Facebook co-brands with President Obama

“God, we’ve never done this. I don’t know where to stand.”

Those were the words of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as she kicked off a town hall Facebook hosted for President Barack Obama today. The town hall, streamed live and followed avidly on Twitter, was a marketing coup for both Facebook and the president – maybe the pinnacle of co-branding.

For about an hour, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg fielded questions for the president from employees at Facebook’s headquarters and from those of us watching from the digital world. As a political forum, the town hall was fairly bland. But I think it was a successful marketing event for these reasons:

1. Facebook elevated its stature from social media leader to national influencer.

And Zuckerberg knew it.

“I’m kind of nervous,” he admitted. “We have the president of the United States here.”

In addition to moderating questions, Zuckerberg interjected his own views on occasion, voicing support for Obama’s stance on educational reform. For his part, Obama acknowledged Facebook’s influence more than once when he cited the times he’s met with Zuckerberg and Sandberg to compare notes on issues of the day.

2. Facebook gave Obama an audience with the affluent high-tech industry, and those of us living in Facebook’s orbit – nothing to sneeze at, considering Facebook’s reach with 500 million people.

And Obama took advantage of the moment, playing to the audience by advocating issues such as energy, immigration, and healthcare reform.

“We want more Andy Groves in the United States,” he said at one point. “We don’t want the next Intel launched in China.”

Jennifer Preston of the New York Times went so far as to ask on Twitter, “Will other presidential candidates seeking election in 2012 get same opportunity w/Facebook livestream townhall? Is this in-kind donation?”

It was the kind of forward-thinking communications approach that helped Obama get elected president.

3. The format was low risk.

Facebook is like a self-autonomous country. What does Facebook have to lose by getting involved in a town hall with the president? It’s not like Facebook followers are going to delete their accounts if they dislike Obama.

What if you are not Facebook, though? Would hosting a major political in a town hall be good for your brand? Certainly it would if you have an agenda to promote or you seek to elevate your stature. If you played host to a town hall as carefully choreographed as this one was, the risk would not be as high as you might think.

Today’s event was not so much about Zuckerberg and Obama cozying up to each other but rather Facebook borrowing brand equity from the office of the president and the president acting as the gracious guest to a country of 500 million.

Social media immaturity

Social media platforms like Facebook are like the American healthcare system: useful so long as you remain perfectly healthy for your entire life. But if you sneeze, you might be royally screwed.

Doing business with Facebook is like getting service at a public clinic. At best, the company provides indifferent service if you have a problem (assuming you can even get a human being at Facebook to respond to you). And the company is notorious for making seemingly random changes that frustrate its fast growing user base.

As a software executive once told me, “The problem with Facebook is that it’s run by a bunch of kids who have too much power to make important changes without thinking through the impact on its business partners. They lack the experience to manage some of the fundamentals of doing business, like communicating clearly how its technology developments and changes to setting will affect others.”

I don’t know how much youth is the factor at Facebook as much as a lack of maturity and sensitivity. In a recent blog post, Steve Furman made a similar comment: “just when you think things are getting there, Facebook makes a major change to the design, or code, or interface and suddenly much of what you have made is now broken, or will no longer be useful to you. It’s frustrating, and should cause all brands to take a step back and re-evaluate the role external social networks should play in their company strategy.”

But Facebook isn’t the only social media titan lacking a grasp of service.

Since mid-February, my Foursquare posts have stopped appearing on my Facebook wall. Finding any help from Foursquare has been just about impossible. It’s so-called support page is nothing more than a DYI ghetto without any path to really getting a reply from anyone at Foursquare. Recently I resorted to complaining on Twitter. At least I got a reply:

My first reaction was, “Hey – don’t whine about how hard it is for you to keep up with your 7.5 million users.” And then I did try @4SqSupport. I received a few suggestions for tips, but they did not work. I have since started to use Gowilla.

Even worse is the way social media publishing site Issuu deals with customer service problems. I recently encountered a problem and was directed to an FAQ page that was even less helpful than Foursquare’s.

To address a question not covered on the FAQ, I was routed to Getsatisfaction.com/issuu, where I was required to create my own user profile just to ask a question:

Several weeks later, I’ve not found an answer to my question. And I’m not satisfied.

So what’s the answer here? Just accept the fact that poor responsiveness is the price we pay for free sites like Facebook? I don’t think so. Facebook, Twitter, and its social media cousins have been around too long, and their brands have become too visible, for consumers to accept poor service. To paraphrase this post by Nicole Ferraro about Twitter’s own problems, the time has come for social media to grow up.

Cirque du Soleil: too much LOVE

While I was shopping for blue jeans at Target this weekend, I came across a surprising find: official T shirts from the Beatles Cirque du Soleil LOVE show on sale for $12.99, and wedged like excess stock on a rack of music merchandise.

Although making official LOVE merchandise available at Target might provide a short-term dividend for Cirque du Soleil, I believe the approach is a long-term mistake. Cirque du Soleil packages LOVE as a high-end experience. Part of the appeal of seeing the show — and a big reason why people are willing to pay $70-to-$150 for a ticket — is the chance to enjoy the legacy of the Beatles in a way you cannot elsewhere.

The show occurs in a theater-in-the-round custom-made for the act in the Las Vegas Mirage. Just outside the theater, you can find exclusive (and expensive) merchandise at the LOVE boutique (an irresistible destination) and grab a drink at the Revolution lounge.

There is no other way you an experience LOVE unless you are in Las Vegas. And LOVE is an experience well rendered.

Selling LOVE T shirts at Target cheapens the Cirque du Soleil LOVE brand. You don’t think “upscale” when you find LOVE merchandise carelessly tossed on a rack as you stroll the aisles of Target looking for mayonnaise, shampoo, and $20 blue jeans. And the Cirque du Soleil LOVE brand loses its aura of exclusivity, too.

