Facebook Is Not a Free Lunch

A unique approach to customer service.

I am not a Facebook customer. I am a Facebook user. That’s a distinction that many of the 900 million people with profiles on the site seem to forget. Facebook’s customers are the companies that pay to advertise on the site. We, the great unwashed 900M, are Facebook’s by-product that they serve up to advertisers in much the same way that NBC serves up viewers to its customers – also its advertisers.

Facebook is FREE to its users. That’s key. Because of that, you, the user/consumer, do not have any say over what Facebook does with your data. You have offered it to Facebook in exchange for the ability to connect with your high school friends. It’s a fair exchange, and Facebook is within its right to decide to change the “rules” by which it operates at any time.

That’s the end of my Facebook apologia. Now the critique: Facebook seems increasingly disdainful of its users. Last weekend, it switched the published email addresses on user profiles from “display” to “hide” and substituted its own “facebook.com” email address on the profile as the sole displayed address. (Forbes broke the story in the mainstream media, after a blogger caught the change.) Now, I don’t have a problem with Facebook wanting to add its own address, but I do object to its decision to hide my preferred address. Facebook claims it announced the change in April, but it was not clear that the new address would replace the existing one. That Facebook springs changes on its users is nothing new, but this address switcheroo seems particularly egregious, considering it affects a user’s contact channel.

Do you have control over what ABC, CBS, NBC and the rest of the “free” TV networks broadcast? Yes and no. No, in that you do not directly manage the content of the TV shows. Yes, in that if you do not like a particular show, you do not need to watch it — and by not watching it, the show will eventually wither and die. Well, if you do not like Facebook’s policies, you can show your “dislike” by not using Facebook. And that is what Facebook should fear. I know people, even people working in high tech, who have either shut down their Facebook profiles or shun the site altogether, out of fear of security breaches or simply “change fatigue” with Facebook’s constant tinkering. (See my client Attensity’s analysis last month of the social media comments expressed about Facebook Timeline.) Maybe that’s why Facebook’s growth in the U.S. has hit a wall, according to comScore research.

So I don’t appear to be picking on Facebook alone, the recent behavior by the URL-shortening service bitly – another free service – bears mentioning. It changed its entire user interface overnight, resulting in a lot of confusion. To its credit, bit.ly listened to complaints and did make some adjustments within a few days. At some point, Facebook, too, will need to stop treating its users — not just its customers — in such a high-handed manner, if it wants to keep those users from straying.

I recommend to clients that they maintain a Facebook corporate profile, but it’s hard for me to understand why a small business would want to allow Facebook to become a critical asset. Yes, you need to “fish where the fish are,” so if your customers are chatting on Facebook, you definitely need to engage with them there. In the long run, though, since you have no control over Facebook, it would behoove you to encourage your customers to engage with you via your own website or a forum which may charge you but allow you some ownership.

There’s that old saying, “you get what you pay for” and it’s just as applicable to the brave new world of social media (and to news sites!) as it is to any old bricks-and-mortar shop. It wasn’t long ago that Myspace seemed invincible, just as the original three TV networks seemed invincible through the 1970’s. But then along came Fox and HBO and hundreds of cable channels, and the content offered by the original three no longer seemed as compelling. Viewers moved on, just as social network users moved from Friendster to Myspace to Facebook. Where will they go next? Ideas?

 Lisa Hawes can be reached at lhawes@sterlingpr.com. Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisakayhawes. Neither Lisa nor Sterling Communications has any relationship with Facebook beyond that enjoyed by other Facebook users.

Photo credit: gordon2208 via flickr