Should Facebook start charging?

Weirdly enough, I’m beginning to wish Facebook would offer me the opportunity to pay them for the service but they don’t. Now I’m not some super rich, stupidly generous, philanthropist. Nor am I crazy (at least I don’t think). I’m just bored of the adverts and use Facebook often enough that I would be willing to pay a (small) annual fee to not see them. The model has worked for many smartphone apps and I think the same model could work here: Offer the advertisement supported version for free and those who use the app often enough will be willing to pay a small fee to drop the ads. So why not?

Now there’s several things standing in the way of Facebook doing this. Not least of all is that Facebook say they won’t ever charge:

Will Facebook ever charge for service?

No. We will always keep Facebook a free service for everyone.

Now I think we’re all cynical enough to take what large corporations say with a huge pinch of salt (especially one who seems to regularly upset it’s users over some change or other), but that’s a pretty unequivocal statement. This represents two stumbling blocks: 1) It seems pretty clear that the Facebook team think it’s pretty important to keep it free and 2) A complete 180 on this will not look good. “If they change their mind on this, then maybe they will make it a mandatory charge soon”. I think both issues can only be addressed by users (like me) actually requesting this. Make it clear it is coming from the users rather than from Facebook, and also make it clear it’s entirely optional. Now, a large percentage of people won’t believe some people are actually happy to pay for something that used to be free and will forever blame Facebook but I do wonder if there will come a tipping point where more and more people start clammering for this.

The next problem is whether anyone believes this. There have been many, many, many, many spoof status’s updates, news stories and other internet hoaxes saying this will happen. If it did actually happen for real, then nobody might actually believe it! However if Facebook make the announcement, with a link to a page on their website, then that should go some way to solve that. What we probably can’t stop is all your gullible friends who forwarded every spam about Facebook charging you in the past, feeling vindicated and sending even more obviously fake hoaxes on to your inbox. Sigh…

There is a real of course a real risk with implementing a change like this. It could be the end of Facebook if played badly and, as I stated above, Facebook don’t have the strongest history in handling the PR of changes, so I also want to be clear on what I want from Facebook charging.

First of all I want it to be optional. The day Facebook start charging all users, will be the day 99% of users abandon it and the day Google+ staff cheer. Facebook needs to be free as Facebook needs it’s users to survive. Of course no business can survive without customers, but Facebook has an extra problem in that it’s Customers are the product. News outlets can survive behind paywalls with fewer customers if this makes up more than the lose in income from advertising because their product is deemed to be worth paying for (whether this is the case is too early to say but that’s the thinking of the owners of these companies). However Facebook gets less interesting the fewer people that are on it. They need to encourage people to join and stay on it. And charging people who aren’t willing to pay is the surest way of discouraging that. However I believe a minority of Facebook users would be willing to pay. With a billion users, even a minority, is worth considering.

Secondly I want it to be the same Facebook as it is now, but without adverts. It’s that simple. I don’t want any premium features (and I don’t want to pay for any – see below). I’m a simple guy and easily pleased. If they start trying to create a “premium” experience I think it will lead to a two state Facebook and I don’t want that. I think it will put of those who don’t want to pay and that will cause them to leave. I don’t want to be able to see who’s checking out my Facebook profile – well that’s a lie I do of course because I’m nosey but I don’t reckon it’s worth the downsides of implementing this. I am reticent to view some people’s profile on LinkedIn because I know there is a good chance they will see I’ve looked at them. Sometimes this is helpful (personally I think it shows you in a good light if you are researching someone who’s about to interview you on so don’t mind them seeing, but other’s disagree), but often it’s not. The fact LinkedIn have put this feature in (in an attempt to get you to sign up to it’s premium service so you can see more), has changed the way people use the service. So it’s not just a matter of me not using this feature – I don’t want others to have it either (and no not cause I’m some weird internet stalker), especially not premium payers. I honestly can’t think of any other “premium only” features that would benefit the site in restricting them to payers only. Again they have to encourage people on the site, rather than encourage them to pay. Similarly there is no need to promote or boast who out of your friends are paying and who’s not (again I look at who pays for LinkedIn and think “Why? Weirdo!” as for me that is not worth paying for compared to the free version and many people will think they same of me if I pay for Facebook). Add it as an option, so people like me can pay to not have ads, and leave it at that.

Then we come to price. I think it should be cheap. Very cheap. Now I’m not stupid enough to think I can get an ad-free version for nothing. Running a site the size and complexity of Facebook is very expensive – if it wasn’t then they wouldn’t need to advertise much at all. And I know it’s an ongoing cost so, unlike a game or other such app, I don’t think it would work with a one off fee so am willing to pay an annual fee. However I do not think that advertisers pay that much per user and, as I’m not asking for any more than the lack of ads, I’m not willing to pay much more than the cost of this loss to Facebook. As Facebook are a public company now, we do get to see that they earned $1.59bn in revenue in their last quarter. Now let’s assume that’s all from advertising, and let’s assume, for simplicity sake, that they earned the same in the other 3 quarters of the year so that makes $6.36bn a year, or an average of $6.36 a customer. I’m more than willing to pay that a year to NOT get the ads.

Fourthly I would also like it to be a silent option. Yes I know I already said it should be optional, what I mean is, even though it’s optional, it should not be be rammed down people’s throats so people feel more annoyed and pressured into paying up. This again will lead to a poorer experience for the non-paying users and so will result in them getting fed up and leaving. Sure have a small button for it, or an occasional ad for it, so people know the option exists, but at all times remember that the majority of your customers (who you need!) will not want to pay and will not want to be treated like lower class customer’s because of this.

Finally I also do not think this charging should be a revenue generator for Facebook over ads – it’s an alternative and a convenience thing for people willing to pay and it should not be a way to raise a lot of money for Facebook (except for lose in income from the adverts). I’ve already made some very rough calcs to say it should cost them $6.36 a user a year. What the heck, make it $20 and then ignore the exchange rates when they work in your favour (as American software firms often do when “repricing” for the UK) and make it £20 and I’m still game. Much more than that though and I’m starting to think whether I want to pay this or whether I’d prefer to just ignore the ads. When you get to triple digits ($100+) I just start to think you’re taking the mick and you start to piss me off by having the “paid for” feature, rather than me seeing it as a positive option (and I’m one of the few people willing to pay – imagine what those opposed to paying start to think!).

I do not know if Facebook will ever introduce such an option of, if they do, if it will work. No doubt there will be uproar if they do and everyone will threaten to leave but, like the past changes, people will most likely get over it and stay. Perhaps they are planning it already and are slowly increasing ads in an effort to build up calls for a paid-for ad-free version? However I do think they need to do this as the ads will start to annoy people more and more and there are alternatives ways to fund Facebook. We just need Mark and his team to think of them. Oh and not to make a complete pigs ear of implementing them 🙂


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