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A Morning Lecture at Berkeley: Facebook, Time to Find the Value for the Individual

By - December 03, 2007

If you’ve read The Search, you know that my fascination with media and technology flowered while an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, in the Anthropology department. From my first real book related post on Searchblog:

Back in the mid 80s I was an undergraduate in Cultural Antropology, and I had a class – taught by the late Jim Deetz,which focused on the idea of material culture – basically, interpreting the artifacts of everyday life. It took the tools of archaeology – usually taught only in the context of civilizations long dead – and merged them with the tools of Cultural Anthropology, which interpreted living cultures. He encouraged us to see all things modified by man as expressions of culture, and therefore as keys to understanding culture itself. I began to see language, writing, and most everyday things in a new light – as reflecting the culture which created them, and fraught with all kinds of intent, contreversies, politics, relationships. It was a way to pick up current culture and hold it in your hand, make sense of it, read it.

At the same time I was making extra money beta testing some software on a brand spanking new Mac, vintage 1984. Anthropology and technology merged, and I became convinced that the Mac represented mankind’s most sophisticated and important artifact ever – a representation of the plastic mind made visible. (Yeah, college – exhaaaaale – wasn’t it great!).

Anyway, today thanks to Professor Marti Hearst, I was invited back to Berkeley to lecture on search, media, and technology. And man, what a blast. Talking with 75 or so undergraduates (and a few grad students and others) for two hours helped me crystallize a few ideas that have been kicking around in my head lately.

As I started my talk (it’ll be available as a podcast (scroll down) on the UC site soon), I asked everyone with a Facebook account to raise their hand. Nearly everyone did. Not a surprise.

I then went through some of my tried and true thinking on Web 2, search as interface, and the like. But I came back to the idea of economics, and how people make money on the Web. I was really surprised at how interested the students were in this topic. The class is called “Search Engines: Technology, Society, and Business” (how perfect is *that*?), and the students were pretty smart on how Google makes money via Adwords and Adsense. But when I asked about Facebook’s new social ad platform, only a smattering of folks had even heard of it.

I was a bit surprised, given that this was Facebook’s core audience, after all. So I outlined how it works, why it’s an interesting and potentially important evolutionary step beyond search ads, and in particular I explained how Beacon works.

I then aired one of the questions about Facebook’s platform that has been rattling around my head for a while: Will users of Facebook see the sharing of their purchase decisions across the web with Facebook friends as valuable?

For me, anyway, the key to social ads is this: do the ads *add value* to the lives of the people who interact with them? I think the jury is way, way out on this question when it comes the current rev of the Facebook system. So I asked the students this question: “How many of you are interested in telling your friends, via your newsfeed or in some other way, about purchases you make on the web?”

Not one hand went up.

I then rephrased the question. What if sharing your purchase decisions meant that, say, you got a $5 credit in your “Facebook bucks” account that you could spend at Amazon, or for ringtones, or whatever?

About a third of the hands went up. Interesting.

We then went into Q&A, and an older gentleman who was auditing the class asked about philanthropy. He observed that while folks might not want to share their crass consumer purchases, they might want to share information about how they donated to particular causes. Another student mentioned that she would see the value of sharing certain kinds of information, including purchases, with certain groups of friends, but not others.

In other words, it’s clear that Facebook’s current system is simply not granular enough, at least for my focus group of Berkeley students.

But it didn’t stop there. I started to think about that gentleman’s observation about philanthropy, as it relates to how major brands are now approaching their roles as marketers. Steve Hayden, the vice chairman of Ogilvy, a major ad agency, noted at the Conversational Marketing Summit that brands must stand for something – that they must in fact differentiate by adding value to the lives of customers who might otherwise buy a competing product. The classic case of this is the Dove campaign for real beauty.

I asked the class again, might you be open to sharing your purchases of brands if those brands were somehow aligned with your core values, and perhaps, through your purchase, those values were furthered or expressed? The class seemed quite supportive of the idea.

I think therein lies a very important lesson. If marketers want to succeed in the world of Facebook (ie, the world of Conversational Media), they need to add value to the lives of consumers via their marketing. So far, I am not certain Facebook’s ad platform does that. But I’m willing to be that in the next few revisions, it will.

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6 thoughts on “A Morning Lecture at Berkeley: Facebook, Time to Find the Value for the Individual

  1. Josh says:

    I’ve been thinking that Facebook has an opportunity to involve itself in the most social form of commerce we have– gift giving. Why doesn’t Facebook combine all of this personal data they have about people to help me figure out what my friends and family would like for Christmas?

    Gifting is a social activity, and it’s far more interesting for me to see product/brand purchases in the context of what my friends are getting for each other, as opposed to what they’re buying for themselves.

  2. Lauren Abercrombie says:

    Dear Mr. Battelle:
    It was great having you come to our class today. I am a mass comm major taking i141 and it turned out to be one of my favorite classes that I have taken at Cal. I feel that it is just so pertinent and useful. Anyway, I have also thoroughly enjoyed your book, often opting out of my core class readings so that I can read ahead in your chapters. I also feel that you, as a Cal alum, are very inspiring figure to us undergrads. Thanks again for speaking in our class!

  3. blurb says:

    If all brands (and their stewards) would realize that when the brand is meaningful to people that in and of itself can inform everything the brand does, like embracing a completely different notion of what advertising is and can be.

    Great post!

    p.s. My first paragraph sounds awfully non-cynical. One can hope, right?

  4. nmw says:

    John, how much would you pay me to post something really intelligent?

    ;P nmw

  5. Martha says:

    Mr. Battelle

    Thank you for coming to speak in our i141 course. I found your lecture extremeley fascinating and invigorating!! Hands down one of the best lectures I have heard at CAL! I’m glad that you discuss the importance of entering into the realm of “this” generation and the cultural revolution via the internet. I believe that grasping this element is key in understanding the future of marketing. Your suggestions for new marketing business models that take into consideration the new “real” home pages i.e. Google results, are incredibly exciting! I look forward to seeing how my generation’s cultural revolution will play out.

    Thank you again for your fabulous lecture!!

  6. Jordan Mitchell says:

    I recently “guest lectured” at the University of Washington Business School — a class on Entrepreneurial Marketing. It was a kick, and I’m SURE glad no one called me MR Mitchell!

    Great great post — thanks for sharing.

    Just Jordan, please / http://kickstand.typepad.com