What I Learned at Facebook's Non-Social Non-BBQ: Facebook Doesn't Get Social

Rob Enderle
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Back in the 90s, I was asked to attend a very exclusive meeting at Bill Gates’ family vacation home, where I spent two days with Gates and Steve Ballmer pillaging Bill’s secret Dr. Pepper stash. At the end of the event, the PR folks asked me what I thought. My response caused them to kill the event. Basically, I said two days of one-way lectures followed by one hour of “look how smart I am” questions from analysts was a waste of time. I did suggest how they could make it work, by making it a more balanced exchange, and using humor (being a wise ass when being critical isn’t a best practice). The outcome was that I got everyone voted off the island.

This is probably why I’m not asked to a lot of events like this. That, and the fact that I’m really not much of a mixer. However, it was with great interest that I went to Facebook’s Press BBQ this week, because I expected that a social event by the leading social networking company would be an incredibly educational showcase of how the leading social networking vendor could use its technology to do an amazing press event. Instead, it was almost as if social networking technology didn’t exist.

That isn’t the way it should be.

The Power of Social Networking

I think social networking products could significantly increase the engagement at media events. Historically, I’ve seen firms like Waggener Edstrom mine a media audience and create strong relationships between executives and reporters that significantly improve the nature of coverage and even provide a hedge against a negative story.  (Most folks try to avoid saying public bad things about folks they know and like.) With the depth of information that a service like Facebook captures, you’d think an event like this would be an incredible showcase of social technology in action.  It wasn’t.

Given the massive amount of money that firms are spending on social tools, you’d think you’d see them effectively used more often, but they aren’t. My working theory is that at the core of the problem is the fact that the people who create and use these tools simply don’t understand how “social” works. Engineers typically aren’t the poster children for social engagement interpersonally.

I actually think PR folks, good ones, should be at the core of these efforts. They should naturally get what is important when building or using a tool like this. The fact that these folks don’t appear to be using these tools, even at Facebook, should be one huge red flag for the company.

Engagement Old School

Like a lot of jobs, PR has people in it who want to do the job and are truly great, who want to do the job and suck at it, and who are in the job because they needed a paycheck. The great PR folks spend the time getting to know the media. You see them constantly moving at an event like the Facebook BBQ, chatting up the reporters, finding out more about them, engaging with them, and introducing them to executives who need the visibility or where a relationship will help the account. People who aren’t good at the job tend to stand in pools of peers, talking to each other and enjoying the client’s, or employer’s, free food and drink. I’ve never really understood why firms pay anyone to eat their food and drink their booze.

I’m not picking on the folks at the Facebook event, as I clearly did see a number of their PR folks working the reporters. Not all of them, though. But the point is that events like this have a purpose beyond giving reporters free stuff. (Granted, in today’s difficult market, some of the freelancers in particular appreciate a good meal.) Typically, the goal is to raise the positive profile of the firm and create relationships that will protect it. And a social tool like Facebook should be invaluable in this effort.

But if Facebook doesn’t get this, how many other companies are wasting money on social tools and don’t understand how to use them?

Using Social Networks

With access to a person’s social networking profile, you know things about them that you can use for engagement. You deduce their personality type, you know their hobbies, their marital status, whether they have kids and maybe even their ages. If they are a reporter, you should be able to pull up what they write about (most successful reporters use social media to increase the page views of their articles), and you know who their friends are.

With this baseline, you can create an action plan for an event that changes that event into something more meaningful for them and the firm. You can introduce them to executives who have similar interests, you can have executives mention articles they have written that you liked (this is actually a common practice by well-trained PR folks), you can make sure the ones with a hostile agenda aren’t roaming free, and you have the foundation for creating a deeper relationship with the reporter.

And this can apply to customers, politicians or whomever the event is targeting. Social networking was what events like this were designed to do, and they should be strengthened by products like Facebook and especially LinkedIn.

Wrapping Up: Facebook Doesn’t Get Engagement

That was my takeaway from the Facebook BBQ.  Even the talk by Mark Zuckerberg, which should have included something topical and engaging, sounded like he took the direction, “we need you to say a few words” literally. He got up for about three minutes and mentioned drones, three million users that resulted from them, and the need for better encryption to stop folks like the NSA. Then he left shortly afterwards.

Even on those topics, a bit more depth would have been important, given the controversy connecting Facebook. For instance, for those three million users, is there any evidence that their life is better for being connected? And what’s to keep the NSA from just asking for the keys under the Patriot Act? If you just toss out an unfinished idea to a bunch of reporters, it’s a crap shoot with regard to what they’ll do with it.

Instead of being a showcase of how you use social, it was an example that Facebook’s CEO wasn’t social, and that image doesn’t benefit Facebook at all.

The final irony was that at the Facebook BBQ, there was no actual BBQ. (sigh…)

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