of China, the urge to cannibalize it became too great. Now, you get to see ads next to photos of your friends and what they’re eating for lunch. Zuckerberg had built a village square for people and groups to gather for free. Now he sells electronic billboards around the perimeter and fills the air above with blimps and skywriters.
General Motors announced this week that it’s dropping Facebook ads, because the carmaker believes they’re ineffective. This went down as Facebook launched its IPO and later kicked off trading. But GM still says brands can build relationships through social media. It’s just that the ads don’t measure up. They’ve tasted the milk for free and don’t think it’s worth paying for.
I wonder if Zuckerberg’s future plans for generating profits will include a premium paid model. We’ll call it Facebook 3D. It could offer special features like chat rooms with celebrities and virtual backstage passes to concerts or events. Don’t laugh. LinkedIn and IMDb both have professional grade versions that you can access only if you buy a monthly subscription.
My sense is, people desire a commercial-free environment for the social lives. We always tolerated ads with free TV and radio. It was a small price to pay for all that programming. But the more we pay for cable and Internet access, the less it seems we should have to endure an endless stream of marketing.
Don’t get me wrong. Ads are very appropriate on the Web. For example, Google provides an amazing service free of charge. Type in a word or phrase and miraculously you receive hundreds and even thousands of related links, articles, images, videos and news stories. You name it. Anyone who is old enough to have done library research the old fashioned way and cranked through miles of microfilm should shed a tear every time Google spits out a list of links in seconds. The ads are a small price to pay for all that free knowledge. In fact, the ads are often exactly what we want to discover.
But there’s something particularly eerie about targeted ads showing up next to a photo of your little nephew’s birthday party. Or a snapshot at your brother’s wedding. We’ve reached the point where reality TV has become viewers broadcasting themselves and corporations selling that content without sharing the profits with the creators. Sounds kind of like what pimps do, doesn’t it?
Enter Dish Network and The Hopper. The satellite TV provider now offers a digital video recorder (DVR) that will automatically zap the commercials so you don't have to watch them during playback. Only seems appropriate since we all pony up so much for cable and satellite and still have to buy Web access. The networks are screaming about the editing technology.
Zuckerberg and his team will be under intense pressure to show a profit right away, since he’s got lots of investors now. Facebook may be tempted to snoop your posts and pics and offer ads that connect to your life. You post a photo of your new Chevy Camaro and Facebook ads for State Farm and Shell gasoline pop up. Maybe even a promo for a local detail shop and Auto Zone. How’s that sound?
The quickest way for Zuckergberg to raise profits is to sell a portion of his mammoth membership a subscription to Facebook on steroids. Let’s say, only 10% of current members buy in at 50 cents a month or five dollars a year for premium access. That would be 500 million bucks without selling a single ad. Ten bucks a year or about three cents a day is a billion dollars, and so on.
And the paid, premium version of Facebook could offer an ad-free environment, just like when the social network started.
Then Zuckerberg could charge corporations like GM big bucks to join as members and post their status. That’s what Facebook should sell, not your private life.