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The Facebook Open Graph Announcement: What’s Not to “Like”

Facebook made an audacious and smart positioning move to grab the social media high ground

Now that the collective tech/social media world is coming off the sugar rush of Facebook’s big Open Graph announcements of last week, I thought I’d take a fresh look. I should say that I am 41 years old and an active user of Facebook. I certainly see the powerful implications of sharing subjective information across a social network (graph). What I am not 100% sure about is if anyone is stepping back and questioning the viability of their approach.

Facebook made an audacious and smart positioning move to grab the social media high ground, but what are the real benefits to consumers? To Brands? To Facebook? Did Facebook really just “Win The Web”, as the New York Times proclaimed?

Not New News
First of all, last week’s thunderstruck, gushing over-reaction of adoration among industry insiders and press seems somewhat odd, given that Facebook introduced the Open Graph concept at the Developer Garage of October 28, 2009. Here’s an article by Nick O’Neil that outlines what he rightly categorizes (at the time) as “part of a broader move by Facebook”.

From Facebook at the time: “The Open Graph API will allow any page on the Web to have all the features of a Facebook Page…it will show up on that user’s profile and in search results, and that page will be able to publish stories to the stream of its fans.”

So, why then the wild enthusiasm and assertions? Perhaps the youthful Zuckerberg-lead Facebook team best-embodies the promise of social networks to finally dethrone some of the entrenched ad-supported superpowers like Google.

A Google Killer?
Is this move so profound that it will allow Facebook to collect enough information to power a “social search engine” and, as such, topple Google? There is no doubt that Facebook is in a position to learn, store and categorize opt-in personal preferences of individuals and utilize them to great advertising sales advantage. But there are major differences between these companies.

Google makes $23 Billion annually by giving people useful personal and business tools and serving effective and unobtrusive contextually ads in exchange for the use of these tools. Google increased Gmail users by 43% last year and their list of services is impressive, and growing. Google also has direct connections with the local retail points of sale that are so important for tracking incremental purchases and, as I have written about, is well-along the path toward deciding on the right way to collect, measure, and capitalize on these metrics.

Facebook, on the other hand, is not useful. Yes, I said it…fun, interesting, and a novel new socially relevant way to correspond with others with shared commonality. But useful? No. Over 37% of all people signed up for Facebook are inactive. That’s 150 million of them. Facebook made an estimated $650 Million last year and certainly has a lot of traffic, but they have not yet capitalized in a way that comes even close to challenging Google. The fundamental value proposition Facebook offers consumers is different. Try not checking your Facebook page for a week and see what happens. Facebook is a nice to have and, as such, needs to be incrementally more thoughtful about what they do and how they do it.

Size Matters
There were other implied assertions Facebook made last week that I question. Namely, that growth and unique appeal can coexist. Facebook has rocketed to popularity by mimicking the same voyeuristic appeal as the original printed freshman facebooks most of us used to peruse the social landscape back in college. But, after freshman year, the book became irrelevant. Why? Because the size of the graph made the details of the graph highly relevant. If the network grows and becomes indistinct, it loses its effectiveness and the stream of information becomes cloudy and irrelevant in the context of a broader network (no longer wow’d by the initial relevance).

For brands, the “fan page” acts as a tighter circle of consumer interaction and an opt-in sub-network, within the broader context of the web. Consumers have to “become a fan” and the thoughtful act of doing this makes the sub-network powerful and relevant to the brand and others within it. Facebook’s switch to the “Like” button was designed to make it easier for people to convey their preferences. This also has the potential negative side effect of broadening the input stream of consumers to specific sub-networks and clouding the waters  by making the size of the pool exponentially larger and, as such, less meaningful. The more the merrier for Facebook, as this grows the audience to whom they will serve ads to and pads their knowledge about every Facebook user. But it could dilute the opt-in pool for brands and clog the feedback loops.

The Like Button Is Too Easy
The sharing of subjective opinions and preferences based on real world interactions with products and services is the real power of social media (and location based marketing). Ratings and reviews are the best example of how consumers interact with real places and share input, currently, but it does not take much imagination to see that real-world interaction with a wider range of products and services is coming soon.

Providing this subjective input takes a minute or two and this fact (especially when consumers are mobile) serves as detergent to flip or casual positive or negative inputs. The “Like” button allows instant input, with less thought, all designed to rapidly fill Facebook’s master database. Great for Facebook and their advertising machinery plans, but the user experience (in the form of people’s news feeds) could-well become clogged with a deluge of “likes” that become less impactful in direct proportion to the times the too-easy “Like” button is used.

Personal Preference Profile Probes
What Facebook has announced is very smart, but it requires compliance by companies and brands. They are essentially telling any company that has a web page dedicated to something someone would “Like” to infuse Facebook code into that page, with specific metadata tags that categorizes the real-world product shown. This is very good for Facebook, but it essentially means web pages need to insert little  “probes” under their skin that feed a stream of data back to the Facebook mothership. Will companies and brands do this?

