Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Subscribe Feature Hints at Bold New Direction for Facebook

Applications and websites are like brands--each has its own particular reason for being. Build products and services around that singular reason, and consumers are more likely to understand, accept and adopt those new features. However, if a software package, site or brand attempts to expand in ways that violate their one essential purpose, consumers can become confused and reject the new (or even the core) offering.

Cosmopolitan Magazine Yogurt, Smith and Wesson Mountain Bikes, Walmart luxury goods, and Barbie clothing and accessories for adults--all of these brand extensions (must have) seemed like good ideas at one time but failed. Facebook is now embarking on its own brand and functional expansion, and it will be interesting to see what happens as the social network pushes beyond its traditional sandbox.

From the start, Mark Zuckerberg has had a clear vision of what Facebook is and is not. The social network is designed to be the online place for your existing, offline relationships. Zuckerberg once said, "we're not trying to build a community — we're not trying to make new connections."

This focus on facilitating real world relationships versus new connections is evident in everything Facebook does. Facebook's commitment to being a place for real friendships explains the social network's limits on the number of friends one can collect, the way groups were designed to degrade if they became too large and the way friends could add one another to groups without permission. It is also is why every Facebook relationship is required to be reciprocal--both parties must consent before a connection is made.

Facebook seemed content to let Twitter be the social tool for amassing influence and thousands of loose connections while Facebook focused on those dozens or few hundreds of firm and meaningful relationships we value in real life. But with the entrance of Google+ into the social networking world, Facebook seems to be innovating rapidly and, perhaps, giving up its commitment to real relationships.

Today, Facebook made a significant change to the way connections are created. People can still choose to "friend" you, which requires you to approve the connection in order to establish the relationship, but now users can also activate a new "Subscribe" button for their profiles. This Twitter-like feature allows people to subscribe to an individual's public posts while excluding their private posts. For the first time, you can follow a person's public Facebook posts without reciprocity.  (I've added the subscriber feature to my profile, and you can learn more and add this button to your profile on the Facebook Subscriptions page.)

Third parties have attempted to launch apps that push and pull Facebook away from its core mission of enhancing real world relationships. For example, in June Monster launched BeKnown, a professional networking application for Facebook. The application earns just 1.4 million active users, a fraction of the 82 million monthly users claimed by LinkedIn.  Perhaps the low participation is due to flaws with the application, but it's at least equally likely that people just don't wish to make professional connections with bosses, vendors, suppliers and peers within the same network where they post their kids' pictures and personal data. All that may change now that Facebook has deployed new tools furnishing you control over who sees your posts and for permitting others to subscribe and not just friend you.

Although others have tried to launch expansive networking tools on Facebook, today's news represents the first time I've noted Facebook itself taking a step away from its traditional foundation of firm, real, personal relationships. Is this a strategic move on their part to increase usage further? A reaction to Google+'s Circles? Or a mistake? Time will tell if this brand expansion will go the way of failed ideas like Bic Underwear (really!) or successful brand expansions like Arm & Hammer Toothpaste.

What do you think? Will Facebook be able to attract influencers who want to reach tens or hundreds of thousands with their public posts? Or will Facebook undermine its core mission?


salemonz said...

Not sure about this one. I mean, I have decided Facebook is the place where I can grip/blow off steam because I have limited my profile so much that only certain people can see certain things, etc.

This subscribe feature assumes I make a lot of public statements. As it is, I really only post semi-guarded links (political, edgy, etc). My habits have already formed.

Twitter is my public face.

Augie Ray said...

I'm with you, Josh. I can't see this really altering the established ways I'm already using Twitter and Facebook (and not using Google+).

Raul M. said...

I think we may be significantly underestimating the effect that this will have on Twitter over the course of time. Although our habits may be well rooted, there are many hundreds of thousands of youth entering the social media fray daily. I live with one and, thanks to her, I have daily interactions with more of them than I care to. I can tell you that the center of their social universe is Facebook. They have very little interest in Twitter, which many seem to perceive as more trouble than it’s worth.

At some point you and I migrated, in part, from Facebook to Twitter (or perhaps it happened simultaneously) because it provided us with something that Facebook didn’t. With a subscribe option, a similar dynamic is less likely to occur with the next generation. Put simply, if my daughter can subscribe to Justin Bieber on Facebook, she has no need to follow him on Twitter. What’s the point?

Augie Ray said...

You may be right, Raul, but I still tend to think Twitter will stay Twitter and Facebook Facebook. The issue is how much your communications overlap.

Right now I can post something to 13,000 people on Twitter--those people tend to be interested in social media and communications, not funny jokes or pics of my wife. Meanwhile, on Facebook I have hundreds of people with whom I am close in the real world (to one extent or another.)

Even with Facebook's new features, I can't post to subscribers and not to friends--I can post to both or just to friends. So, for those of using Twitter for professional networking or broadcasting, the question is this: DO your real-life close friends on Facebook care about the sorts of things you post on Twitter? If not, Twitter and Facebook represent different networks with different purposes.

Another issue to content with is that Twitter is or can be anonymous while Facebook cannot. That alone will prevent Facebook from encroaching too much on Twitter's territory.

We'll see. The social networking world is still plenty fluid. G+, Facebook and Twitter still have plenty of jostling to do. (Rumors are rampant of a Facebook phone being announced next week--I don't see the need since Facebook is on ever smartphone already, but it just shows how creative the players are getting.)