Are you on Facebook? In recent years I grew to enjoy daily check-ins, following links, debating politics with acquaintances and strangers alike, sharing recipes and design ideas – I’ve even developed friendships with people I have never physically met. Then after a publicly disappointing IPO, Facebook plunged deep into a new advertising platform and the magic faded. It has jumped the shark.
If you don’t use Facebook you’re probably no longer reading, but if you do, you noticed ads suddenly popping into your news-feed, friends disappearing in the clutter, how strange company ads are “suggested” to you, while pages you previously “liked” are harder to find under a parade of newbies seeking endorsement. Perhaps you withdrew into smaller circles of “interest” groups. More likely you just spend less time on the site. My circle of friends complain how Facebook is less appealing; many simply don’t post or visit much anymore.
I don’t expect a service like Facebook to be free. I can’t even imagine the costs of operation for such a massive site. But what I didn’t expect was for it all to turn cumbersome and stupid, like TV: the path they are taking will lead them, like broadcast TV, right off the cliff. I suspect the ad format is not working and they might be getting nervous because I was just invited to participate in an extended user survey with open-ended questions, soliciting not merely scaled statistical values but what the respondent thinks in their own words. This level of market research is expensive to tabulate, signaling serious intentions.
Facebook can survive and grow profits if they evolve. They could become a subscription service, a members-only site where one drops in, rather like visiting a favorite coffee bar, to continue the beloved open sharing established before their PnL statements took precedence. I expect to pay for my coffee and wouldn’t mind paying an equivalent fee for access to last year’s Facebook format. However to grow beyond a SimCity or other community-style user base, Facebook could re-think their entire customer interface proposition.
Digital advertising generates opposing concerns, with business chasing keywords and user preferences to target interested buyers, while those very users are growing more paranoid about “Big Brother” (Big Google?) firms, such as Alexa, amassing reams of their personal data. The truth of it is the current system doesn’t work very well. For example, my online identity seems based on generalizations like my age and sex, and often shows me ads for pages I hit once for research or landed on in error. (Of course I ignore these, like everyone does anymore, which is why click-through rates of 0.02% are considered acceptable.)
But what if we had a site where we could lodge our shopping lists, share what we are specifically looking for along with our personal data, and let them find for us the merchant with the exact product that fills the bill? The missing link? Trust.
I’m looking for an online personal shopper, a matchmaker … a Concierge. You know, that amazing person in a luxury hotel who will graciously – almost effortlessly – find you a taxi, a physician at 4 a.m., a babysitter, a dinner reservation, have your suit cleaned, arrange transportation or a last-minute gift or an outing the next day, even contact your embassy should you need it. The concierge is resourceful yet discreet, anxious to serve yet will always uphold the reputation of the hotel. I’ve been hoping some web provider would glom onto this idea, and Facebook is ideally suited because we already have a relationship, albeit their side is faceless (cordial and helpful, but faceless – I mean, try and find their phone number, just try.)
What if I could confide my buying inclinations and preferences to Facebook, trusting that they would seek to serve me rather than hawk my information to any and all? Let’s say that I am in the market for a living room couch, which Facebook and a dozen others might know by tracking the sites I land on, BUT I also related my color scheme, room size, budget range, location, and purchasing timeframe? I might give all this this if I was secure in the knowledge that my information would NOT be sold and if my concierge would filter furniture advertisers to match my narrow interests – again, never revealing who I am – and present only what might interest me, while charging the advertiser appropriately for the opportunity. It’s an “everybody wins” scenario: (1) I get to see ads for what I actually want; (2) the concierge site can charge for delivering a live prospect not just the possibility of one, (3) the merchant nets a genuine opportunity to close a sale, and (4) the internet is not cluttered up showing everybody ads to net the two or three who might deign to take a look. Currently, no sites have enough data to show me a mid-range, 3-piece sectional in neutral microfiber that’s currently on sale in my town, they merely offer links to Art Van and other furniture store websites and I’m on my own.
How many times have you visited a website only to suddenly see one of their ads pop up on Facebook or one of a dozen other sites? It’s getting tougher for advertisers to catch your attention in the clutter, to discover keywords that match desires, to secure click-throughs when their hit optimizes farther down the results page. Amazon comes close, but even they have no clue what I would actually fork over money for: Their version of “choice” means to show “everything”.
The element missing in my vision is the trust that results from a relationship. I imagine Skyped customer service with real people responding, just like I stopped by the concierge desk in the lobby: there is a smile, a promise, and the likelihood of trust. This is our buying future. We’ve had similar relationships in the brick-n-mortar world with agents or reps for the silos that are autos, real estate, electronics, health care, insurance, professional services … but what if you could have one for everything you spend money on? What if they got to know you, your tastes, your interests, what you bought a while ago and didn’t like, the bad experiences you had as well as the good, and then they saw this THING that you would absolutely love and watch for it to go on sale for you …
The internet seemed like the ultimate world market just five years ago but has become a sometimes impenetrable bazaar where buyers and sellers can easily miss each other. The next generation in online mercantile will be the personal shopper, our representative in a vast world of things to buy, and for the advertiser, a gateway to our purchasing power. A successful concierge would have a human face, be knowledgeable and fun, and have the tools to screen a range of advertisers, gleaning offers for me to review, and most of all, prove trustworthy of my data. Angie’s List is developing toward this concept, and they just might get there first, but Facebook has the user base, the skill with algorithms, and the advertiser relationships to establish this new standard. They already know about my family, work and political bent – if only they would overcome their peculiar notion that I am a commodity instead of the client I want to be.