500 million users and an increasing number of minutes online, cannibalizing time spent doing email, search and other things, either on mobile devices or computers, as per the Internet trends report by Morgan Stanley. That was not an easy task to accomplish and Facebook did so by reinventing a category. Howard Schultz said once that Starbucks was “creating communities in a third place between the office and home”. Facebook became that virtual third place, a very large one.
Millions of individuals gathering at that third-place, is a tempting audience for marketers to engage with. The problem is that while the rules of social interaction are somehow defined and accepted by the masses, the rules around marketing inside that social cocoon are not well defined, and still most users find social marketing strategies to be intrusive and welcomed only when companies have discounts to offer, as per a recent study from eMarketer.
Last week I heard from three different leaders, the same quote: “Facebook is the new AOL”. I realized Fabebook was the new company in the club of “companies that industry experts love to hate”, where Microsoft, Google and Apple have also membership, I think there is a fundamental difference between Facebook and AOL; Facebook is becoming a platform.
Facebook is trying to play the “platform” game. It is not only about becoming the network. It is about solidifying the core infrastructure: storage, multidimensional databases, sharing, communication and collaboration, relationship management, micro transactions and authentication services, while embracing developers to add value on top of the platform, or supporting new middleware layers, like social gaming, permission based marketing, social learning and social research.
Granted, their power resides on keeping the 500 million users engaged, and that is yet another reason for embracing their “platform” persona; if they build a solid foundation, developers will create the many reasons for people to stay engaged and loyal to Facebook.
Can they embrace the platform game? The three leaders I talked to last week do not think so, and sometimes I have doubts, having experienced myself the Facebook APIs, the ambiguous documentation and the way they change things without taking into account their developer’s base. Still, they are 500 million strong, managed to play well the transition from desktop to mobile, so I give them a fair chance.
PS: By the way I do think AOL has room for a comeback as I believe in the power of having critical mass with audiences and making that an angular piece of a platform play.