From Facebook to Fadebook

In May this year I made an amateur estimate of Facebook’s valuation at the time of the IPO and ended up with a number that looked crazy; my maths told me the stock price should be more like $7 rather than $40. It has now dropped sub $20 and falling with widely held views the value will continue to fall as employees start dumping stock after their lock in period ends. My $7 is not looking quite so crazy now.

I have to accept that I am operating without the knowledge and skills of the legions of advisers Facebook rely upon but nevertheless standing back from the emotional sentiment of the brand which fuels expectations I still do not understand the basic economic structure of their business model. Further I also wonder if these experiences will temper the appetite for further IPO’s in the social media space.

It seems to me there exist a number of fundamental flaws not being factored in to the speculative expectations.

With any fund raising exercise great effort goes in to creating forecasts to attract investors. For ease of the maths lets assume Facebook has one billion users. Currently Facebook generates around $4 billion of revenue, around $4 per user per annum. There will exist spreadsheets that speculate on the growth of both users and revenue per head. The bet is on what might happen, not what has happened; so the gamble is on jacking up the revenue per head from $4 to say $10 and onwards. It will look like a ‘no-brainer’ on the spreadsheets but it isn’t a slam dunk, getting the revenue up is crucial to justify the IPO valuation.

My observation is quite basic and fundamental to the future development of Facebook and other social networks. It is based on corporate culture.

Amazon sells stuff on-line so the culture is all about the customer. I think they have a superb customer service operation, getting in touch with them is very easy and they deal with problems in double quick time. Recently I ordered some CD’s, one didn’t arrive, I told them via email and they dispatched a replacement the same day via 1st class post and it arrived the next morning. Brilliant and I felt good about Amazon.

Try getting in touch with LinkedIn. Impossible. The volume of complaints is massive all focused on the same issue; “I have a problem and I can’t find anyone to help me”. My ‘account’ on LinkedIn has suddenly disappeared, I have been deleted, erased, removed, and I cannot find any way of getting LinkedIn to talk to me.

I’ve just had the same experience with Facebook; someone is pretending to be me with my email address and password and again trying to get to anyone at Facebook is very, very challenging so I’ve resorted to deleting my account.

The difference between Amazon and Facebook is the orientation of the company in relation to their user base. Amazon would die if their customer’s had constant bad experiences, they would just stop using them and go elsewhere. With Facebook they don’t have the same motivation hence their ‘customer’ service is poor, just like LinkedIn.

I realise the argument would be Facebook isn’t an ‘e-tailer’, it’s a platform that provides social interaction, however the longer term relationship with the users will impact on the reputation and ultimately the success of the brand.  I wonder if on the Facebook campus the staff are inwardly focused rather than outwardly focused? Do they assume their user base will just keep growing? Is historic growth a cause of complacency?

The obvious unanswered question is will Facebook generate the level of revenues that could see the stock price recover over time? Currently there is little evidence to help answer the question. The killer issue is whether advertisers’ confidence provide the revenue required and at the moment the jury is out. There are several reasons why. First the ‘fit’ between the philosophy of Facebook and commercial advertising is not a comfortable one for many users; secondly there are insufficient metrics to support effectiveness of advertising on Facebook and thirdly the ‘demand’ for Facebook has a sense of fragility – just like share prices user  numbers could go down as well as up.

In my view Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter et al need to learn from other successful brands where customer service is paramount to the longer term health of their business. Traditional brands who have neglected customer service have suffered severely in more trying economic times; social networks need to begin thinking about marketing challenges such as user numbers hitting a plateau, having a retention strategy, figuring out acquisition of users in a competitive market and making money.

Once a story appears in the business press that re-brands Facebook to Fadebook the pressures will escalate. Time for some world class marketing, maybe take a leaf out of Apple’s book.


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