6 Reasons Facebook Should Get Privacy Permission, Not Forgiveness

Last Updated Jun 3, 2010 12:09 PM EDT

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a less-than-stellar impact in his interview at the WSJ's All Things Digital conference. Some called it a disaster. Of course, one performance doesn't make or break a CEO. However, Zuckerberg did offer a clue about his company's problems. He thinks he sees the future and wants to direct people toward it.

That would be fine, but so far Zuckerberg has made a glaring error. He assumes that he has to act first and ask people for forgiveness later. What he has yet to realize is that by getting permission in the right way up front, Facebook could reach greater success faster than its present course can deliver.

Facebook has now battled the privacy bugaboo for years because its moves to use customer data have eventually backfired in terribly public ways that took users by surprise. The company is stalled in a cycle of expanding its use of customer data and then retreating from the consumer backlash. What drives Zuckerberg and Facebook is a perception that he articulated yesterday:

He said that he thinks eventually all websites will offer similar personalization. "A few years from now we'll look back and wonder why there was this time when all these websites weren't personalized," he said. "The world is moving in this direction where everything is designed around people."
Zuckerberg is sure that he's moving in the right direction. Where he trips is in the often-held assumption in high tech that it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission, because then you lower the chance of being shut down at the outset.

Zuckerberg would be better served by another high tech concept: beta testing. Many software and Internet service companies have learned the many benefits that a more open, active, and participatory relationship with customers can bring:

  1. Get user buy-in. When people are part of a process, whether designing a service or rolling out a product, they become emotionally invested and accepting. The chance of a huge backlash becomes slim.
  2. Avoid blunders. If Facebook went the beta route and avoided presenting changes as a fait accompli, it could pinpoint problems with a contained group of people and fix issues out of the public eye.
  3. Test concepts and variations to see what works. Going beyond eliminating problems, you can fine tune an offering, examine reactions to changes, and create a laboratory to develop as strong a product or service as possible.
  4. Turn customers into salespeople. By springing surprises on its customers, Facebook has often turned them into opponents. Let people participate and become part of the results, and they will help promote them.
  5. Develop a de facto secondary user support team. Once you've salted your users with people who have become expert in a new version or feature, you've got people who can answer questions from friends and acquaintances. That saves customers time in getting satisfaction and the company money in support.
  6. Push boundaries faster. When you don't spend time cleaning up unnecessary messes, you can devote attention to other matters.
Facebook and Zuckerberg are racing to establish themselves, fend off potential competitors, and increase revenue. All are important. Even so, smart work at the start will save a lot of grief, and angry customers, later on.

(Separately, DailyFinance has an excerpt of the new book, The Facebook Effect, that describes how the investment deal with Microsoft went down.)


Image: RGBStock.com user xymonau, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.