Facebook, Sears, and Kodak

When I was a lad several decades ago, many Americans did their shopping at Sears and took their pictures with Kodak film (I can explain “film” to you youngsters if need be). More recently, my kids might have shopped at American Apparel or Claire’s. What all of those formerly huge companies have in common is that they are all nearly dead. The reasons for that range from bad management to dumb financial deals to changing tastes to the digital revolution. In every case, however, I think there is a common thread of a failure to understand their customers in the context of the customers’ changing world.

We have something similar going on in my mind with Facebook. It’s huge and seems invulnerable but one might have said the same thing about Kodak or Sears 50 years ago. First, think about how the world is changing for their customers. Privacy has moved from something that digital folk like me were babbling about many years ago to something that is on everyone’s mind. In an April survey of 1,051 US adult internet users by Janrain, most respondents said they are not in favor of websites or apps using what they learn about them online to target ads. In fact, 70% of them want some very restrictive laws, similar to the E.U.’s GDPR, passed here. I don’t think there is any doubt that a tech backlash is going on and the more consumers and lawmakers find out about the sloppy (at best), invasive, and maybe criminal (at worst) data use by large tech companies, the greater that backlash is going to become.

Facebook’s entire business is built around invading your privacy. Two points from eMarketer:

More people are becoming suspicious of sharing data through third parties. In a March 2018 survey from Raymond James, more than eight in 10 US internet users said they were at least somewhat concerned about how their personal data is being used on Facebook. Similarly, in a Gallup survey of 785 Facebook users in April 2018, 43% said they were very concerned about invasion of privacy. That’s an increase of 30% in 2011.

What has resulted is that people, especially young people, are sharing less content. The entire reason Facebook is valuable for most people is that content that their friends, classmates, and family post. It’s the network effect – that value of the network relates to the number of people on that network.

I’m not shorting Facebook stock today but I’m not so sure that unless they get their privacy house in order that won’t be a bad play down the road. Less content means fewer active users which leads to less revenue. Will they all move to Instagram (a Facebook company)? Maybe, but probably not since that’s not what’s occurring now. As each day brings a new headline involving a bad actor and data, another nail gets pounded into the coffins of companies that don’t respect their customers’ privacy and wishes. Privacy and data use are no longer just food for geek chats. They’re on the front page. How long can Facebook or any company last if they don’t figure this out? Longer than Sears or Kodak?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media, Reality checks

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