Will Your Social Media Service Tell You When It Hits The Iceberg?

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In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
Benjamin Franklin

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Unless a venture succeeds, in the business of social media we are probably obliged to only one of Ben Franklin’s certainties.  And in that case, the operative expression might be Domain Not Found, rather than death.

Anyone who invested a lot of time, energy and (ouch!) financial resources in building a business presence at MySpace (rebranded Myspace), Second Life, Digg and other fallen stars has earned enough online combat pay to exercise a wee bit more caution before recommending the next new and shiny social portal on the block.  So how can you be sure the Next Big Thing isn’t going to turn into yet another digital epitaph?  With so many online business models that have yet to realize a monetization event, your job in marketing and public relations increasingly demands risk analysis and development of business contingency plans.  After all, mission critical social platforms, services or tools can and will change the rules of the game (did I say Klout?) or, worse, pull the plug (more likely, the Cat 5e wires will be yanked from the network switch).

Case in point.  If there was a dead pool for social media, the ongoing negative chatter (the “ghost town” references) surrounding Google+ might place the social portal near top of list.  Even a recent post by Neal Schaffer acknowledges the gallows humor surrounding Google+ as a series of thought leaders extoll the benefits and potential of G+ as an important social business platform.  Google+ is not going away.  It’s Google, after all.  Global reach.  Deep pockets.  Search domination.  Continue forward with your company’s Google+ strategy, and don’t pay no mind to anyone who put a lot of social energy and business planning into, uh, oh, Google Buzz.

So now we come to yet another, albeit lesser known, Google social property.  It lacks all the fanfare, pizzazz and gushing adoration associated with sites such as Pinterest, but has come under growing public scrutiny and concern nevertheless.  We’re talking about FeedBurner, an essential RSS feed and email syndication tool that manages the distribution of digital periodical content, such as blog posts, news, press releases, site content updates and additions, etc.  A lot of people depend on FeedBurner and a growing chorus of voices is suggesting the free service is on life support.  Transitioning the RSS service for your sites to another provider is not a trivial task, but it can be done.  In recent months, there has been a sudden spate of warnings and public disaffections from FeedBurner.

Let’s take notice:

  • The pleasant chirps from the FeedBurner Twitter account have been replaced by the sounds of silence.
  • Somebody ordered “stop the presses” at the FeedBurner blog.
  • The FeedBurner API is set to be decommissioned this month.
  • During the summer, Google failed to renew the feedburner.jp domain, which left Japanese users in a lurch.  Think about it, Google let a domain expire.  What, did GoDaddy forget to send its usual flood of domain expiration warning alerts?

If your business, your clients or your company rely on FeedBurner to manage RSS feeds, it might be prudent to survey what others are doing in the event of a worst case scenario.  Don’t count on official word from Google.  Basically, bloggers of all sorts are already abandoning the FeedBurner service and are making a point of telling you why.  They have issued “Dear John” posts (Jay Baer, Danny Brown, Judy Lee Dunn, Jane Friedman, Neville Hobson, Cecily Kellogg, Jason Konopinski, Jayme Soulati, Jack Steiner) with advice on options for transitioning elsewhere.

Considering the importance of RSS feed services and Google’s business prominence, I was certainly perplexed by what appeared to be a popular brand withering on the vine.  When I posed a few questions via Twitter about the apparent moribund FeedBurner, not a peep from Google (anyone listening?).  But I did receive near-instant response from a gentleman named Phil Hollows who clearly uses all those cool social monitoring tools that have been profiled ad nauseam in every Top 10 list.  It seems Phil has created a competing fee-based RSS feed service called FeedBlitz (disclaimer: Windmill Networking is a FeedBlitz customer) and he obviously monitors the Net for all things RSS.  Phil reminds me of a CEO I once worked for who grew a small computer components company into a global Fortune 500 personal computer juggernaut.  When we were still small, scrappy and hungry for Big Ticket business, a skeptical reporter tried to size the CEO down by declaring: “You only have 3 percent market share in the computer industry.”  The ultimate public relations interview response:  “That’s true, but that also means we have 97 percent to gain while our competitors have all of that to lose.”  That’s what I call Score 1 for PR reputation enhancement.

