Yesterday Facebook released new tools to help improve users’ control of Facebook sharing and data.  The reaction to these new tools has been generally very positive (and, in my opinion, deservedly so).  But there's been some interesting buzz among social media gurus, particularly about problems with the new Facebook Groups functionality.  These gripes seem to be based less on a consideration of how the average consumer will use Groups than on a set of use cases and problems unique to social media professionals.  In short, I worry social media specialists are making the classic mistake that trips up marketers time and again: You are not the target market!

I believe there are three reasons that social media professionals may end up judging new tools based on their biases and not upon the potential use and adoption by the average consumer.  These reasons are:

  • Social media professionals are Creators and Conversationalists: Creators create the content that others consume in social venues, and Conversationalists post frequent status updates. Social media professionals are (not surprisingly) big Creators and Conversationalists, but the average consumer is not–fewer than one in four online adults in the US have Creator behaviors and fewer than one in three are Conversationalists. 

    If social media professionals fail to recognize how their habits differ from the average person's, this causes a problem. When a new social tool is released, we innate Creators and Conversationalists race into it and do what we do best–post and talk!  But this explosion of content and interactivity doesn't furnish the same experience that is available to the average consumer.  For example, when Google Wave was released, a stampede of social media Creators and Conversationalists rushed into the tool, found a number of like-minded individuals and interesting interactions, and pronounced it the next Twitter; less than a year later Google pulled the plug on the standalone version of Wave.

    In a similar vein, I had an interesting experience evaluating Facebook Groups yesterday: After one hour, I quit the very first group to which I was invited.  Does this mean I feel Facebook Groups is a failure?  No, because this group consisted of social media professionals, and I quit because the constant flow of notifications and chats was annoying and got in the way of interacting with friends and family. Facebook Groups is perfectly aligned with the way the average consumer will use it but is a very poor community tool for social media addicts.  When a member of a bowling team shares a team schedule with her Group or a member of a family Group chats with sisters and cousins, Facebook Groups shines; but when a hundred self-promoting, broadcast-addicted, networking-obsessed social media ninjas share every blog post or turn the group chat into a constant stream of chatter, Facebook Groups fails. 

  • Social media professionals have enormous networks:  Another reason social media professionals can have difficulty relating to the needs and experiences of the average person is that we have tremendous networks.  I follow 8,678 people on Twitter, but the average Twitter user follows just 77 people according to recent Forrester research on social media clutter. Not only does this difference affect the number of tweets I receive, but it has a profound impact on who I follow closely and how I engage on Twitter.  I am not the average Twitter user. 

    Today a respected social media expert bashed Facebook Groups because people were inviting him into groups, and that meant he was getting lots of Facebook updates he didn’t want. The reason for this is that by default anyone who is invited into a Group automatically becomes a member, so one must opt out rather than opt in. There is good reason to debate if this is an appropriate default (and perhaps Facebook will change it after Michael Arrington and Mark Zuckerberg were automatically added to a pro-pedophile Group). But to truly evaluate whether this default is good or bad, we need to consider this not from the standpoint of someone who follows almost 40,000 folks on Twitter but rather someone who is connected with 99.8% fewer people. While those of use who are widely networked may be annoyed at having to decline a dozen Facebook Groups invitations, the average consumer probably won’t be as frustrated being automatically added to a Group for their family or book club. 

  • Social media professionals worry about monetization:  How will Facebook and Twitter make money?  Most people don’t really care (at least until ads start diminishing the experience), but those of us in the field of social media have to care.  We earn our keep, in part, by understanding the business models of social networks.  The fact that we know how Facebook and Twitter generate revenue allows us to recommend paid media plans, develop applications on their platforms and advise clients on smart social strategies.  But this focus on monetization also makes us a pretty suspicious bunch.

    Even though there’s no evidence Facebook Groups creates an immediate or obvious revenue opportunity for Facebook, a Twitter friend of mine immediately accused Groups of being a “Trojan Horse” to deliver “old-fashioned advertisements.”  It’s not that he’s definitely wrong–Groups may be a way for Facebook to increase revenue–but I find it difficult to consider this helpful new functionality, which allows people to better control who can see their posts and information, and portray it as more harmful than beneficial for users. 

    A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet with Dick Costolo, Twitter’s new CEO, when Twitter released its new browser interface. One of the questions I asked is if the new interface would allow Twitter to earn more money from Promoted Tweets and Trends, and I could see it frustrated Dick to have the organization’s motives questioned when he and the team were clearly very excited about enhancing the experience of millions of people. Dick's a seasoned executive and Twitter stands to make a lot of money so that frustration is the least of his problems, but my conversation made me consider if social media professionals are too quick to attribute greed rather than customer focus as the driving force behind each new social tool and feature.

It’s not a condemnation that social media experts have biases–we all have biases.  But it’s important we be aware of these biases and walk a mile in another man’s shoes before we heap praise or criticism upon new social network features or tools.  Social media strategies and applications cannot be evaluated from the perspective of people who are wired into them every waking moment but must be considered from the standpoint of the vast number of casual users who constitute the majority.