Congrats, Facebook, You’ve Hit 1 Billion Users. Now What?

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

So 1 billion people now visit Facebook at least once a month, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who celebrated with that weird new ad. That’s an amazing milestone for a company only eight years old, fully justifying the glut of press coverage this morning. But is it getting too big for its own good?

I’m not just talking about the usual stuff a company faces as it grows very large–antitrust concerns, privacy worries, hiring quality, and the like. Google, Microsoft, IBM, and many others have faced and still face these issues. But such challenges haven’t taken any of them down. And even as they start (or continue) to be concerns for Facebook, they likely won’t sink it either.

The biggest concern I have is whether Facebook could–as a direct result of getting what seems likely to be just about everyone online to use it eventually–lose what’s special about it. After all, is it enough simply to be the biggest social network? Does being the biggest, as Zuckerberg and many others inside and outside the company implicitly assume, automatically make it the best?

I’m not so sure. And that’s without even falling back on the old look-what-happened-to-MySpace argument. The fact is that Facebook doesn’t do a lot of the social activities people participate in online as well as others. Twitter is way better in many ways for disseminating news. LinkedIn still does professional networking far better. No one has made video sharing easier than YouTube (yes, it’s a social service too). Pinterest, Reddit, and others are seeing massive growth thanks to a pretty clear focus on doing one thing well.

And Facebook? As well as it facilitates connections with friends, its overriding appeal is not any particular features. (OK, except for sharing photos–but even there, it felt the need to spend a billion bucks to buy Instagram.) Facebook’s key advantage now is largely that all your friends are on Facebook too.

Of course, that’s a huge technical and business feat for Facebook–nothing to be minimized, as evidenced by the fact that no one else accomplished it. But is that enough to catapult it to the next level?

Maybe. But as its growth slows, I wonder if essentially becoming a social utility that Zuckerberg long said Facebook should be is distinctive enough a mission to maintain its momentum. One random item that gave me pause today came in passing on a BusinessInsider post on Facebook’s recent move to allow advertisers to “retarget” its users with ads:

The most valuable inventory for re-targeting until now has been Yahoo Mail, because:

  • It has huge scale.
  • It’s engaging enough that you’d only want to click on an ad to leave if you really wanted to leave.
  • The people who use it tend to leave it open as a tab in their browser all day.

In all three ways, Facebook.com is very similar to Yahoo Mail.

Yikes. Facebook is now like a boring email service? Now, it’s probably unfair to extrapolate this comparison in a particular realm of advertising to Facebook overall. But it reflects the reality that Facebook’s ubiquity is inexorably steering it toward becoming something like the new television. Another mass medium, even if it’s a uniquely interactive mass medium.

I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact there’s a lot right with it, for Facebook’s business. I just can’t shake a nagging feeling that achieving this ubiquity–as Zuckerberg put it today, to “connect the rest of the world”–isn’t enough of a raison d’etre.

So the question now is what Facebook will do with that ubiquity. Maybe simply facilitating those connections is enough. But at this milestone moment the company itself chose to highlight, it’s worth posing some existential questions to go along with that existential ad:

Why is Facebook here?

Is sheer ubiquity sufficient for Facebook to achieve Zuckerberg’s lofty goals?

As Facebook becomes a service for everyone, does it become special to no one?

About these ads

Twitter Offers Advertisers In-Stream Surveys To Measure Brand Impact

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Companies that make their money from online ads know that brand marketers currently advertising mostly on television are where the really big bucks are. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other major online ad operators are all scrambling to prove to these big spenders that their ads can move the needle on classic metrics such as brand recognition and intent to purchase.

Today, Twitter offered up another carrot to brand advertisers: surveys that they can run inside a Twitter user’s timeline. A tweet will ask if they want to do the survey, then if they click on it, it will appear within the timeline so users aren’t taken away from Twitter.