I am reminded of what happened to Krispy Kreme. Once upon a time, going to a Krispy Kreme store was really cool. The only outlet in the western suburbs of Chicago was located miles from our home, and we went out of our way to go there. The service was great. Watching the donuts made was a hoot. And the donuts themselves were delicious. But seemingly overnight, Krispy Kreme saturated the market. A store opened closer to our home. You could find Krispy Kremes stocked in grocery stores. The brand was no longer special. And the brand failed.

Krispy Kreme was by no means an upscale brand like LOVE, but it was just as special in its own way. It will be interesting to see if Cirque du Soleil LOVE remains special.

How a $50 iPod Shuffle cost me $1,000

The Apple product experience does not always live up to the Apple brand name. Case in point: recently my daughter purchased an iPod Shuffle after carefully saving $50 in her piggy bank. Her excitement was palpable as we made our purchase at a nearby Apple Store. As I drove us home to activate the product, she made a lengthy list of all Lady Gaga songs she wanted to start playing.

Excitement turned to frustration when we tried to activate the device via the required synchronization with iTunes on our family MacBook. Here’s what happened:

1. iTunes told us we needed to update to a more recent version of iTunes to activate the iPod Shuffle.

2. When we tried to update iTunes, we discovered that we needed a newer MacBook operating system (for a price, of course, far exceeding the cost of the iPod Shuffle).

3. Getting a newer operating system would require buying a memory upgrade for our computer — also for a price exceeding the value of the iPod Shuffle. The folks at our Apple Store told us we’d either need to buy and install our own memory upgrade or wait a month if we wanted Apple to do it for us. (Apple was out of stock of its own memory upgrade).

The new operating system and memory upgrade would set us back considerably. The prospect of installing our own memory or waiting a month for Apple to do it felt as feasible as either losing our car for a month or fixing our own engine.

We consulted a few trusted Mac experts who told us we were better off buying a new MacBook for $1,000 than trying to upgrade our memory and operating system. The latter approach would risk incurring performance problems with our current MacBook and make it harder for us to keep pace with enhancements to the Apple operating system.

So we have a new MacBook, and guess what? Now I need to look for a new printer because the newest generation of Macs is not compatible with my HP LaserJet model.

Ironically my ancient Philips disc player delivers a superior product experience. To play it, I simply insert a disc and press “play.” No wonky synchronization with a computer required. And the sound quality of the disc is superior to the muddy MP3 file format that you must endure to hear digital music on an iPod. Neither must I worry about new digital formats rendering music files obsolete, which is a major problem facing the music industry.

Recently Dan Frommer identified three Apple vulnerabilities in an insightful CNN analysis. One point resonated with me:

Apple has been bragging about how the iPad 2 is a “post-PC” device, but you still need to plug it into a computer to activate and sync it. The easiest way to get photos off your iPhone is to email them to yourself. You still can’t sync your iTunes music over Wi-Fi or 3G. This is a shame.

Apple needs to think about the cloud the way Google does — as the future of mobile services. You shouldn’t be tied to a USB cord to access files. You shouldn’t need a PC to use a “post-PC” iPad. You shouldn’t have to email a map link from your computer to your iPhone.

Yeah, you might say I agree with Dan. Apple has a well deserved reputation for being ahead of the curve and creating needs we did not know existed. When it comes to supporting our mobile lifestyles, it’s time for Apple to start delivering on its brand promise.

Does Myspace have a future?

The future certainly looks bleak for MySpace. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that advertisers are wary of Myspace and cited companies such as PepsiCo, which has not run an ad on Myspace since 2009. And according to comScore, the volume of Myspace site visitors has dropped by 44 percent in a year.

With News Corp. attempting to sell the one-time social media darling, does Myspace even have a future? It might. Here are three ways Myspace can improve its chances of survival:

1. Clean up its site

The new owner of Myspace (whoever that adventurous soul turns out to be) needs to address a fundamental problem: the Myspace user experience sucks. It’s almost as if Myspace decision makers sat down and asked, “How can we design a site that alienates as many people as we can?”

Even after undergoing a redesign, the site is notoriously difficult to navigate, the layout is messy, and the personal accounts are hard to manage. MySpace would do well to hire an outsider like Forrester Research to do a basic site audit and quickly make itself more usable. Simply put, Myspace is going to have a hard time encouraging visitors if you can’t use the site.

2. Be the challenger brand to Facebook

What makes Facebook so formidable – its sheer scale – also makes it vulnerable. Myspace could improve its chances of survival by positioning itself as a friendlier, more approachable Facebook. For instance, MySpace could give itself a human face as Global 14 has done with producer Jermaine Dupri, who not only launched the site but is an active participant, personally responding to requests and comments.

And at a time when social media sites like Facebook offer zero user support, MySpace could differentiate with more personal customer experience (assuming MySpace cleans up its site).

3. Become useful

One of MySpace’s fundamental problems is that it no longer fulfills any particular use because Facebook long ago surpassed MySpace as a social network utility. MySpace can reclaim its role as a platform for connecting people with cool music, and certainly that’s what the site seems to be trying to do. One challenge: there are already plenty of site like Pitchforkmedia and the recently launched Noisey acting as a music connector. But Myspace does have brand visibility and 37.7 million unique U.S. visitors (and dropping). Myspace can be a worthwhile music and entertainment destination site, but it will need to launch a major partnership with another big brand to reinvigorate itself.

In fact, I can see morphing into the in-house music brand of a content-savvy company like AXE, Mountain Dew or Coca-Cola. As the lines between advertising, content, and entertainment have blurred, it’s no longer considered a sell-out for a corporation to act as music distributor.

What about you – do you think Myspace has a future?