Once the darling of the proprietary online services industry, AOL was fresh with promise, offering an ever-changing array of content, features and services to eager users. Looking back, its early days were marked by system outages, usability nightmares, functionality break downs, and bugs. As both a business and personal user of AOL, I remember clearly that many of the early features offered to businesses were immature, insufficient and frustrating to use. This improved over time but posed many short-term hassles for those in the Digital Marketplace for years. This is where we are with Facebook today.

Technology and people have matured -- but Facebook still has many problems with regard to its information architecture, usability, service and technology limitations -- just like AOL did.
As a service that was designed to connect people - Facebook was never designed with distinct focus on businesses users, and what they require for success. While recent indications show they're now considering these users, Facebook is now playing catch up.
Don't get me wrong: There is a ton of promise in using Facebook for business, and am a strong Facebook advocate to my clients. What I tell them, however -- and what they soon learn for themselves -- is that being successful on Facebook requires incredible diligence and tenacity. Learning the ins and outs of Facebook and keeping up with the change is challenging. Many companies are surprised and unprepared for this. For example, consider just a few of these fundamental challenges:
1. Profiles, Pages & Administration
In its present model, Fan pages are permanently tied to the profile of the individual that creates them. Facebook's current policy of demanding "legitimate" personal profiles tied to business is designed to make sure "real people" are running business pages. However, it's current method not only fails to ensure all profiles are legitimate, it creates legal risk for companies that follow the Terms of Use, as follows:
When the person who creates the page for "Brand X" leaves the company - they cannot be removed as an administrator of the Fan Page. Furthermore, they remain the primary admin, retaining all administrative rights and privileges. This means Facebook administrators who have left your company can delete your Fan Page, add and remove administrators, and post actively as a representative of your brand. This cannot be remedied by anything other than deleting the Fan Page or an "Act of Facebook" -- which requires getting a hold of a real person at Facebook, and some kind of miraculous support. To my knowledge, there is no way to migrate a Fan Page to another "parent" administrator in the event of an employee's separation from a company.
This is a seriously big issue for businesses...but the way profiles and pages are created creates other challenges for Fan pages with multiple administrators:
Every ad created is exclusively tied to the creator's personal profile -- not the Fan page. This creates a fragmented view of ad performance, if multiple ads have been created by multiple administrators. To view results for an ad online, you must be logged in as the ad creator -- one admin cannot view the performance of another admin's ad reports. While performance reports and data can be exported -- this requires manual effort -- across multiple accounts.
This means each business must centrally administer all ads using a single User ID and Password. Frankly, this pretty much defeats the purpose of having multiple admins. It also means that, when an administrator is dropped from a Fan Page, the advertising performance data tied to their profile goes with them.
The multiple admin problem is also an issue with regard to communication and relationship buildilng. All Facebook Fan Page Admins are forced to post using the same name and brand avatar (which are associated with the Fan Page). This means individual administrators are not individually identifiable on Fan Pages. Facebook asserts brand personas over individual personas -- but this actually works to limit dialog and impede relationship building between the people that represent a brand and the people interested in the brand. It's impossible to tell which admin posted each message, making dialog more complicated - and accountability impossible. Facebook needs to remember that people want to engage in discussion with other HUMAN BEINGS -- not necessarily a logo -- on Fan Pages.
2. Statistics & Measurement
The introduction of Facebook Insights is useful, because business users can now pull basic statistics. However, you cannot effectively drill down or extrapolate averages at a high level without busting out a calculator or exporting the data and doing the analysis yourself. In addition, it's not easy to compare data sets to determine cause and effect. For example, it's hard to compare trends on comments and unsubscribes against post dates.
The analytics can also be visually frustrating for some users, as well... A 40 year old client once remarked that the Facebook Insights charts were designed by 20 year old programmers: That is, they can be hard to read or understand for some users. The charts also lacking visual cues, labels and interactive functions that could make the data easier to understand.
It's also very difficult to compare data related to ads and page activity. This is compounded by ad ownership being tied to profiles, while Insights are tied to Fan Pages. The only way to compare ad activity with page traffic is to toggle between the ad administrator and insights pages and re-drill through the hierarchy. This is exceedingly cumbersome and makes it very difficult to determine cause and effect. In short, it creates more work for the business -- which is something nobody needs.
