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Beneath Facebook's "Gmail Killer" Hype

Justin Boland



A little bit of mystery is the key ingredient in selling a compelling story.
That's true for our email headlines and our personal branding...and that's also true for multi-billion dollar corporations like Facebook. They've been building the hype for months now about their "top secret new feature" dubbed Project Titan. Today, that finally launches. As it turns out, Project Titan is a fully featured email application, built directly into your Facebook account.

So: Who will be the first marketer on the block advertising their Facebook.com email address? A handful among us will be able to make this into a marketing stunt, but beyond the novelty of being an early adopter, is there any value here for information marketers?

That depends on whether or not you believe Facebook's "Gmail Killer" claims -- and here at Infomarketer, we're skeptical. Over the years, surveys on email behavior have made it clear that most users are stubbornly loyal, or at least hesitant to migrate accounts and learn a new system. Think about it: Gmail had to upgrade it's product until it was the best system available -- paid or free -- before they saw significant new users, mostly people abandoning the previous Alpha Dog email service, Hotmail. (Remember Hotmail?)

Here's a really important point that hype articles don't mention: Gmail is actually not the Alpha Dog. Despite a surperior product, despite a huge PR push, they're actually still only in third place. The gold and silver medalists: Yahoo! and Hotmail...still. In 2010. That's what we mean by "stubbornly loyal" -- and for Facebook, that's a serious problem. Perhaps that's why they're hyping this a "Gmail Killer" and not a "Yahoo! Killer," though. Maybe even at their most ambitious, they know the best they can hope for is knocking Google out of third place.

That's also not their biggest obstacle.
As it turns out, that would be...Facebook itself.


...About That Whole Trust Issue

Nobody in the business of information marketing doubts the powerful reach of Facebook. Using their platform is a necessity in 2010. However, that doesn't mean any of us necessarily trust Facebook. We don't trust them with personal information, and we don't trust them to play by their own rules. For good reason: that's only based on their track record, after all. Facebook is constantly in the news for privacy breaches, most recently through their API system. They even got a letter from Congress about that one.

Facebook's own market testing has told them this will be a problem, so expect to see their marketing focus on security and quality issues instead of the swaggering hype that's shaped the "Project Titan" launch promotion. They will probably roll out a full suite of instructional and introductory content this week. As marketers, it's worth keeping a close eye on how they change gears between two teams and approaches...


The Big Picture

So overall, the launch of Facebook's new email service today is mostly hype. When you look at it this way, it's easy to see how much it's like launching an information product. They "leaked" stories to the press and offered selected bloggers an "exclusive" story. They gave it a cool-sounding name: "Project Titan" sounds like a NASA mission to Saturn led by George Clooney and Bruce Willis. Most importantly, they stuck to their development schedule and they launched it right when the hype built to a peak.

It's still just hype, though. In 30 days, bloggers will write a lot of follow-up articles and lists outlining all their complaints about the new service. In 60 days, it will be just another free email service adding to the information overload we're all wrestling with every day. Think back to "hot new features" that Myspace introduced back in 2007. A great deal of PR money was spent on getting media buys and heavy promo coverage, but today none of that matters because the big picture has moved on.

That's the real point: we're not product testers, we're in business.
Facebook's email is new, but that's really all it has going for it. There's really nothing broken with gmail, Yahoo! or any other web-based email program. The existing tools all get the job done right, because email is one of the first tricks the Internet ever learned.

Readers: are you planning on signing up for a Facebook email account? Do you see business value in associating with the most powerful domain name in the known Universe? Leave a comment and let us know!
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