The surveys will allow marketers to ask a few questions that will help them determine the impact of Twitter ads on respondents’ awareness of a company or product brand and whether they’re likely to buy the product. Twitter is working with Nielsen to offer analysis of the results, allowing for more direct comparison to campaigns on other sites as well as on TV. The feature will be offered free for now to a select group of large Twitter advertisers, with plans to roll it out more widely early next year.

Surveys may sound rather pedestrian as a feature, but it’s critical for brands looking to extend campaigns across multiple media. Twitter says the response rate on early tests is comparable to the 1% to 3% that Twitter’s signature Promoted Tweets ads get. That’s also quite good compared with the fractional response that traditional banner ads get. And so far, at least, Twitter users seem comfortable with brands on the service.

More interesting to consider, there’s no reason this kind of feature need be limited to surveys. With the capability to offer a more interactive experience right inside the current Twitter service, Twitter eventually could offer brands more creative tools beyond surveys, such as rich media, video, commercial message sharing with followers or others on Twitter, or even the ability to buy products without leaving Twitter.

Facebook Live: Charlie Rose Interviews COO Sheryl Sandberg, VC Marc Andreessen

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 - Sheryl Sandberg, ...

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For better or worse, you know a company is serious about putting forward a clear image of itself when it submits to an interview with Charlie Rose.

And so on Oct. 2, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and board member and uber-VC Marc Andreessen talked with the PBS journalist at the annual ad confab Advertising Week in New York, clearly in hopes of persuading brand marketers to invest much more on the No. 1 social network. Here’s a live account of what they had to say, paraphrased at times (especially when it comes to fast-talking Andreessen):

Rose asks Andreessen where advertising is heading in the Internet age.

Andreessen: People love the Internet and there’s such a powerful global phenomenon putting the world in people’s hands. We have the fundamental challenge in advertising and media: Most of the money is trapped on the wrong side. We still don’t have most of the money and advertisers moved over to online. We now can see that transition happen, particularly with mobile.

Sandberg: You went from radio to TV and print and then to online. We think Facebook represents the next stage of online and we’re still in the very beginning. Ads online today are onetime and one-way, no ongoing relationship. We’re at the very beginning of changing that. Businesses have an opportunity to change their relationships. They can establish an ongoing relationship. And members have 130 friends they can pass messages along to.

Rose: What are the challenges of mobile for Facebook?

Sandberg: Mobile is a huge opportunity for Facebook. There soon will be 5 billion phones. The engagement opportunities for us are obviously much, much higher. Our mobile users are much more engaged, and that forms the basis for monetization.

Also, the marketing messages can be put into the newsfeeds.

Rose: But does it in any way make the user unhappy?

Sandberg: We’re looking very carefully at this. We’ve been very pleased with the results. We’ve also seen a real improvement for marketers.

Rose: Has the monetization been slower than you expected?

Sandberg: Marketers understand they can’t just do the same campaigns. Then we have early adopters, and we’re working to help them understand. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Google Research: No Mobile Site = Lost Customers

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Google has increasingly pushed its advertising customers to create special mobile websites because, as we know all too well, most conventional websites look awful on a smartphone. Now, Google’s providing more research to back up its advice.

The search ad giant is hoping, of course, that the better mobile experience people have, the more they will use Google search to find sites and products. A poor mobile experience reflects badly not only on the sites but on Google searches that sent them there. That’s especially worrisome today as Facebook, to name one rival, and Twitter, to name another, double down on mobile advertising. And it happens that Google has some relatively new mobile ads to hawk as well.

So in a survey of about 1,100 U.S. adult smartphone users (not tablets, in this study) conducted by  market research firms Sterling Research and SmithGeiger and released this morning, Google offers advertising folks ammunition to get their laggard information-technology and marketing chiefs moving. A few of the highlights (or, in some cases, low points):

* Two-thirds of smartphone users say a mobile-friendly site makes them more likely to buy a company’s product or service, and 74% say they’re more likely to return to the site later. “Mobile is creating massive opportunity,” says Jason Spero, head of Google’s global mobile sales and strategy.

