Business – It’s Time to Build Your Own Communities

I have a confession to make – I am a Facebook advertiser.  I wasn’t always a Facebook advertiser, but after it became clear that Facebook had created an effective advertising platform that could bring in thousands of user eyeballs to our website for very little money, I basically had no choice.  I had to learn how to advertise on Facebook or face client departures and obsolescence.   As the platform has evolved, it has become an increasingly powerful tool for targeting and segmenting audience targets.  Does it work for generating income for business?  Based on our clients’ industry and product type, experience varies.

While the implications of users’ recent collective awakening that their data is being manipulated are potentially huge, I liken it to the film The Matrix where only a small percentage become truly aware that they are being manipulated and want to unplug themselves, while the rest remain blissfully unaware.  What we may also see, is just like in the film, people becoming too dependent on Facebook, and reconnecting voluntarily because they can’t cope in a world where they are not wired into the social infrastructure.

The most startling revelation to me was that buried within the heavily scripted apologies, is the explicit acknowledgement of the elephant in the room – that user data on Facebook is traded, segmented, sold and leveraged for all kinds of commercial, political or nefarious purposes.  As I heard one industry wag describe it (to paraphrase), it’s like ‘the mayor of Casablanca expressing surprise that there’s gambling there’.  C’mon man…

The problem today is that the elephant is now the size of V’ger (apologies to Trekkies) -an all knowing, all-consuming, insatiable world-eater, and there’s no “OFF” switch.

So, what are the implications for business?

First, a story. Nineteen years ago, I attended a conference in San Francisco called Vircomm 2000. ‘Vircomm’ was intended to stand for Virtual Communities.  I had just been appointed CEO of 50Plus.com (now part of ZoomerMedia) and was responsible for one of the largest senior’s online forums in the world at that time.  At this event all kinds of new companies were selling community management software, and others there to manage your community on an outsourced basis.   Imagine! Complete community maintenance starting at $2,000 per month.  Believe me was tempted.  Why?  Because managing a community of users is a pain in the ass!  Web-trolls, spoofed IP addresses, fake accounts, fake email accounts, hate content, member-to-member spam fights, on and on…we were fighting trolls at a time when most people thought Lord of the Rings.

If part of your work involves managing your community of users, followers, customers, and prospects, your world has (or should have) been rocked.  For years, you’ve had it pretty easy. You’ve shaved off Mark Zuckerberg’s beard.  Bad actor in your group?  DELETE POST.  Someone posting hateful messages about your products to your page followers? BAN FOREVER.  Easy.  It gets better.  You can find people, just like the ones that are already members of your community.   Facebook hoovers all your users’ info and finds analogs for advertising, emails, and other influence.  Don’t ask how the sausage is made -better you shouldn’t know…

Facebook’s real problem is orders of magnitude greater than anything we had to face in our community forum years ago.  Billions of users, posting all kinds of things. Politicians, businesses and interest groups alike, along with publishers’ plain attempts to capture your attention and distract you, and malintents with an axe to grind in every corner of the Earth up against automation-assisted, rules-based moderation.  I can tell you who’s going to win.  Now, your community members are discovering just how vulnerable and easily manipulated they can be on Facebook.  Some will undoubtedly continue to submit and participate.  Others may disconnect.  Others may simply disengage or choose to engage less often with the platform altogether.  Your page, and your brand communications may just end up being collateral damage.

The good news is that you may be able to migrate your followers to another platform of your own choosing.  There are many different ones to choose from for the motivated business.  Sometimes neglected, often misused, email newsletters are great and easily controllable ways of staying in contact with your customers and prospects. However, communications are often one-way and getting the pulse of your audience and encouraging feedback can be slow and painstaking.  Developing your own community, with user profiles, moderated and shared, one-to-one communications and discussion thread posting can take a long time and be labour-intensive.   The payoff is not always apparent. There is unquestionably cost, both in human capital to nurture and maintain the community, as well as tangible and intangible costs of dealing with widespread abuse and loss of brand reputation.

I Can See My Couch from Space

Have you seen the satellite version of Google Maps lately? If not, have a look. Of course you’re going to want to check out your house; it, or the condo or wherever you live will be in 3D.  Everything is rendered in 3D. There was a time, not to long ago, where independent model builders and digital designers would create 3-D models of famous structures in Earth while everything else was as flat as a pancake and often blurry.  Not any more…I guess those guys are out of a job.

So, we moved into a condo a few years ago with great, spacious terrace. It’s almost like having a back yard that’s paved. We bought some outdoor furniture with a nice L-shaped couch in a distinctive fabric. Well there she was, plain as day on Google maps. Heck, I could even read the Tim Hortons sign from the store unit across the street.

Here’s another example. The photo on the left was shot facing north from the 95th floor of the John Hancock building in Chicago. I’ve got other shots from around the building but I kinda like this one, with the water and the beach. The shot on the left was from Google Earth, at about the same height and point of view. The similarities are striking, especially the 3D rendering of the buildings. The only thing missing are the people and the cars.

As I write this, I’m watch The Right Stuff, a movie that recalls the glory days of the Mercury astronaut program, the pioneers of space. It is incredible to think of the tremendous personal sacrifices, the failed attempts, the billions of dollars invested in technology so that Google can show me pictures of my couch from space.