Monday, May 17, 2010

Facebook Fears

"The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself!"
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from his 1933 Inaugural speech 

That's a great quote, and clearly recognizable to many, if not most, Americans.  Heck, it's even part of a current successful and powerful advertising campaign.  In context, the quote above speaks to the never-ending drive, confidence, courage will of the American people and spirit.  It many ways, at least in my opinion, it encompasses the very spirit that leads so many of us to branch out, take the risk and start our own small businesses or reach out to others as part of a non-profit.

Unfortunately, when those words were spoken, it was a completely different world than the one we live in today.  It was a turbulent time to be sure, what with the rise of the Nazi party beginning in Germany, a bloody war in the Far East and a massive economic depression of our own to deal with.  To be fair, though, Roosevelt and the world didn't have Facebook to deal with at the time.

Okay, that's a bit of hyperbole, but there is a point.  The world of 2010 is no less complicated and dangerous than it was when those words were spoken.  I would content that is it even moreseo, on many different levels.  But let's leave politics and world economics aside for a moment and focus solely on one fear at a time.  When it comes to social media and small business, there probably isn't a bigger question mark than the one about the future of Facebook.

In my dealings with clients, I get more questions about Facebook than I do any other topic.  More than pitching a newsroom, more than dealing with a crisis, more than the overall effectiveness of Tweeting.  Questions about facebook far outdistances any of those.  At first, the questions focused on how to use Facebook to promote an organization.  Many clients simply saw Facebook as a fun time diversion rather than a powerful small business tool. 

"I don't like Farmville and I don't care what my friends are doing in Mafia Wars!" they would lament.  Of course, they were thrilled when they learned they could simply hide those particular posts forever.  Once clients start to realize the connective power of Facebook, they generally jump in head-first, and not just with Facebook, but with social media in general. 

But I'm hearing a whole new brand of questions, and these are darker, more fearful questions.  Questions that need to be addressed as we move forward in order for this tool to continue to be a force for small businesses and non-profits.

Most of the fears, and rightfully so, tend to be about expenses and privacy issues.  And let there be no doubt, these are legitimate concerns.  But, as small business owners and non-profits, you're used to dealing with legitimate concerns in a methodical and strategic manner.  Why not approach your fears and concerns over Facebook and social media?

Here are the top three questions I get regularly regarding Facebook and social media.  Let's tackle  them one at a time:

1.  What happens when Facebook starts charging users?  Before I answer this, do me a favor, go to Google and type in Facebook charging users 2010.  Do it under Google News, not the regular search function.  If you go under the regular function, you'll find blogs and opinions about the subject.  But look for an actual press relase or news article actually stating that Facebook will charge.  Go ahead, I'll wait. 

Done?  Good.  Let me tell you what you found.  You found a lot of articles about mobile platform charges, about YouTube allowing certain users being allowed to charge a users fee and numerous articles about Facebook and privacy issues (which I'll address in the next question).  Hopefully, you also found this little gem in the search:

Facebook Is Not Charging And Never Will

-Pay Here Icon-Back in January we wrote that Facebook will not begin charging for the site, however the rumor won’t disappear. Thanks to a group called “I’m quitting facebook when the start charging $50/per month on July 8, 2010″, hundreds of thousands of users are convinced that the company will begin charging for the services in a couple months. That group is actually completely inaccurate and Facebook has no intention of doing so ever.

This article comes from AllFacebook, (click to read the entire article) admittedly the unnofficial source about all things Facebook.  It was the only actual article I could find in the past month regarding FB charges.  Take a look at the rest of the site and you'll find it carries some credibility.

But even if you don't believe the above article ask yourself this; WHY would Facebook kill goose that lays the golden egg?  They generate money from advertising.  It's a proven successful business model in the internet age and it seems to be working for Facebook very well.  They know that if they started charging users, they'd lose a good chunk of their base.  This in turn would negatively impact their advertising sales.  Logically, it's safe to assume that the rumors about Facebook charging users are just that, rumors.

BUT, let's go ahead and say that Facebook stuns the world and does start charging users.  What does that mean to you as a small business owner or non-profit director?  For starters, it means you're going to lose, most likely, a good portion of your friends and fans from the site, vastly decreasing your reach.  You'll also have to decide if the fee is worth staying on board.  Certainly, there would be many who flee.  But there will also be many millions who stick around and pay the nominal useage fee.

Those that stick around will likely belong to a group that has stronger earning power, and therefore stronger spending power.  It's kind of like joining a private club.  Yes, you have to pay, but the perks are better than the YMCA, which is free.  In that sense, it's not such a bad thing to stick around if Facebook decides to pay.

Now lets assume you flee along with millions of others.  Will your social media strategy suddenly be stranded in the wilderness, alone and afraid with only an emergency whistle and no flashlight to guide you?  The answer is no.  Listen, social media is still a very young phenomenon.  Facebook is the result of lessons learned from MySpace.  Think about it, MySpace didn't fail because it started charging users.  It failed because Facebook was better. 

Even if Facebook doesn't start charging users, chances are, another program will rise up at some point and displace FB as King of the Hill.  Whatever site takes over will probably have addressed the privacy issue better than FB.  Regardless, if Facebook starts charging users, another site will take its place, one that will be free.  And if that site happens to be as good or better than FB, you can bet that all the friends and fans you have now will find you when you make the switch.  It's what happened when Facebook destroyed MySpace and it will happen again. 