Even Phil Hollows doesn’t think that Google will close down FeedBurner altogether.  But he does emphasize that there’s an important lesson to learn in our Land of Social Freebies: Free is great, but what will it cost you?

“Sustainable businesses need sustainable business models,” Phil noted, in response to several questions that I posed following our Twitter exchange.  “As we look at Facebook’s struggles to meet Wall Street expectations, and Twitter’s ongoing battle against third-party developers – which are all about controlling monetization – it should be obvious that services that are free come with considerable cost over time as they try to build enduring companies.  Free services typically have very poor end-user support as well, so when your site or business relies on a free, unsupported service, it can often be challenging to get the help you need.  Having a price sends a message about value.  It changes expectations as to the nature of the provider to customer relationship, as well as ideally helping ensure longevity of the vendor.  FeedBurner is one example of this class of service.  We’ve seen others come and go.  The issue the community at large needs to get a better grip with is understanding the difference between price, cost and value.”

Too Big to Fail is an expression no longer reserved for the major financial houses of Wall Street.  Any site or service can succumb.  If Google can abandon an offering without much notice (when did we forget the transparency mantra of the Social Generation?), how can you depend on any service or tool that has become vital to your business operations?  Not too long ago Yahoo, also without much public discussion, sold its very popular Delicious social bookmarking tool to the founders of YouTube.  In advance of that sale, dire blog posts recommended archiving your Delicious bookmarks so that they could be at least saved and possibly ported to another service, if available.  Eventually Yahoo responded to the community – in a blog post – that Delicious, though no longer the right business fit for the company, would not be closed down.

Is transparency going to be a standard of performance for our Brave New Media World, or just another short-lived political slogan like the 2008 Democrat campaign mantra “Change We Can Believe In”?  Companies like Google and Yahoo have legions of internal public relations advisors and outside agency support that know how to disseminate official corporate information widely and equitably.  For those who chant the press release is dead, sorry, a single posting in a blog by Yahoo (that link is now dead by the way) or the gradual erosion of service infrastructure (dropped Twitter and blog activity, expired domain, discontinued API) is a hazy way to inform at best.  To be sure, the fault isn’t always corporate communicators, whose hands can be tied for any number of reasons, including SEC rules, business strategy considerations, corporate timing issues and in-process negotiations with potential buyers, investors or partners.

So corporate tongues may be tied while the rumor mill churns.  In the meantime, if your business or non-profit absolutely depends on a service or tool for which you pay no fee and there is no apparent successful revenue model, it makes good business sense to have contingency plans for your company or, if you operate a marketing, PR or integrated agency, your clients:

1)      Create a spreadsheet and list every cloud-based platform, service and tool that you use.  Rank each one by level of importance, value to your business and risk if lost.  If the service or tool disappeared tomorrow, what’s your backup plan and does the replacement service or tool offer equivalent functionality and a smooth transition path?

2)      If you store business data in the cloud, where’s the backup to a third-party service?  If you have no backup solution, stop reading this post immediately and get one.

3)      Pay attention to the rumor mills; vigilance is key.  Look for a consensus of views and be careful of the extremes.  Competitors may post disinformation or troll blog comments in an effort to create FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).

4)      The FeedBurner case is a perfect example of why you should not move your Web presence to Facebook or Pinterest, as some businesses have opted.  The rules of real estate apply.  Own – don’t rent – your digital property and address.  There are three things that matter in real estate: location, location, location.  For the digital social world: control, control, control.

5)      If you provide PR or marketing counsel to a company or clients that plan to discontinue a product or service, widely disseminate the news via a press release issued on a major fee-based wire service as soon as public disclosure is approved.  The press release, despite naysayers who mostly troll the issue because they never really understood its purpose from the get-go, can serve as a single authoritative point of reference that is the only way to widely and equitably disseminate business news and information.  Secondary distribution might include re-posting the news via Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, etc.  When it comes to disclosure, think fire hose, not a garden watering can.  Your corporate blog is probably not a broadcast news station with enough global resonance.  Spend the money, put it on a decent wire.

