What does Facebook betting on “groups” say about culture, the census and how we define ourselves?By Mark Boles
“When I was four years old
they tried to test my I.Q.
they showed me a picture
of 3 oranges and a pear
which one is different?
it does not belong
they taught me different is wrong…”
As the 2010 Census is being compiled one thing that we can most certainly be assured of is that we’ll probably recognize America as considerably different then it was say 20 years ago. We will see far more examples of other races, religions and ethnicities. While the census is used for lots of very important things, in the past it has been the single greatest overall driver of marketing decisions.
This being the case we can also be assured that marketing to said demographics will become increasingly challenging as well as remarkably inefficient and hardly cost effective. This is in large part because of what I like to refer to as “cross-culturalization”. This is simply where people from multiple ethnicities, races and religions share like interests.
In the past, marketers have traditionally marketed to people by finding the most similarities possible to reach the largest swath of people generally via demographics and household income otherwise known as “buying power”. Just consider the term, “general consumer”.
Is there really still such a thing?
Zuckerburg would have you believe that Facebook’s fate to continue to remain relevant rests largely with the growing of the “Groups” functionality. No doubt he’s read Seth Godin’s “Tribes”. Interestingly enough today there was an editorial in the New York Times by David Brooks about “Flock Comedies” and shows like Dick Van Dyke, The Waltons and The Cosby Show being replaced by shows such “Friends”, “Sex and the City”, “How I Met Your Mother” and “Glee”. The editorial makes the argument that these “…shows also serve one final purpose. They help people negotiate the transition between dyadic friendships and networked friendships.”
Arguably the Internet has exploited people’s ability to group themselves and congregate together well before Facebook. Following a blog might be the simplest means of identifying with an interest or a group.
One question Facebook may want to confront is whether a group’s identity or brand is diminished by it being on Facebook. By its sheer size, Facebook is the Wal-Mart of social media regardless of whether or not it cares to admit it. ASMALLWORLD would not be the brand that it is if it were on Facebook. Perhaps there could be opportunities for Facebook to private label groups able to utilize Facebook’s functionality. But, let’s be honest, one thing about associating with a certain group is the notion of exclusion and to be a part of a certain group requires a degree of legitimacy or street cred.
Then there is the very real fact that there are some groups that people don’t want to be openly associated with. Take being gay, in which Facebook was recently accused of likely “outing” gays.
One of the simplest descriptions of Facebook I ever heard was, “It’s a TV channel I can turn on to see what my friends are doing.”
So let’s run with that. One could make the assertion that Facebook is really akin to an original big three TV network before cable where at any given point a marketer can reach the largest number of people. Let’s call Google the largest of the big three. Google however will always have search relevance for its ad platform. With Facebook though it has to provide relevance by interest. And here Facebook is actually becoming cable before our very eyes with groups becoming channels such as the Disney channel or Spike or Lifetime. However the same way marketers struggle to get a relevant message across requires understanding your audience.
And this is where groups come in.
What Zuckerberg isn’t saying is that basically groups will become a giant ad serving platform. Take for example the group “Mom’s Who Need Wine” which has about 336K+ followers on Facebook. Not too shabby a number, right? And where better to offer up any number of specific offers, Groupon like capabilities and so on based on hosts of data and data mining and insights to prospective advertisers.
At its core, I think Facebook is right culturally about the concept of groups. But I think Facebook has some considerable uphill battles. One is trust. The other is why Facebook? Facebook Groups is where the wannabes will live. The legit groups will be places like ASMALLWORLD or ShredUnion. As an advertiser, do you want to be where trends begin or where trends go to die (e.g. Wal-Mart). For that I suggest you ask Grant McCracken, author of “Flock and Flow”. Furthermore, if you start a group like “Moms Who Need Wine” why should Facebook make all the revenue off a group they didn’t even start?
Zuckerburg and the team at Facebook will position groups as what Facebook users want. And truth be told, that’s a load of crap. Groups is a way to make money. In interviews with Facebook staffers, nobody talks about the needs or wants of consumers… they talk about not being “… surprised if only 5% or 10% create groups,” noting “that’s 25 to 50 million people — not a small number by any standard.” Those are Nielsen numbers. Another factor to consider is what are real groups such as “Mom’s Who Need Wine” versus fad groups such as “Sorry But I Can’t Hear You Over This SunChips Bag” which currently has more than 51,000 friends.
So the question is what consumers do. And that, as I think we’re readily aware by this point, is anyone’s guess.