In the day and age of Google Analytics, people have a hard time understanding why there should be a high barrier to calculating weekly, bi-weekly and 30, 60, 90, quarterly and annual data. Good analytics packages make it easy to show cause and effect, trends and averages. This should matter to Facebook because the quick ability to see cause and effect, lift and results helps businesses better utilize facebook as a dynamic marketing and relationship building tool. That drives activity, engagement and revenue.
3. Advertising & Promotion
On the surface, Facebook advertising is very easy. However, anyone that has engaged in a significant amount of online advertising with Facebook -- especially a small business -- will complain about the limitations that plague the setup of ads. This is largely associated with the poor connection between profiles, pages, events and ads that plague other aspects of the experience.
For example, if you want to create an ad for a Fan Page, the title must be the title of the Fan Page. For example, Rug & Relic can't create an ad pointing to their Fan Page called "Pottery Sale Thursday." Instead they must create an Event Page for the sale, and point the ad to the Event Page. The problem with this is that this also creates more work for the business user, who must do more work to create an event page that intuitively ties the sale event to the Rug & Relic Brand (which takes some work) Being able to launch an ad with a custom title and link it to the Fan Page -- where it is promoted it from the Wall where interaction is present and becoming a fan is easy is something brands want.
Furthermore, the practices for marketing on Facebook are constantly shifting. First, they encouraged Brands to dump Group pages and create Fan Pages. Then, they split news feeds and notifications on the home page and started using algorithms to push notifications to users, and changed how updates are communicated through Facebook email. This shifted - and limited - how Brands could communicate to Fans. Very recently, new restrictions and limitations on advertising and promotion on Facebook were introduced. These present a very strong disadvantage - especially to smaller businesses and those with insufficient budget to retain their own Facebook Sales Representatives. Both Ikea and Gillette were both recently dinged for marketing in a manner that violates these new policies. Facebooker beware: You may be on the brink of violation, as well. You can read more about these policies here (thanks to Inside Facebook).
These are just a FEW of the many hurdles on Facebook that create higher barriers to participation -- and negatively impact customer experience, interaction and revenue. The features aren't terrible -- they are immature. For those of us who were in the trenches with AOL -- this is Deja Vu all over again. While the problems Facebook and AOL encounter are very different, the challenges of serving businesses users in a new channel are very much the same.
So what?
The fact is, today, MOST businesses are creating their own success on Facebook with very little support. It's not always easy, and only the tenacious - or the ones with good agencies can keep up. Unfortunately, it seems that unless you spend $10k per month to work with your own Facebook Sales Rep (an anecdotal figure provided by a friend with an inside view), you may be treated like the proverbial ugly, red-headed step child...forced to rely on Facebook help and a prayer to resolve your marketing challenges.
I'm afraid that's not going to work in the long-term for the majority of businesses who don't have $120k a year to drop on Facebook marketing. Furthermore -- I'm really not sure that, in the long run, that businesses will continue to pay for the frustration. I've talked to two Facebook admins for rather large brands that are already burned out on it.
As a Digital Media consultant and customer experience veteran, I often ask my companies this: Why be a necessary evil, when you can be intentionally good?
My hope is that the team at Facebook will come up with a more effective (and functional) tiered service solution for businesses who want to use Facebook. This tiered approach would package service, functionality and promotional capabilities for various types of users in a highly understandable, accessible way. Think: FREE, SILVER, GOLD and PLATINUM users -- easy to engage based on unique needs, budget and goals. This would also require a reworking of the code, structure and experience that now connects profiles, pages, ads, events, etc.and demand the provision of appropriate levels of support for various business participants who are paying to market themselves on Facebook.
If developers -- or investors for that matter -- are allowed to create policies that damage the user experience, it will undermine the opportunity Facebook now has. However, if the team at Facebook can concentrate efforts on creating a more consistent, pleasing and positive user experience for both every day people and businesses they serve, it can bolster Facebook's position.
This doesn't mean Facebook has to be perfect -- people are very understanding. It does mean Facebook should be a bit very careful to weigh the cumulative impact of iterative changes and releases on each audience. It means that Facebook may need to behave in a more humble manner, owning up to its shortcomings (including but not limited to the ones highlighted above) and proactively responding by making value-driven, iterative improvements. It's my assertion that when this happens, there will be a very natural transition from this FREE for all model to more lucrative FEE-BASED model. That will make everyone -- including the investors, pretty happy.
Of course, I also hope that, unlike AOL, Facebook will never stop adapting the business in pace with technological change, adoption and usage patterns. I do think they've got a jump on AOL on that front -- but that's another topic for another day.
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image of Leigh Duncan-Durst
Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (www.livepath.net).