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Facebook and the Frankenstein monster: It’s hard to control the lightning in hype (but best practices help)

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It’s alive!

After all the Facebook IPO hype, how could reality measure up?

As Dr. Frankenstein learned, tapping lightning to create life is full of peril. Creations can take on a life of their own.

Is buzz any different?

Creating life in the context of reality

From an investors point of view, how could a company at various times valued at 80 to 100 times earnings, valued in the stratosphere above companies with years of history and profits, not disappoint? The more sober reaction to the IPO, showed investors were paying attention to value.

While Facebook and engagement should prove valuable over time, investors were saying, hold on a minute, what’s your strategy for increasing earnings? The thing about Facebook is:

Right now, what is most valuable for brands on Facebook is free.

Why would investors speculate on the future of what Facebook might do? In the current climate, post-financial crisis, companies that pay dividends, handsome dividends of three to five per cent have a value that IPOs like Facebook just can’t match.

The modern Prometheus

Hype has a dangerous flipside.

Sure, there’s potential, but potential for what?

While most management teams want buzz for their brand, they might not necessarily want the Frankenstein monster version of it. Remember, the monster spent much of its “life” trying to kill its creator. In the aftermath of the Facebook IPO, lawsuits, finger-pointing, back-stabbing, technical failures, and other endless melodramas splayed across the media, it reminds of the classic Kubrick/Sellers line: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

How long before a satirical film’s made out of this story? Think Dr. Strangelove meets Frankenstein.

Dr. Strangebook or Frankenface

It’s obvious that Facebook, Morgan Stanley and the Nasdaq are all suffering reputational body blows. While some private investors made a lot of money on the IPO, does any management team, board, shareholder, or even casual user want to be associated with such a media horrorshow post-IPO? Monstrous hype only amplifies the “is that all there is?” feeling when it goes wrong.

The monster, stitched together and ashen, stumbled into the light of day.

When the hype machine overloads, marketers and public relations professionals have to remember that there’s no such thing as lightning in a bottle. Buzz, at its most extreme, has the potential to lash out in every direction.

When the hype machine creates a monster, it can become the destroyer of brands.

Social media seems like it’s been here forever but is still new. The buzz became a monster. Was there any longer the ability to manage the hype as the Facebook IPO drew near?

The blowback says no.

Fiascos have the potential to incubate revenge. Social media users will engage, but not in the way the brand wants them to. And like the Frankenstein monster, social media users who feel betrayed have a tendency toward revenge.

Brands are sure there’s a way to profit from engagement. It’s this belief that drives Facebook earnings. When GM came out and said that they’d lost faith in Facebook ads, despite criticism of GM’s social strategy, there was a revaluation of Facebook in the marketplace.

Doubtless, there are marketers and public relations professionals that do engagement very well. Social media, is, and will continue to be a tool of engagement where the permutations of dialogue are still being explored and improved.

But it should be part of a well thought out integrated marketing/public relations strategy.

Facebook had been grabbing headlines for a long time. Hype over Facebook crackled with the energy and unpredictability of lightning.

Now, Facebook’s grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons. Yet again. How does this reflect on the Facebook management team? Marketers are going to re-evaluate the brand and social engagement through it.

It’s value, after a brief pop, has dropped 25 per cent since the IPO despite the underwriters’ propping the stock price up. Argue with that metric.

Facebook has emerged from the laboratory a case study.

One thing is sure: Silly season is over for now.

Luke … I am your father

A characteristic of hype is that it is a lense that distorts. Those who work at brand, engagement, reputation and other features of the marketing and public relations matrix try to tell the story of organizations for the benefit of stakeholders. But practitioners have to remember how many audiences there are these days.

Hype is a bit like Luke and his dad, Darth: There is a light side and a dark side.

Practitioners have to remember that less than best practices have a short shelf life and lead to case study after case study of failures.

Facebook promised the opportunity of the century. It failed to deliver.

This is the chemistry for a backlash.

From a marketing and communications point of view, professionals will get more creative.  But they’ll also get more analytical.

Lurching out of the laboratory: The aftermath

The nightmare of creating a monster like the one that lurched out of the Facebook laboratory reinforces the idea that best practices have to align with business objectives — and they do have to be best practices.

