Fear of Facebook (FoF)
Back in 2008, things were pretty awesome with my company BzzAgent. Then the world cracked open, and I blame Facebook.
BzzAgent had been growing meteorically since 2001, and 2008 was another banner year with goal-busting revenue across hundreds of clients. At a media dinner in Q4 of that year, an executive named Philip Wolf leaned over to me and whispered, “this social stuff must really be impacting your business?” I shook him off — “not in the least,” I said, “social wasn’t having an impact at all.”
I remember wandering back in my hotel room unable to figure out why he would say that. What would make him think social was slowing our juggernaut?
By Q2 2009 our sales had dropped by almost 50%. With the economic downturn as accelerant, clients decided that Facebook brand pages were cheaper and achieved the same result. They didn’t, but perception was reality. It took 18 months of riding the social wave to get our feet back under us — and while we ultimately created a fantastic business with a successful outcome, the really really big opportunity happened elsewhere.
BzzAgent was acquired in 2011, and sometime after I found myself in Rick Marini’s office; he was running his own rocket-fast growth business called BranchOut. They used Facebook’s social tools and the newsfeed to connect people around jobs — think LinkedIn built right into Facebook. Their metrics were ridiculous; VCs loved them, they were unstoppable.
Then Facebook decided they were growing too fast or maybe taking a market they wanted or maybe they had learned all they needed to and — from what I understand — basically removed BranchOut posts from people’s newsfeeds. No more views = no more users.
Just like that. Poof.
Branchout was ultimately acquired in a fire sale at the end of 2014. Or more simply, they were Facebook’d.
At the feet of the temple lie the scattered remains of those who attempted to scale its walls.
For the past decade — and especially in the most recent few years — many technologies and startups have grown to live in Fear of Facebook (FoF): the potential for Facebook to turn its attention to your business, and ultimately destroy it.
Thus, nary a strategic decision is made without wondering what happens if Facebook decides you’re worth pursuing. Investors will ask over and over (while hiding their wringing hands), “do you think Facebook will decide to do this?”, and countless research hours will be spent trying to understand Facebook’s strategy and intent.
The irony is Facebook is like often like an elephant who unintentionally steps on a snail: sheer force of momentum was the culprit, not an intent to harm. It’s unfortunate elephants weigh 13,000 lbs.
Facebook Sun Tzu‘s their opposition with precision: they can change algorithms to shut off your traffic, or — if they think you’re too big for your britches — they can just change your advertising rates so that your customer acquisition cost is no longer viable. Hello Zynga!
With their engineering might, they could also do something much more disastrous, like building their own version of your product.
Timehop revolutionized the concept of looking at past moments in your social stream. They grew users 60x in 1 year. Then Facebook decided to release On This Day, which TechCrunch announced as “Facebook’s Timehop Clone”. Timehop still has millions of users in its native app, but their era of dominance went the way of the elephant’s foot.
It’s a massive catch 22 because often Facebook is a required vehicle for customer engagement and social proof. It’s part megaphone and part doorway through which customers are welcomed into your house.
At Mylestoned, we’re focused on helping people memorialize deceased loved ones (we also memorialize micro deaths for the living). Facebook isn’t in the death business. They don’t have a product suite tailored for it, and as a matter of fact they handle it pretty poorly — which is one reason there’s an opportunity for Mylestoned to thrive.
Given Facebook’s core business model — advertising — the funeral industry is probably not high on their to do-list; it’s not easy to crack the code on advertising to the deceased (impossible) or those who have recently lost (akin to ambulance chasing). And yet Facebook is being forced to deal with dying users: there will be more dead users than living on Facebook by 2065. There’s now a “memorialization” help section dedicated to users hoping to stop receive notifications from deceased loved ones.
And thus, Fear of Facebook looms. And while you should never build your business looking over your shoulder, it’s almost impossible to ignore the shadow looming on the periphery of your vision.
Glass half-full: you’re doing something right if Facebook wants to get into it.
Glass half-empty: why bother?
The other day, a friend told me she recently sat on a panel with a Facebook exec who off-the-cuff’d that there was a whole team of data scientists working on understanding death on Facebook.
I nodded and gulped down my glass of water.