Villing & Company

Facebook Is The New AOL: How Marketing Missteps Will Destroy the World's Most Popular Social Network

There was a time in the 90s when America Online (AOL) was practically synonymous with the Internet. No longer was it just the tech elite who were sending emails, chatting over IM and browsing hideous websites adorned with rainbows and twirling mailboxes...the Web had gone decidedly mainstream. Having discovered AOL's elegant, user-friendly alternative to the text-based bulletin board systems of the time, normal people were finally starting to see the relevance of getting online. And when they got online, they all heard the familiar "Welcome...You've Got Mail!" At its height, AOL had over 25 million subscribers.

But there was a problem. The Internet was growing and it was much bigger than AOL. Rather than embrace this openness immediately, AOL created a "walled garden" around their content. Many AOL users never left the confines of the AOL ecosystem or, if they did, they didn't even know it. Advertisers were attracted to these massive subscriber numbers, and it wasn't uncommon for the "cool" companies to tag their commercials with "AOL Keywords" instead of URLs.

The Internet is fundamentally hostile to these kinds of closed, controlled systems, however, and the early adopters soon rebelled. Instead of enhanced online services like AOL, companies and technical consumers exited en masse, in favor of straightforward, no-frills Internet connectivity. Free email sites like Hotmail and the rise of Google made AOL services seem unnecessary and limiting. With their subscriber base plummeting, AOL tried desperately to retain customers by adding features and content. This only exacerbated their problems, since the trend was toward simple, invisible connectivity. Already seen as a bloated middleman, they also began to have huge, highly publicized customer service problems. Horror stories of long hold times, pushy sales people and privacy violations flooded the Internet. The dislike of AOL became mainstream. Admitting an AOL email address was like publicly announcing your tech illiteracy.

Fortunately, the days of bloated middlemen controlling the Web, encouraging redundant content and compounding general online confusion are long behind us, right? It's not like anyone would be foolish enough to try this again, would they?

Enter Facebook

Stratospheric success seems to correlate quite highly with stratospheric stupidity. I guess when your success comes so quickly and easily, it might be tempting to think that you're untouchable. Once you've built a customer base of millions, it seems like it's not long before someone raises their hand and asks, "How can we use these people to make money?" This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem is when the answer to that question undermines the reason you were successful in the first place.

Facebook's original tagline was "Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life." In 2008, they made a subtle change: "Giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." Back in 2008, it might not have been immediately obvious what this meant; the two statements seem very similar. However, recently Facebook made some pretty major changes to the site that remind me a lot of what eventually destroyed AOL:

  • Content Redundancy: Like AOL, Facebook offers pages for businesses that often simply repeat the content that is already available on the company's main website. If the content isn't redundant, it might be even worse, since customers now have to check two sites to find what is available from a company. Just like the old days when companies felt compelled to provide both their URL and AOL Keyword at the end of their advertising, companies are again feeling the need to promote both sites.
  • Privacy Controversies: Like AOL, Facebook has been the center of quite a few privacy controversies in the past year. However, because Facebook initially started as a way of sharing with friends, they have access to much more personal information than AOL ever did. Over the past few years, Facebook has been insecure by default (i.e. unless you explicitly make things private, they are public). While this has allowed Facebook and their advertising partners access to a ton of personal demographic information, it has done so at the cost of customer confidence.
  • Promoting Confusion: Like AOL, the way that Facebook has tried to become a one-stop shop for everything online has made it more difficult for some people to grasp the basic concepts of the Internet. For example, when a technology blog began to rank highly on Google's results for "facebook login," the site began receiving hundreds of comments from confused people who thought that the post was the new Facebook login page. This nightmarish ignorance isn't Facebook's fault necessarily, but it is the result of websites that create their own "web within the Web."
  • Revenue Over Respect: Like AOL, Facebook's recent privacy-related violations made it clear that they value their own revenue more than they value their customers' private information. In AOL's case, pushy sales people made it nearly impossible to cancel accounts. Facebook, on the other hand, has decided to make their money by providing detailed demographic information to advertisers. Knowing that few people would opt-in to such a "feature," they decided instead to automatically opt everyone in by default. So, with little or no warning, the likes, interests and demographic details of Facebook users and their friends were made available to Facebook's partners.

It remains to be seen how damaging these decisions will be in the long run or whether Facebook's recent privacy improvements will satisfy their customer base. However, as their focus becomes more and more about marketing to consumers, I predict that Facebook will become less and less socially relevant. People originally joined Facebook in order to connect to their friends. Facebook is now focused on providing ways for companies to connect to consumers. It's possible that this new focus will come at the expense of the very thing that made it popular in the first place. Will Facebook still seem like a safe place to share with your friends when it has been invaded by the commercial world? Maybe. But if Facebook doesn't learn from the mistakes of AOL, it is destined to repeat them.

Filed Under: social media

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