June 11, 2012

Facebook’s biggest barrier to enormous wealth? Trust


Image by RedKoala on BigStockPhoto

 

Why Facebook will find it hard to monetize the social graph

This is first of a three-part series on Facebook as an investment. Coming up:
Facebook will remain king, but social pure plays will fade
Brands: How to cut your exposure to Facebook business risk

Christopher RollysonIf Facebook’s stock price were based on the number of blog posts about its IPO, the company would be in great shape, but too few posts have addressed Facebook’s real barrier to monetizing its business, so we will rectify that here. 

Although Facebook is a fantastic social venue and platform, I did not buy into Facebook and do not plan to invest in its stock. (The stock price is down 30 percent from its debut on May 18.) Facebook‘s Achilles heel is a significant trust gap with its users, and now, its investors. Its trust gap will make it difficult for Facebook management to fully monetize its most unique asset, its users’ social graph data. Moreover, the management team has not shown the insight or willingness to address this barrier.

Why lack of trust is Facebook’s Achilles heel

That Facebook has a spotty trust profile with users is an understatement. Its management has a history of being cavalier with users’ data. Although many have argued this point, I’ve observed that Facebook’s policies have been mostly legal, but trust is independent of legality. Facebook’s management has gotten better about “considering” users during the past year or so, but such consideration has felt compliant and not entirely voluntary.

This matters. Although I have no inside information about Facebook’s technology or strategy, my knowledge of user social data and its value in developing relationships leads me to deduce that Facebook’s gold mine is its unique knowledge of users’ social graphs. Just play around with Facebook ads. Only Facebook knows what California physics undergrads prefer in music, movies and running shoes. Who their friends and hobbies are, and when they post their running updates. And what moms with 3.2 kids who went to Berkeley think about whales or global warming or Republican budget proposals.

When users discover how Facebook intends to use their personal information, they will see red. This is Facebook’s biggest risk.

The problem is, although I’m sure Facebook has employed some of the best attorneys for a long time, and user agreements give Facebook the “right” to use social data however they want, we have all witnessed that users themselves revolt when they perceive that they have been duped. And when they discover how Facebook intends to use their personal information (that they have willingly, if ignorantly, surrendered, by the way), they will undoubtedly see red. This is Facebook’s biggest risk. It’s not a legal issue, it’s a trust and relationship issue. Continue reading