I paid a visit to my local AT&T store1 on the occasion of the Facebook First being officially available for sell. There was more promotion than I expected, including a dedicated installation and a huge promotional banner behind the counter. That said, there wasn’t really any effort by the salespeople to push me on the phone, although I didn’t ask for any help.
A few observations:
- Thank goodness the First comes in colors, because the black version is the most boring phone I’ve seen, well, maybe ever. It really looks like a prototype. I know reviewers have compared it to the iPhone 3GS, but the matte finish and dull color on the black First feels cheap and imprecise. Fortunately, the material and finish work much better on the color models, particularly the baby blue; in fact, the baby blue version was one of the better looking phones in the entire store.
- The transition between the Facebook skin and the default Android interface was jarring; I seemed to trigger it regularly by hitting the “Home” button and it threw me for a loop every time.
- Chatheads seems like it could be incredibly useful. The pain of maintaining a messaging conversation while simultaneously using one’s phone is significant. I could absolutely see myself favoring Facebook messaging over other OTT alternatives were I using an Android phone.
“Seems” is important though, and speaks to a significant challenge facing the Facebook First in particular: the personalized nature of Facebook Home does not translate to a retail experience. Thus:
- It’s really hard to understand how Chatheads work without, you know, actually chatting with someone.
- Cover Feed in the store is nothing more than mind-numbing stock photos; what does it look like with my friends?
- One of my favorite features of iOS is the lock screen notifications; the First seems to offer something similar, but I never saw a notification in the store.
Anecdotally, my wife, a massive Facebook user, barely interacted with the demo unit; I had to explain why she might care.
There are no easy solutions, although Facebook could be doing more.
- There should be an online demo where you create your Facebook Home experience, complete with your personalized cover feed, Chathead implementation, and notifications. Windows Phone, which faces similar challenges in marketing itself as a personalized device, has tried to do something along those lines. Facebook can and should do better.
- Facebook should build a demo routine into the First that simulates using Chatheads to message. This could go the extreme of having customer service representatives actually chat with you – which Apple did with Facetime when it launched – but more realistically could be an on-device automated demo.
- There needs to be a clear articulation of the value Facebook Home is providing to customers; there literally was nothing more in the store beyond a couple of pretty pictures.
As noted, I never spoke to a salesperson, but I’m not optimistic they could have effectively alleviated these issues, particularly when it comes to personalization.
- Selling things is hard. It’s all fine and dandy to rely on word of mouth when your product is free, but expecting people to part with cash requires a clear articulation of value; Facebook hasn’t even put in a rudimentary effort here.
- Selling items based on their ability to be “personal” is even harder. The HTC First without my Facebook information is worse than meaningless; it’s boring (and the industrial design does not help).2
- The ability to sell effectively should be viewed as a massive competitive advantage.
To this last point: I would argue that Apple’s retail stores, appreciated as they are, are in fact undervalued. They are arguably Apple’s most unassailable3 competitive advantage.4 Those 300+ locations are a type of refinery, taking the crudeness of bullets on a web page and transforming them into essential, must-have products that fuel customer purchase.
Of course Facebook is far from having their own retail presence; what’s worrying is that the complete absence of an articulated value proposition or online demo suggest they don’t even know how far behind they are.
A couple more photos of note:
- The Facebook installation was roughly the same size as that for the iPhone
- The HTC One was completely buried amidst a bunch of no-name phones. Not good.