* 61% says that if they don’t find what they’re looking for (probably within about five seconds), they’ll click away to another site. Half say that even if they like a business, they’ll use its site less often if it doesn’t work well on their smartphone. “This is a wakeup call,” says Spero. “You will lose customers at the moments that matter” without a site specifically made for mobile devices.

* 72% of users say a mobile-friendly site is important to them, but a nearly unanimous 96% have visited sites that aren’t. “When you offer users a desktop experience on mobile,” Spero notes, “it’s kind of crap.”

Google’s advice: Create a fast mobile site with big buttons and text, keep steps to complete tasks to a minimum, and–you knew this was coming–promote the site with Google mobile ads for the two-thirds of people who use search to find a site. That last may be self-serving–though one Google mobile advertiser, online discount perfume merchant FragranceNet.com, told me that the ads were a significant factor in a 48% jump in mobile sales following its creation of a mobile site. But it’s hard to argue with the rest.

Experts Trump Friends (And Facebook) For Advice On Buying Tech Products

Problem for Facebook and Twitter?

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

To hear Facebook tell it, its Sponsored Stories, which let marketers tap people’s comments or “likes” of products to create an ad for their friends, are the future of advertising. And they’re apparently doing quite well for the social network.

But when it comes to technology products in particular, which account for more than a fifth of online advertising, friends, social networks, and even any kind of advertising all rank well below articles by experts in the field when it comes to consumers researching what to buy. That’s according to a recent survey by tech blog network NetShelter Technology Media, for which audience tracker Crowd Science polled more than 1,000 people on 74 tech blogs such as 9to5Mac, Crackberry.com, and MacRumors.

Some tidbits from the survey:

* 85% of respondents said the most useful and influential online content when they’re considering buying tech products are articles, reviews, blog posts, and videos by experts. That’s far more than 35% who cited brand content, 33% who trust family and friends, and just 6% who are most influenced by advertising.

* 70% of people said they don’t turn to Facebook, Twitter, or other social media when they want to buy a tech product. Only 9% consult a Facebook brand page, 4% consider brand “likes,” and 8% pay attention to likes or recommendations from Facebook friends.

* Email is the preferred way 69% of people like to share articles and reviews, while 37% use Facebook, 15% use Twitter, and 20% use LinkedIn. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

What Are Those Twitter Founders Up To Now? Still Not So Obvious

Biz Stone and Evan Williams, co-founders of Tw...

Biz Stone and Evan Williams (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

With Twitter apparently on a path to profits, or at least revenues, two of its cofounders are now on to other things.  Biz Stone’s and Evan Williams’ new company is Obvious, whose motto on its spare website is “We do various things.” A bit more specifically (but not much), Obvious’ goal is to “build systems that help people work together to make the world a better place.” Its first effort, called Medium, might be viewed as Twitter 2.0, seeking to figure out what to do with the firehose of information Twitter has helped create.

In a “fireside chat” with Hunter Walk, a Google director of product management working at YouTube, at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco today, Stone and Williams fleshed out their vision, admitted they didn’t get everything right at Twitter, and offered advice on how to build Internet companies today:

Q: You don’t still work at Twitter, right?

Williams: I’m on the board, but we don’t work at Twitter.

Q: It’s not an incubator, not an investment fund, and you’re building Medium. So what is Obvious?

Stone: It’s an excuse for me and Ev to work together. Really cool, good stuff comes from an organic atmosphere of working on things. We do whatever it takes to help people and projects philosophically aligned with us succeed.

We have marketing capabilities, design and engineering prowess, and money, and we deploy them wherever it makes sense.

A: Now you are older and wiser and wealthier, and parents. How does that change how you run a company?

Williams: I tried to be a ski bum when I left Twitter, but it didn’t work. We’re driven to do interesting things in the world. We decided to let it evolve as the products evolve, figure it out organically as we go. That’s satisfying. It’s a hell of a lot more fun than skiing every day.