2.  What About My Privacy on Facebook and Social Media?  This is an excellent question.  In today's world where anyone can Google anyone else, where identity theft is rampant and background checks can be made on a nieghbor simply by clicking a mouse, small businesses have good reason to be concerned about this issue.

However, let's take a larger view of this issue.  It's likely that as a small business owner or non-profit, you shred all of your sensitive documents such as bank statements, bills, etc.  You probably don't hold important conversations over a cellphone unless absolutely necessary and you probably check your personal credit score at least once a year.  These are all actions resulting from privacy developments over the past 10-15 years. 

You have learned to be more vigilant in making sure your personal information hasn't been stolen or used illicitly.  Privacy has been a concern ever since the first PC was switched on some 30 years ago.  Hackers have made wonderful livings off of breaking into your computer and grabbing your information.  Anytime you buy something online, you risk having your information stolen, and yet, billions of people buy items online.  Chances are you do it as part of your daily operations.  You probably pay bills online as well.  These are things you do willingly every day that puts your private information at risk of being stolen.

When I was a journalist I would constantly amaze people when I would tell them that their information is very public, no matter how much they tried to be private.  There was a time when college student ID's were social security numbers, or when your SS was actually on your drivers license (at least in Colorado).  Information about where you lived, how much you paid for it, where you went to school, how much your utility bills are, they're all public.  Your education records, your bank records and your medical records were private.  They still are unless you decide to post that information online.  If you don't put information online that you don't want people to see, that information will most likely stay private. 

Yes, people are upset that the new Facebook information is so public and that it's an opt-out rather than opt-in choice.  But Congress is looking into that problem and Facebook will likely be forced to make changes in that arena, if not by the government, then by the users themselves.  If you stay vigilant, as you probably are now, about your private information, then you don't have any more to worry about than you did the day before you signed up for Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.

This article from Mashable has an interesting take on the privacy issue.  Here is an excerpt, click on the link for the entire article:

In Defense of Facebook

All eyes are on Facebook. Ever since Facebook revealed Facebook Open Graph, the world’s largest social network has been getting hammered by tech pundits, mainstream media and its users.
Facebook’s used to this type of uproar after it changes something, but in my time tracking Facebook, I’ve never seen anything like this. Not even the Facebook News Feed fiasco of 2006 had U.S. Senate scrutiny. Facebook Open Graph has clearly struck a nerve with a lot of people.

3.  Why does Facebook keep changing things?  It's confusing and annoying.  Answer:  I don't know and yes it is.  Actually, that's not true, I think I DO know why Facebook keeps changing things up.  They're growing, they're trying to find what works and what doesn't work, like any business does.

Because of the growth, reach and power of Facebook, it's easy to forget that this is a company that is really still very young.  Social media in general is still very young.  In ten years, we'll look back on Facebook and probably chuckle at how simple and basic it seemed.  Facebook, along with social media, is continuing to grow and change at an amazing rate.  With the changes, come adjustments, new ideas, new attempts to improve. 

I'm pretty sure there isn't a staff office at Facebook Headquarters where staffers sit back in their large, comfy chairs and try to create changes specifically to enrage users.  I doubt they sip their double latte's and high five each other with exclamations of "YES! We've pissed off our users again, we rock!"

My advice to my clients is to take an hour and really read about the changes, try to understand what the changes mean and how it will impact their FB and social media strategy.  Or just ask someone you trust what it will mean.  Either way, educating yourself about the changes will go a long way towards adjusting to them.  Some of these changes will be great additions, others will fail miserably and probably disappear into the mists of history.  In the end, the users themselves will determine which changes stick and which ones go away.  It's how business works, and online business is no different.

No Worries, Mate:

So don't worry about the changes, roll with them.  Don't fret too much about your privacy on Facebook, stay vigilant and really think about what kind of information you post.  This is another area of fear for some clients, worrying that they could say something that might get them sued or anger potential or current customers.  They worry that being so open online opens them up to criticism from customers, past, present and future.  But as a business or non-profit, you're always open to criticism, at least online, you can see what the critics say, in their own words, and take immediate actions to respond to the criticism. 

Yes, you should choose your words carefully, VERY carefully.  It's easy to misconstrue what people mean in type.  Don't assume you know what people actually mean to say, and don't assume they will know what you mean to say.  Try not to use sarcasm, off color jokes and don't be mean.  What you type and post can, and will, come back to bite you at some point.  Be fair and play nice.  Doing business in the online environment is a lot like the advice your mother gave you on your first day of school.  Here is a great example of how words and meaning can be misconstrued leading to a misunderstanding and potential court date: (from the site TechCrunch)
You’re Welcome, You Bastards
A week ago we posted two excerpts from Fortune columnist David Kirkpatrick’s new book The Facebook Effect. We’re big fans of Kirkpatrick and have been following his book progress since last year. When Fortune’s PR department called to ask us to print the excerpts, we quickly agreed.  Read more: http://techcrunch.com/2010/05/13/youre-welcome-you-bastards/#ixzz0oDEEvZY

Don't worry about having to pay (I don't believe you ever will have to) because there will always, ALWAYS be new options and the end result will be that you will always have a free platform with a massive reach to appeal to customers and stakeholders. 

There now, don't you feel better?  Sure, you probably still have some concerns, but concern and fear are two different things.  There's not reason to be afraid of Facebook or social media.  You've already proven you're willing and able to take risks just by starting your own business.  You already embody the spirit of the quote we started with, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."  Not even Facebook.

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