If Facebook’s strategy was simply to make a ton of money for its private investors then it succeeded. But as far as the long-term viability of a brand, of its sustainability, Facebook leaves a lot to be desired at the moment. Is this the image companies want to leave ricocheting around on Twitter or elsewhere?

Facebook will have to spend substantial resources trying to restore its brand and reputation. Future growth depends on earnings, and future capital depends on investors. Reputation either feeds itself or devours itself.

Alienating marketers, investors and users and being held up as a flop by the media, aren’t the kind of brand associations any organization wants. Of course, this leads to many more challenging Facebook’s business strategy.

It’s safe to say that Facebook failed at engaging with its users in the short-term. Facebook has added to retail investors suspicion of markets and valuations. Investors and the general public have tired of creature features. In the U.S., 46 per cent of people surveyed said their trust in the financial services sector had decreased.

Since stakeholders already had many questions to ask of Facebook and user privacy, you’d think that someone involved with the IPO would have been more careful before tapping the lightning that created this latest beast.

The problem with the Facebook parade’s short-term thinking is that stakeholders have long-term memories when it comes to monsters (or buzz on crank). They don’t like the feeling of being had.

Remember, the Frankenstein monster hunted down its creator across continents until it found him dead.

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Part Two — Market volatility: Why and how to make it work for you

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In Part One, I discussed some differences between the 1 per cent and 99.

How do the 1 per cent differ from the 99 when it comes to market volatility? Is there something the average investor can learn?

I’m not trying to defend the 1 per cent. What I am trying to do is point out that the market is public and that market volatility leaves no one untouched. No stone unturned.

I’m not here to talk about tax inequality or to defend either side. People like Warren Buffett have done that. There have been arguments for and arguments against Buffett.

What I’d like to focus on is:

While the 1 per cent have better intelligence and more powerful networks when it comes to investing, there are strategies the 99 can use to get ahead. Strategies Warren Buffett and the 1 per cent have been using for a long time.

If you’re a long-term investor, you can own a lot of the same assets. Granted, you may not get these assets at the same transaction costs due to scale, but you can own assets that should enrich you over time.

Have the wealthiest people sold all of their assets? Doubtful.

Do they sell them after market declines?

Well, let’s look at this rationally.

  • You need to find a buyer in order to sell your shares (the sheer scale of owning billions in assets means it’s harder to find a buyer when you sell)1
  • Liquidating such assets might cause some significant tax implications2
  • Because of professional counsel, the 1 per cent are exposed to more and better research than average investors, leading to fewer knee-jerk reactions in the face of market events

There would be barriers to the 1 per cent selling their assets.

Taxes …

You can see at least three articles above discussing whether taxes on investments and the 1 per cent are too low. There is definitely a movement afoot to examine these issues.

Let’s set the 1 per cent aside for a minute.

Remember, Joe Average gets a break on taxation for certain investments, too. So does his partner, Josephine. They may not get as big a break, but they do get a break.

They get a deduction for contributing to an RRSP. They get tax-free earnings in a TFSA. If they’re invested in dividend-paying equities outside of an RRSP or TFSA, they get tax-preferred income from those dividends.

Advice

Because the wealthy have the means to get good counsel when it comes to their investments and financial planning strategies, we can assume that those professionals counsel their clients:

  • To avoid panic selling
  • To rebalance regularly and systematically

Joe and Joe and Market Volatility

Now, what about Josephine and Joe Average? Are they taking advantage of the better prices presented through market volatility?

After the 2008-2009 correction, did the average investor take advantage of some of the cheapest prices we’ve seen in a generation? Is the average investor taking advantage of cheaper prices now?

Research says no. (Like to explore this idea further? I blogged about it in “Don’t Panic”.)

People concentrate on returns over a given period of time. But such assessments assume that you invested your money all at one time at the beginning of the period. How many investors do that?

Easy as ACB

Your Adjusted Cost Base (ACB), basically, how much you paid as you bought an investment, is a much more realistic measurement of how you’re doing.

If the broad market’s down 20 per cent, and you’re ACB is showing that your investment in a broad-based mutual fund or ETF has broken even, e.g. the investment’s price is 10 and your ACB is 10, you’ve done great.

Why? Because you’ve outperformed the market over the same period.

How did you accomplish this? By using excellent rebalancing strategies.

Of course, if you’ve had a more conservative position, you have to realize that when the market turns around, the broad index may start outperforming with respect to your investment. Your rebalancing plan will help with this, and sticking to that plan will help even more.