Q: The first product you’ve come out with is Medium.

Williams: We came out with a preview, not a real product yet, a few weeks ago. We have a team of engineers working on it every day.

Medium is essentially a publishing platform, along the lines of what we’ve done before, with Xanga and Blogger. We’ve been obsessed with the democratization of media on the Internet. We just thought there’s still more stuff to do.

Q: Only a select few can publish on Medium. Why?

Williams: We want to help high-quality content succeed and get attention. Not everybody can write. It’s not to limit who can publish. It just happens to be we launched in private beta. It’s hard to throw open the doors in closed beta. It’s definitely not the ethos of Medium to be closed in any way.

Stone: We learned a few things about opening up the doors….

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Benchmark VC Matt Cohler: Mobile Ads Will Be Even Better Than Web Ads

Image representing Matt Cohler as depicted in ...

Image by Facebook via CrunchBase

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Despite rising doubts about whether mobile advertising will ever amount to much, Benchmark Capital partner Matt Cohler says he’s more jazzed than ever about the prospects.

In an interview with TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference this morning in San Francisco, the former vice president of product management at Facebook said he has made zero investments this year, though he wasn’t entirely clear why except to say he made more than the usual number last year. But he said he’s looking actively for opportunities in “mobile marketplaces,” as well as products and services that use the smartphone as a “remote control for your life.” Here’s what else he had to say, in edited form:

Q: You haven’t made any investments lately. Why?

A: I haven’t made any investments this year. Last year I made more than a typical venture investor would.

It wasn’t a single specific decision. We’re at an interesting moment in time where aspects of various platforms are starting to shift. But I’ll do it if the time is right.

Q: Do you regret not making some investments?

A: I’m sure I passed on some things that will probably be successful.

Q: You criticized Groupon awhile ago when it was hot. That looks pretty smart two years later. But you have invested in a deals site in Brazil.

A: I think daily deals are a good idea. Any ad people view as content is a good ad, and that’s true for daily-deal ads too. But I’m not sure it’s smart to build a company around that one thing. Groupon has some interesting assets. The question is what can it do with them? …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Reid Hoffman: Social Networking Isn’t Over Yet–And Neither Is Facebook

Reid Hoffman

Photo: Wikipedia

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Reid Hoffman is one of the most prolific angel investors in tech startups from Facebook and Zynga to Airbnb and Zipcar. It’s a talent he transferred to more traditional venture capital in 2009 when he joined Greylock Partners. He’s also a cofounder and executive chairman of LinkedIn.

In a “fireside chat” at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco today with TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington, who has since joined the VC world as well with his own CrunchFund, Hoffman proffered comments on everything from Facebook’s struggles to Twitter’s battles with developers. Here, paraphrased at times, is what he had to say:

Q: You are exceptionally wealthy. What changes?

A: There is a bunch of weird things. I had had a long-term plan to be affiliated with universities, like teaching. Overnight all those changed to donor relationships. Also, I would never have imagined I would fly in a private plane by myself, and now I have. It has its advantages.

Q: You wrote a book [The Startup of You]. How’s it doing?

A: It’s sold 120,000. In the consumer Internet space, we’re used to much higher numbers. I don’t think we’ve created a movement yet.

Q: You were one of the very first investors in Facebook.

A: $37,500 at a $5 million valuation. [That means he made 3,000 times his investment, or $111 million.)

Q: So you did very well. What do you think of Facebook’s stock now?

A: I’m a big believer in Facebook’s long-term position. The real question is how it plays out over the next year or so. People’s hand-wringing about not making money on mobile is an innovation problem that is not that hard to solve.

Q: Did Facebook screw up its IPO or was it inevitable it played out that way?

A: In some ways, it was inevitable. You had unprecedented demand, and you couldn’t know NASDAQ servers would go down. We at LinkedIn were criticized for leaving too much money on the table. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Uber-Entrepreneur Jack Dorsey To Startups: Don’t Just Disrupt, Start A Revolution

Image representing Jack Dorsey as depicted in ...

