George Bernard Shaw once said, "The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them."
The assumption that we travel consultants must all buy into placing our business on Facebook is now so prevalent, so mainstream an idea, so comfortable a piece of clothing that I wonder if we've reached the point of no return regarding this cult of social media.
Ask any gathering of industry folks what they want to see on the agenda, and you can bet the farm -- or, more accurately, the condo -- that social media will be the top response. It has become so ingrained in the long-range tactical thinking in our industry that being on Facebook is now viewed as the primary way to reach clients who wish to take a trip virtually anywhere.
We've all been drinking the same Kool-Aid originally mixed up in Mark Zuckerberg's apartment, but at the risk of being the last Facebook skeptic in the room, I have to tell you I'm not quite ready to turn the lights off.
Let's look at the big picture first, before delving into some of the reasons that a serious time commitment to Facebook might not necessarily be in your agency's best interest.
What we're looking at is another orb, another galaxy in which we, quite virtually, bring the world into our offices and our homes. Facebook is, at its heart, a digital launchpad that, as Rebecca MacKinnon points out on Slate.com, is a sphere "largely built, owned and operated by private companies."
Anyone in denial about Facebook's influence, indeed dominance of our means of communication, need only look at one simple fact: Pretend for a moment that Facebook were a country. It would have, based on the number of users, 800 million or so "residents," making it the third biggest country on the planet, just after India and China. In order to call proper attention to the worldwide scope of this new "country," MacKinnon suggests that we refer to it as "Facebookistan." One can only hope that both Sacha Baron Cohen and Michael Moore are planning films about this new destination.
But there is one quite disturbing aspect to this new place that so many people inhabit and to where so many businesses plan to move permanently. It is run by a management team on a new, 57-acre campus in Menlo Park, Calif., led by a guru who preaches re-engineering society by means of something called "radical transparency."
What this really means is that if you subscribe to Facebook, you are supporting the notion that we all would be better off if everyone on the planet were more transparent about what we do, what we think and who we are. In other words, the future of mankind is tied to the end of privacy.
It's easy to dismiss contemplation of a Facebook future in extreme terms. In fact, if the history of technological design is any indicator, Facebook's days might be numbered, since it has one significant business flaw. It manufactures nothing. It really creates nothing. All it really does is accumulate stuff that it can then sell. Two problems there:
What is truly unique about Facebook, the fatal flaw that every travel agency owner and supplier ought to seriously consider, is the end product. What this company accumulates to sell is the Facebook user. If you're on Facebook, the data you generate about yourself is the only stuff this for-profit megacorporation has to sell to make a buck.
So how, you might ask, will you be sold? How will the information provided by our travel clients be mined, extricated, bartered and used against them in an ever-growing maze of strategic, personalized advertising?
The trouble is we don't know the answer to those questions, yet we potentially place our clients in harm's way by encouraging their participation in the process.
The second problem is that, to date, Facebook has not been a stock market favorite. Since the company creates nothing tangible and is largely dependent on the goodwill of its users and their willingness to subscribe to Zuckerberg's "privacy out the window" value system, investors have started taking a more critical look at how well Facebook has been selling its product (i.e., you).
The answer is: not very well. The ads just aren't selling as well as some had predicted.
"Wait!" the folks at corporate headquarters protest. "When more of our core users start using smartphones and mobile devices, the ad rates will go up, and we'll have a better product to sell."
Actually, Facebook doesn't really sell you. It doesn't want you. It wants the data your personal or business existence generates. It sells data about you, and to push up its stock price, that data will have to vastly improve. Make no mistake, improvements are coming at a pace that makes Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" seem like slow motion. As we speak, Facebook users are having their lives fed intravenously to advertisers seeking to pinpoint their messaging.
The sheer impact of Facebook on travel marketing and advertising cannot be denied, but there are some considerations for the small-business owner who is rushing with the rest of the social media lemmings to the edge of the Facebook cliff. So, let me end this first of a two-part series with a few questions that I think any business considering making the Facebook leap of faith ought to ask:
- Do I have the funds and the time just to deal with the security implications inherent in living my business in Facebookistan?
- Do I want to tell the world that I am hungry, nay, desperate, for new clients to the degree that I will sacrifice the image of my company to plead for "likes" and possible reputation enhancement?
- Am I certain that my time would be better spent spewing my messages into a cosmos of "banter" when I could be using time I commit to Facebook to actually talk with clients and potential clients on a regular basis?
Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].