Figuring out who you are as an investor is important.

In Part Three, I’ll continue, focusing more on long-term strategy with a simple illustration of why that focus will make you a better investor.

Notes:

1The 1 per cent tend to buy shares of companies more than they buy mutual funds. Diversification isn’t as big a deal for them. They have the means to buy enough shares and still be adequately diversified. This isn’t true of the average investor. Some market experts say you should have at least a million dollars to invest to be adequately diversified when holding stocks. Others disagree. It’s true that the fewer companies you hold, the less diversified you are, and the more risk you’re taking on. Employees that held most of their investments in Enron or Nortel found this out the hard way when the stocks collapsed3.

2Taxation is another reason why the 1 per cent sell their holdings, e.g., experts have suggested Steve Jobs’ heirs sell their shares in Apple to avoid over $800 million in tax liabilities.

3More evidence for diversification comes by way of Bill Gates example. While he has significant wealth in Microsoft shares, he holds a lot of Berkshire Hathaway in order to further diversify his holdings. Forbes claims that more than half of Gates wealth is held outside Microsoft stock.

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Don’t panic

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In the face of the typhoon (market correction), bend like bamboo

What is it about market corrections? Wise, rational people can become wide-eyed pessimists and conduits of fear in the face of steep market drops. Can you remember a time when you sold investments during a market correction and it turned out to be a wise move?

Investors ruled by a forest fire of emotions, fanned by the media looking to report the latest, most sensational story, rarely make wise decisions. Often, when the market is hitting new record after new record, they’re buying. But when the market turns the other way, and suddenly high quality companies are on sale and can be bought at excellent discounts, emotion-ridden investors are running for the hills or putting their heads in the sand.

Here are some facts that you’d do well to pay attention to. The study tells the sad tale of how investors, suffering from a bad dose of “Oh, no! The world’s going to end!”, make some classic mistakes while investing. In fact, what may be the most important aspect of your investment plan, after asset allocation, is dealing with the forces of rampant negativity that rear their ugly heads every time there’s a market correction.

Glued to the media, wide-eyed and beset with your worst fears for the economic future? It’s time to go for a walk. Fund managers wait for corrections to go out bargain hunting. Wouldn’t you be happy if the suit or new pair of shoes you wanted to buy were now on sale? Because that’s exactly what’s going on now: high quality, dividend-paying companies are on sale.

Investors need to do themselves a favour:

  • Develop a thicker skin
  • Stop dwelling on the investment media during corrections
  • Stop chasing investment returns
  • Ask yourself: since everybody’s talking about gold bullion (or whatever the flavour of the month is) right now, do I really want to buy it?
  • Get a sound investment plan
  • Stick to your plan
  • Buy or sell investments when your asset allocation veers away from your planned allocation, and do it regularly
  • Remind yourself that great, stable companies are not going to disappear

Further considerations that you should bear in mind:

  • Remind yourself that Warren Buffett (and other smart money managers) are looking for bargains rather than making rash, panic-fuelled decisions
  • Aren’t all the companies you wanted to buy when they were more expensive, cheaper now?
  • The economy’s gone through corrections dozens of times before – this won’t be the last time (e.g., Latin American bonds, the Asian Crisis, the Tech bubble, 9/11, [Remember when people were talking about the Canadian peso?], the financial crisis, etc.)
  • If you’re buying in the midst of this correction, or any, remember, you don’t need to throw all your money in at one time – you can also buy gradually, giving you a cushion and better prices should the market go down further
  • There’s a place in your portfolio for bonds – do you have any?
  • Revisit your plan yearly

If you’re still spooked after a hard, meditative look at your investments, maybe your asset allocation is too aggressive. Should you reduce your equity holdings somewhat? Reducing stock holdings amidst any correction is tricky. You’re probably going to be selling at the worst of possible times – maybe you should revisit your asset allocation model when things calm down a bit? (Have I mentioned stick with your plan and re-evaluate your plan regularly?)

The time for strategic thinking is before a correction and during one. When it seems that investment losses are falling out of the sky, too many investors forget their planning. Many have heard Warren Buffett’s “Be greedy when others are fearful” philosophy – slowing down and taking a breath during the bad news feeding frenzy will help give you some perspective on where you’ve been, where you’re at now and where you want to be.

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