Facebook Hashtags: When Monetization Clashes With Branding

Considering that my startup¬†CyBranding owns a thriving website named hashtagify.me¬†and sells a product called Hashtag Intelligence, you could easily see why hashtags (probably) coming to Facebook is very good news for me. But, as a person very interested in branding, I can’t help questioning this move from the Facebook brand point of view.

For its users, Facebook’s core expectation can be described as “easily sharing with friends and family through the Internet”. It is a very compelling expectation, Facebook owns it in the mind of billions of people, and thus their website has become the most engaging in the World as all the stats about time spent online tell us.

Facebook’s problem is that its core expectation isn’t as easy to monetize with advertising as, for example, Google’s “quickly finding what I need on the Internet”. Or even Twitter’s “publicly sharing on the Internet”, which is much less compelling than Facebook’s to most people, but which has that “publicly” attribute that makes it much more compatible with infotainment and advertising.

Facebook already took many steps towards making itself a better platform for the public sharing and consuming of content – think pages, “follow”, privacy changes, etc. – so adding hashtags, that were integral to Twitter’s success in that space, would only be a logical move in that same direction. The big risk for Facebook here is that this move could actually work – and, if it will work, it will also significantly dilute Facebook’s brand expectation of “sharing with friends”.

Why is that a big risk? Because public and personal don’t mix well; by diluting its core expectation, Facebook would leave the door open to some competitor completely focused on “personal”. This move could very well bring a short and medium-term benefit to Facebook’s bottom line and market capitalization, but, by putting in jeopardy its nearly complete domination of its current, incredibly compelling focus on “friends and family”, it could also sow the seed of its own undoing.

The good news? After all, if the history of branding has something to teach us, Facebook is most likely not going to “become the Internet”, closing us all inside a walled garden. In the world of brands, you just can’t be everything to everybody.

[UPDATE] I just read an article on Time about the “tragic beauty of google“, where the author says that he likes Facebook more because it feels more “warm, personal”. Will it still feel that way if the move toward more public conversations will work?

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