Could Facebook Learn Something from the Burger Business?

There’s been a ton of discussion in the media this month about the future of Facebook following its record breaking IPO.  Besides the fact that the company generated more than $100 billion in capital and Mark Zuckerberg is now worth an estimated $16 billion, questions continue to circulate about whether or not Facebook has the ability to sustain healthy growth and profitability over the next 5, 10, 20 years. Unlike some of the negative prognosticators out there, I think Facebook’s best years are still ahead and that the company might even figure out a way to double its base of 900 million users over the next five years.  

On the flip side, I think its chances for long-term success will be extremely challenging now that it has to deliver on shareholders’ expectations of finding new ways to monetize its very popular online interface.  So is Facebook on the verge of bombarding its users with a new wave of pop-up ads and in-your-face promotions or will its efforts to increase profitability be subtle and less intrusive?  Whatever the company has in mind, I think it needs to keep it simple as possible and that it could actually learn some valuable lessons from the hamburger business.  That’s right, hamburgers!

So what the heck do hamburgers have in common with Facebook?  Possibly more than you realize.  If you think about it, social media is a lot like fast food.  There’s an overwhelming selection of establishments that serve it and it provides a very quick and convenient way to satisfy an innate hunger that resides in all of us.  That hunger is our basic need as human beings to stay connected with friends and family (see #3 in Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs).  Some people might even argue that the quality of content people are consuming through social media sites today equates to nothing more than pure junk food.  Personally, I think social media can and does provide nutritious meals for the mind.  It provides new forms of mental stimulation that enable us to engage in meaningful conversations in real time about all kinds of important issues with people all over the planet. 

Facebook’s success at this point reminds me of a very popular hamburger chain in the Western U.S. known as In N Out.  This ever-growing fast food chain has been cranking out some of the best tasting hamburgers you’ll find for less than $5 (sorry Five Guys).  Unlike bigger burger chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, In N Out lives up to its motto of “quality you can taste” and it does so in a way that’s unique, simple, and cool. In N Out has the simplest menu you’ll ever see from a major chain restaurant.  Besides drinks, the only items you’ll find on the menu are “Double-Double, Cheeseburger, Hamburger and French-Fries,” that’s it!  Upon first glance, you might think In N Out’s menu is too limited and that maybe there’s not much flexibility when it comes to ordering a hamburger the way you want it.  If that’s your first and only impression then I have to quote William Shakespeare by saying “what fools ye mortals be.”

Besides its quality, one of the things In N Out has become famous for (in an oxymoronic sort of way) is its “secret menu.”  The more you frequent In N Out, the more you’ll discover just how many things they offer that you’ll never see on the menu and that you’ll never see or hear about in its advertisements and other forms of marketing.  For example, if you’re a vegetarian, you can order a grilled cheese sandwich (and a damn good one at that).  If you’re on a diet and trying to reduce carbs, you can order your burger “protein style” (no bun with burger served in a perfectly formed lettuce wrap). If you really like In N Out’s sauce, cheese, pickles and onions on your burger, you can order it “animal style” – same option for their French-fries.  If you want more meat, you can order a “three-by-three” or “four-by-four” (additional meat patties).  Once again, all of these options and many more are available at every In N Out location yet you won’t find evidence of them in any of the company’s marketing programs.  The reason so many people know all about the not-so-secret menu is due to good old fashion, word-of-mouth communications.

If In N Out wanted to, it could have a field day promoting its not-so-secret menu in a very tactical and high-visibility marketing campaign.  But the reality is it doesn’t need to.  More importantly, In N Out doesn’t want to because the company knows that would compromise the simplicity and coolness on which the brand was founded. The company doesn’t need to revamp its menus, signage and packaging in ways that help raise awareness about all of the additional offerings and services it provides. It doesn’t need to do special, limited-time-only offerings or sweepstakes.  It doesn’t run ad campaigns that co-promote blockbuster movies.  It doesn’t offer collectible toys with kids meals or toss in discount coupons to theme parks inside its bags.  Despite all of the marketing tactics In N Out could have tried at this point to boost business and to expand awareness, it has still managed to beat off intense competition and grow its business at a very steady and healthy pace for more than 60 years.

So my message to Facebook is this.  Please don’t lose sight over what got you to this point and don’t try to grow too fast.  The reason you’ve attracted 900 million users so far is similar to how In N Out continues to attract its patrons.  You provide a relatively easy and high-quality way for friends, families and organizations to stay connected to one another.  It’s a social media form of “quality you can taste” with simplicity and not-so-secret features that are cool.  You might have new investors to satisfy but please don’t do it by compromising the integrity of your easy-to-use interface and don’t overwhelm users with annoying pop-up ads.  Sure, you’ll have to keep adding new features and apps to stay fresh, many of which will involve promotions with advertisers.  If they’re features that provide true value for your users, they’ll gain acceptance and will spread naturally via word of mouth.  Conversely, if they reek too much of sponsorships and in-your-face promotions, they’ll fail in the same manner.  The bottom line is to not let expectations for a new bottom line dramatically change the essence of your brand. 

Now, for some reason I’m really craving a Double-Double.  Bring it on!

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