Image via CrunchBase

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Jack Dorsey is a latter-day legend among entrepreneurs, and no wonder. Not only did he help found Twitter, where he serves as executive chairman and head of product development, but he’s also founder and CEO of Square, which is trying to foment a revolution in payments by allowing people to use their mobile devices as wallets.

Revolution, in fact, not simply disruption of the existing way of doing things, was Dorsey’s main message in a keynote talk this morning at TechCrunch Disrupt, a startup tech conference in San Francisco. “We need to change the name of this conference,” he told thousands of attendees hanging on his every word. Here’s a sampling of what he had to say, mostly aimed at dashing precious beliefs of entrepreneurs:

I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. I never woke up one morning and thought I need to get a ticket to San Francisco. I actually wanted to be Bruce Lee.

Actually I wanted to be a sailor, to explore the world. I wanted to be a tailor, to build things myself that I could share with other. I wanted to be an artist, specificallly a surrealist.

Along the way, I realized life really happens at intersections. Literally for me. I was fascinated by cities.

I thought about founders–in particular the Founding Fathers of the United States. They realized they wouldn’t get everything right at the start. There would not be one founding moment but many. A lot of the ideas they had at the time were wrong (slavery, for example, or women’s suffrage).

So there’s a massive amount of energy spent on the founding moment. At Twitter, not so. Companies have multiple founding moments. I consider CEO Dick Costolo a founder. He’s really reconsidered everything and made the company better. Same at Square with its COO. Same at Starbucks with Howard Schultz, who was not a founder. Marissa Mayer, not a founder of Google or Yahoo, but with the drive and smarts to create another founding moment at Yahoo.

So a founder is not a job, it’s a role. An idea that can change the course of the company can come from anywhere.

Science fiction writer William Gibson said the future has already arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. Our job is to distribute the future that is already here. We need to make sure it spreads all over the world, as quickly as possible, and with the right values.

We have the change the name of this conference. What we really want is not disruption, but revolution. It pushes people to do the right thing. It doesn’t always have to be loud or violent. It’s just as powerful in its stillness.

So the key is how we recognize disruption. We want to distribute the future more quickly. We don’t want to just disrupt things and move them around. We want purpose. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Next-Generation Venture Capitalist Ben Horowitz On How To Build A Company Today

PandoMonthly - June 2012 - Sarah Lacy intervie...

Photo: thekenyeung

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Few venture capital firms have been more aggressive in recent years than Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in dozens of the hottest companies from Facebook to Groupon to Pinterest. It has become one of the largest VC firms in just the three years since it was formed by onetime Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen and his longtime partner Ben Horowitz, former CEO of Andreessen’s company’s LoudCloud, later sold as Opsware to Hewlett-Packard for $1.6 billion.

Today at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, one of the year’s largest conferences for tech entrepreneurs (streaming live here), Horowitz was interviewed by legendary Silicon Valley VC and adviser Bill Campbell, known in these parts at “Coach.” Here, paraphrased at times, is what Horowitz had to say about how best to build a company today:

Q: What do you mean by “Software eats the world” as your basic investment thesis?

A: Weak form: Software is eating the technology industry. The stronger form of the hypothesis is that software will eat every industry eventually. Retail, movies, radio and music. We see software eating every industry from agriculture to finance.

Historically, the technology industry has been sized at a certain size. Only so much new technology could be absorbed. But as software eats other industries, technology will actually expand.

Q: Apple defies some part of that with software and hardware integration. How do they do that?

A: Increasingly, such as with Amazon, it’s software, hardware, and content.

Q: Why did you go over to the dark side–venture capital?

A: I’m considered a much better CEO now that I was when I was a CEO. Venture capital had become too abstract when it came to building a business–it was about business models. When you’re building a business, it’s about the struggle and the horror. I thought it would be good to have a firm that knew how to actually build a company. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

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