They might, but they also might realize that they are turning over the keys to the kingdom to the same barbarian at the gate who will then come back and charge them advertising fees based on the personal preference profile metrics they delivered on a silver platter. They could also do things in the future with this “holy grail” (the personal preference profile) that we can not conceive of currently. My point is that brands should not jump on this before they carefully consider the implications of the volume of valuable opt-in metrics they will be delivering to Facebook, and the benefits.

Content websites should be careful too, as Facebook is sure to sell advertising based on consumer preferences for something they read. Again very good for Facebook, but it could mean a thorny editorial/sales line in the sand gets crossed if readers get hit with ads for products related to an element of the content that does not resonate with the consumer targeted or if the ad seems to imply a paid connection between the editorial content and the advertiser.

Three Things Not Announced: Location, Location, Location
In a surprise to many (including me), Facebook made no mention last week of location-based marketing and framed their announcements around web-based open graph linkages and, more specifically, the integration of “like” button code on product pages to tap the power of personal preference aggregation. While the “visionary” open graph high ground move got the press, the real pot of gold lies at the end of the point-of-sale rainbow, reached by linking marketing to incremental tracked sales. Brands make money by selling more products in stores, period.

It was widely speculated that the reason Facebook did not announce checkin functionality or QR codes or NFC to link updates with real-world physical locations last week was that they might buy Gowalla or Foursquare. We now know that Facebook was about to launch a “door sticker” campaign to reach out directly to merchants and is using, of all things, SMS short codes to track consumer interaction and link it to location.

I personally think this is just the beginning and Facebook will dive headlong into the location-verified Proof Of Presence Metrics game soon. But can they pull it off? A simple location-enabled “Like, with comments option” might not be the right move here. This is too flip, to fast, to easy. Again, good for Facebook as they seek to remove friction for aggregation of personal profile preferences for who, what and where, but I am not sure members of the social graphs want to hear about every checkin and every store or venue or brand that those in their network simply “Like”.

My Friends All Like Different Things
I know the people in my social network and I am certainly more interested in hearing their preferences and opinions than the blanket ads I see every day, foisted upon me by those charged with selling the products. This, of course, is the power of social networks to shape consumer behavior. But I also have a solid majority of pals who are not on Facebook. The two I reached both gave me the same answer, which was, essentially, “Facebook is stupid. It’s full of asinine egocentric banter and takes way too much time to deal with”.  I sympathize and often have to weed though posts about spilled milk (literally) and inane random thoughts.

But I also use Facebook for business and have made an effort to be a fan only of pages conveying important, relevant information. I, for one, do not intend to fill my feed with all my “Likes” and hope those who fill my feed will hold off too. Aside from the obvious volume implications, I am not going to be swayed by the fact that someone “Likes” anything. Now, if they took the time to write a review or checkedin on Gowalla and stopped to rave about something and this was posted with intent, I’d be inclined to take a look. But the click of a “Like” button is too fast, to flip, and too easy and we all like many, many different things, for different reasons.

I know brands and companies have a different Facebook opportunity to potentially take advantage of, but the people making these social media marketing decisions are usually personal Facebook users as well.

Considering The Implications
Facebook has the traffic and the momentum to do some powerful things. I just hope the collective Social Media/LBS/Mobile world can stop for a minute and consider the positive and negative implications of not just the “open graph”, but the site-integrated Facebook metadata tags that, if implemented, will feed consumer preference back to the now-warming Facebook ad engine. Agencies should consider this move on behalf of their clients carefully. I hope Facebook users consider the long and short term implications of sharing so much about their personal product preference profiles with Facebook, the privacy issues this raises, and the effect of potentially having volume and size dull down the interactions with others within their network. And, I hope Facebook considers the user experience implications and that they treat the heavy crop of rich realtime opt-in metrics they will/hope to reap with consideration. Easy is not always good.

More Stories By Wilson Kerr

Wilson has 11+ years experience in the Mobile and Location Based Services (LBS) space. Recently, he became Director Of Business Development and Sales for Unbound Commerce, a Boston-based mobile commerce solution provider. He has deep expertise in the areas of mobile commerce, social media, branded location integration, branded content licensing, and is knowledgeable in a broad range of navigation technologies. Wilson has worked with top tier brands, content providers, device manufacturers, and application developers, including Nokia, Unbound Commerce, Tele Atlas/TomTom, The Travel Channel, Langenscheidt Publishing, Intellistry, Parking In Motion, GPS-POI-US, and others. Wilson is a blogger on all things location-based, edits the LBS topic page on Ulitzer, teaches a Social Media 101 class, and has served as a panelist and speaker at Mobile LBS conferences and networking events. Wilson has held positions in Business Development, Sales/Marketing, and Digital Licensing at The North Face, Outdoor Intelligence, Fishing Hot Spots Maps, Tele Atlas North America/TomTom and, most-recently, Unbound Commerce. Wilson left Tele Atlas to start Location Based Strategy, LLC in 2007. Company Website: http://www.LBStrategy.com. Twitter: @WLLK

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