Mar 22, 2009

The Value of Friends

Robert Scoble has a much-debated take on the new Facebook where he imagines a shiny, happy world full of people eager to get ads from merchants based on life events they’ve posted (e.g. getting a new puppy? Prepare for an onslaught of ads from pet supply vendors.)

But I’m not sure I agree.

Scoble argues vociferously that most people like being marketed to and like receiving information on something they’re interested in buying. That’s true to a point, especially if it’s unobtrusive, like a catalog. But one of the great things about The Real Digital Revolution is that it’s enabled us to stop relying on marketing messages and rely on peer reviews instead. Advertising is still necessary—we need a way to create an image for the brand, so that when we go to Google, “the safe car” is the one at the top of our list. But once we’re googling, marketing messages are moot: our fellow consumers will tell us everything we need to know.

So while a situation such as the one Scoble describes (he announces, via Facebook, that he is having a baby, he gets deluged by Facebook ads from car companies) is likely, I’m not sure it’s exactly welcome, particularly if the messages are just basic “our brand is great” messages. That’s the sort of advertising people are likely to regard as spam.

On the other hand, a very targeted message that offers Scoble a unique and tangible benefit, should be very well received. Something along the lines of “Congratulations on the new baby Mr. and Mrs. Scoble. Palo Alto Volvo would like to offer you a special Facebook offer of 20% off a lease on the new Volvo XC90.”

An offer like that serves two purposes: if the Scobles were on the fence about Volvo, that 20% off just might just push them over. And, if they’d never considered Volvo, a sweet offer might just get them to google it. Either way, Volvo comes out ahead.

If Zuckerberg et al can figure out a way to get very specific targeted offers to Facebook users-- and marketers uphold their end of the bargain by sending offers consumers might actually want and not just more spam-- he just might have figured out a way to make some money from his database. For while coupons and discount offer may seem unsexy, they do have the distinct advantage of being the sort of marketing communication most people welcome getting, especially for products they currently use. (And if I knew I’d get a $2 off coupon just for writing “washing my clothes with Tide tonight” in my status update– I’d probably do so. Especially if I really like Tide.)

UPDATE: The more I think of this, the less benign it seems. The likelihood of this type of scenario remaining uncluttered is practically nil: all sorts of advertisers will deluge us with all sorts of vaguely related offers (the scattershot theory of advertising still lives) and the result will likely feel like spam. At which point, we'll probably resort to code words and euphemisms to describe our activities, precisely to avoid advertisers.

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