What Facebook is Up To: A Netnographic Perspective

I’ve been a big fan of Facebook for quite some time as a user. I like SNS and think it offers consumers a valuable service that helps demonstrate the linking power of the Net and some of the innate and intimate possibilities of online communities. But I’ve always subjected any class discussions of SNS and Facebook in particular to an interrogation of their business model. After all, how do you monetize those 50 million plus users? It’s cool to see them sending messages and connecting, but what do you *do* with them? Advertising is a natural play.

Well, flush with Microsoft’s cash, Facebook just yesterday revealed a part of their grand business plan, which they call “social advertising.” You can read about the story here from the New York Times. I’ll quote that story a little bit here as a set up before providing my own opinion.

“Yesterday, in a twist on word-of-mouth marketing, Facebook began selling ads that display people’s profile photos next to commercial messages that are shown to their friends about items they purchased or registered an opinion about. For example, going forward, a Facebook user who rents a movie on Blockbuster.com will be asked if he would like to have his movie choice broadcast out to all his friends on Facebook. And those friends would have no choice but to receive that movie message, along with an ad from Blockbuster.”

They can call it “social advertising” but as the article infers, this is just tarted up word-of-mouth marketing. It’s not blazingly original, but there it is. One of the main problems I see with this execution is the issue that I see with all WOM marketing: it’s a different animal from “naturally occurring” WOM. We know a lot about “organic” WOM–still very little about the prompted variety. I suspect that it is received differently. Like other forms of social business, it does blur the increasingly blurry lines between social interaction and marketing-business-advertising moment. And I suspect consumers read it differently. And maybe start to read their “friends” differently. On Facebook, where a click also disconnects (yes, you know who you are, those who I’ve ‘defriended’), it remains to be seen how people will react to being barraged by a bunch of ads by their former pals.

Really, am I to assume that when you recommend a movie to me in person because you loved it, or even when you write in a email to me about a movie you just saw that you loved, that I’m going to treat that the same way that I would one of these tacked on ads in Facebook? It’s a decent empirical question.

Let me take a moment to look at Facebook from a netnographic perspective. From that perspective, I view the rise of online community as a social phenomenon but do so from the lens of marketing. Advertising is most certainly not the whole story, and is just the tip of the iceberg. Although it does have the implication to seriously dent the Titanic of online communal interaction. I do see a range of other interesting opportunities to use Facebook and SNS as marketing tools. And they are matched by just as many challenges. Some random thoughts I could easily expand upon in future:

  1. Facebook is awash in marketing research and consumer data: big opportunities, especially when combined with Microsoft knowhow
  2. If Facebook starts using consumer data profligately, odds are consumers will turn away (anyone remember the Windows 95 experience?)
  3. Facebook is a very branded and corporate place already, in terms of its “Feel”
  4. Gen Y and Millennials are only just so tolerant of corporatizing and commoditizing before they tune out the messages (and maybe the medium)
  5. We still know very little about the way word of mouth as a “push” marketing form works (I have a major study underway, with three co-authors, that sheds some new light on this topic)
  6. There are many ways for community to form, and SNS seems to be only one particular kind–how could it be combined in interesting ways with other forms of community, like virtual worlds, or blogs? We’re just beginning those explorations/exploitations
  7. The Facebook experience seems to be fairly surface-level for the most part, but wide–not a lot of deep conversations on the publicly accessible level; lots of bite-sized comments (maybe this is ultrapostmodern life?)
  8. Facebook’s corporatism hides some interesting anti-branding and anti-brand communities that are every bit as significant as the rah-rah recommendation engine idea
  9. These are called “New Media” for a reason: the rules of the game are still being made up as we go…
  10. What really comes after advertising? What is traditional advertising morphing into? Not just social advertising, but something truly different, and extensive, inclusive of all prior forms, but growing, reaching, broadening in scope. I think Google is moving around the edges of these ideas. I think Facebook may have many more ideas in this vein as well. These are certainly interesting times to be working in the realm of web2.0, online communities, and netnography. What do *you* see?

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