6)      Customers have their fingers on the pulse of the Net like never before.  Businesses have decisions to make, often not in the public spotlight.  There is always going to be a delicate balance between behind-the-scenes business strategy and the desire for customer engagement and input.  Learn by example; no company wants to pull a Netflix.

Social media has been around long enough for most of us to see beloved services or tools come and go.  Have you lost a favorite?  Did you replace it or just move on?  Has a change or loss in a social media service caused disruption or financial harm to a client or company?

Joel Don
This monthly Social Business Trends column is contributed by Joel Don. Joel is principal of Comm Strategies, a consultancy that leverages public relations strategies, reputation enhancement and social media tools to maximize business success. Joel has worked for several PR and marketing agencies, and previously served as a public information officer at UCLA and UC Irvine. He also directed business and financial communications at a Fortune 500 computer manufacturer. Formally trained as a journalist, he has written for daily newspapers and national magazines throughout the country. In addition, Joel developed a digital solution for measuring the readership of company news prior to the advent of today’s link-tracking systems. +Joel Don
Joel Don


Community manager + social media/PR consultant helping you leverage the right strategies & tools. Skier & PADI scuba instructor
"We told everyone that this wasn’t ‘advertising,’ because it was ‘social'" -- Dan Lyons http://t.co/MXafeEz2lG - 22 hours ago
Joel Don
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    • says

      Claire, I agree, it’s so easy to assume Google won’t let the users down. Even FeedBurner Phil Hollows of FeedBlitz doesn’t think it will be shuttered. Still, doesn’t hurt to have contingency plans.

  1. says

    My first introduction to your writing, Joel; I very appreciate the shout out, too! May I say how smart this post is, too? Smart writing, smart insights, smart coverage…just flippin’ SMART. #That.Is.All.

  2. says

    Sometimes you get what you pay for and while I loved Feedburner I switched because Google stopped taking care of it.

    Maybe it won’t die out, but I want to use products/services that have some sort of support system that doesn’t rely solely upon a community to help the users.

    We have to be willing to be agile or we risk getting burned and it is simply not necessary.

    • says

      So, true.  Everything comes at a price. In this case, people may find the “free” service FeedBurner cost too much if glitches and disruptions impact your business.

  3. says

    Joel, what I love about your post is not only the brilliance in your analysis, but also the practical “How To” at the end to help companies.  I find too many posts in the blogosphere that just concentrate on taking sides on an issue without helping out our targeted reader base: The business looking to better leverage social media.

    Truth be told, the more you realize how RSS is an essential part of many things social media, the fact that Google pulling the plug on Feedburner gets scarier.  My “Aha” moment with Feedburner was when my RSS feed for this site suddenly broke.  I tried all of the “nuke” options on the Feedburner site but nothing worked.  Then I realized that after Google bought out Feedburner it was essentially a “use at your own risk” product.  What was I to do?  And what is your business to do?To be honest with you, that was the first time I found out about Feedblitz as a Feedburner alternative. Truth be told I signed up to Feedblitz just as they started monetizing their service – but I am glad they did so.  You see, whenever I have an issue, Feedblitz is there to support me.  The peace of mind that my RSS is supported is HUGE!

    I just took a look at my Google Analytics and realize that traffic derived from Feedblitz is equivalent to that of Google Plus, Facebook and LinkedIn *** combined ***.  THAT is the power of RSS, and to pay $100+ a year to have someone support this technology should be a no-brainer for any business.  Of course, talk to Phil at Feedblitz and he’ll tell you about all of the other cool stuff his technology can do, but I’ll leave that for another blog post 😉

    Thanks again for spending the time on this Joel!

    • says

      Neal, your experience with FeedBurner is not uncommon from what I found with other users. Phil Hollows also reminded me in a follow-up email that Google has announced the end of the AdSense for Feeds program, effective Dec. 2. That’s further erosion of the service. RSS is a behind-the-scenes player in the business of social media content distribution. People may not realize the integral role it plays. This function absolutely demands a dependable service provider and “free” may not be sustainable.

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