Getting Down to Business on the Social Web

Engaging the collective is one thing, doing something constructive is something else. I came across two good examples of this recently, both built around the social Web and the idea of the collective intelligence. One was the changes to Facebook’s advertisement feedback tools; the other was the op-ed Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote and the reaction to it on the social Web.

Facebook’s Ad Feedback Tools

Searching for a sustainable revenue model, Facebook has continued to tweak its advertising program. I’m actually a big fan of this program. It’s one of the best reasons to be present — from an awareness-oriented marketing perspective — on Facebook. Consider that Facebook’s member data is actually pretty solid. In particular, the platform is nearly useless if you fabricate your persona, so members tend to be relatively truthful about who they are. This means that, as a marketer, you can use the demographic data available through Facebook’s advertiser’s program to accurately target your ads. That’s great.

On the member side, Facebook has long had a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down voting and feedback system that enabled members to rate ads and thereby (presumably) influence what they saw on subsequent visits. That seemed great, too, as it enabled members to quickly and easily vote down what they thought was offensive, tasteless, deceptive, or irrelevant and vote up just as easily what they found engaging, relevant, or otherwise helpful. What advertiser wouldn’t love having that kind of information?

Evidently, not the current crop.

That simple feedback mechanism has now been replaced with a “thumbs up” that is essentially in its original spot right below the ad and a new, unmarked “X,” which you’d think would be “close this” but actually means “open this,” on the diagonally opposite corner. These usability challenges appear quite intentional. In design terms, “diagonally opposite” means “put this as far away as you can while still being bounded by a square.” Now to provide negative feedback, members are expected to click the “X,” which opens a dialogue box that accepts feedback as to why a specific ad was not found useful.

A simple, quick “I like this”/”I don’t like this” has been replaced with a simple “I like this” and a relocated, more complex “I don’t like this.” Regardless of which conspiracy theories you subscribe to, this type of redesign will almost surely result in the suppression of negative comments while favoring positives.

This actually works against the quality advertisers that Facebook desperately needs. From an advertiser’s perspective, data that magically looks better than it really is isn’t an effective indicator that ad targeting or relevance adjustments are meeting audience needs. Advertisers should want as much information as they can get that provides real insight rather than information gathered in a manner that tips the results toward the positive.

Here’s the central issue: listening to your customers doesn’t always result in stories you want to hear. Customers can and will say anything, positive and negative. Real gains come by listening carefully so that you can actually steer your ads, your message, your business in the direction that your audience will find favorable. The basic feedback loop on the social Web is listen, learn, change, and benefit. By changing the data — instead of changing what drives it — short circuits the entire feedback loop.

Ultimately, superficially dampening negative conversations rather than embarking on a Facebook-backed effort to improve its ads thwarts building an ad program that more mainstream Fortune 500 companies would want to be part of in a big way. I talked about a similar issue around social network spam here recently as I related the SES San Jose Black Hat vs. White Hat discussion about social networking platform operators playing an active, leading role in reducing spam within the networks themselves. Rather than stepping up, Facebook made it harder for its members to say, “I don’t appreciate this ad.”

Whole Foods’ Op-Ed

Whole Foods Market’s CEO, John Mackey, wrote an op-ed that resulted in a boycott driven in part by a savvy use of social media.

What I found interesting was not Mackey’s statement per se, nor the reaction of those who disagreed. That much was expected. People are entitled to their views and are to be commended for stating them plainly in the spirit of debate. Likewise, the social Web empowers everyone (at least those with access to it) more or less equally. Those who organized the boycott against Whole Foods Market are also to be respected for a smart response.

For me, the interesting thing is the clear role the mainstream social Web now occupies. Building beyond the opening discussion and boycott, clearly facilitated by the social Web, the initial conversation may next give way to actual dialogue between Mackey and those who share his opinion, and the boycotters and its supporters. It is in this second step — beyond the empowerment to openly engage — that the social Web really pays off. It’s all about open and honest debate, feedback, learning, and, ultimately, better choices.

The jury is still out, but the signs look good. More open discussion is actually happening. The challenge is for both sides to take their thinking to the next level, to tap the social Web and engage, and to actually advance the dialogue that we all need around fundamentally important issues, such as healthcare, that impact us and those who will follow us. That kind of discussion is what social media and the larger social Web are all about.

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