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WhatsApp Gives Mark Zuckerberg Second Shot to Stick to His Principles

If Facebook's New Acquisition Stays True to Its Social Mission, It Won't Have Ads

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For years, Mark Zuckerberg was outspoken about his feeling that people don't want advertising in their social networks. He fought long and hard to keep ads out of Facebook feeds. That ended when the company went public. Being a public company and defender of digital principles have not gone hand in hand.

Hence, with ads crowding their pages, young people are abandoning Facebook in droves, and older people whine about how much they can't stand Facebook's manipulation of their feeds.

As for brands, they originally thought that Facebook would change everything, offering a direct, one-to-one conversational relationship with customers, for free. But there ain't no free lunch. Facebook owns your sandwich. A few years ago, a brand's Facebook post would be seen by the majority of its followers; today that number is maybe 10%.

Consumers who want to say "hi" to your brand still know they can do it on your Facebook wall, but they don't care for clever pictures of Oreos in feeds where they come to connect with their friends. For the moment, counting "likes" remains a worthwhile metric for brand engagement, but long-term it isn't a worthwhile objective.

Today the marketing gurus are salivating again about Facebook. With the news of Facebook spending a ridiculous amount of money to acquire WhatsApp comes another chance to show its worth brands. Some are even predicting that messaging apps like WhatsApp are going to be platforms with e-commerce and such and be a powerful new tool for brands.

But I've got sad news. WhatsApp may not provide much for marketers. Its growth rate will soon rival Facebook's of earlier years. But WhatsApp is displacing text messaging and chat -- and consumers want nothing to do with brands when they are having one-to-one conversations with their friends. There's a reason your brand has a social manager in charge of Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, but not texting and chatting.

Just because something is digital doesn't mean it's an effective media channel. When I was in high school, I spent three or four hours a night on the phone with my friends. There were no brands sponsoring our conversation. Sadly for marketers, that's the appeal of WhatsApp.

Those who have lamented WhatsApp's paltry $20 million in revenue to date don't understand the business model. You download it, you get it for free for a year, you get addicted and then they charge you 99 cents per year after that. The vast majority of WhatsApp's torrential growth has happened in the past year. So most users are still in their free year, and WhatsApp's revenue is going to hockey stick in the coming months. Half a billion dollar bills add up quickly.

WhatsApp represents a second chance for Zuckerberg. He abandoned his principles and now Facebook is failing. It won't be the precipitous fall that MySpace had, but the writing is on the wall. He's just bought his attentive audience back, along with a model that seems like it might give users all they want and nothing more.

As far as a second chance for your brand to eat a free lunch? About that, I'm not so optimistic.

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