Will Facebook’s Mystery Announcement Live Up to the Hype?


By Marek Fuchs

Apple (AAPL) long ago turned the mystery press conference into a piece of transcendent performance art. Now Facebook (FB) is following its lead.

On Tuesday at 1pm EST at its Menlo Park campus, Facebook will host assembled media for a product launch. The company has been cryptic at best about what they will unveil, but neither shaky premises nor rank speculation will stop the media from raising expectations to new heights. In their hopeless longing for a big story, the media are already at it.

“It might just be a product launch,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “but we plan to treat it like a rocket launch.”

Houston, we have a problem.

Or, more accurately, we might have a problem. If the product is truly great, all hype will be forgiven. But if the media bust their capillaries for a dud, traders will pay the price. As a result, we need to prepare for any contingency by figuring out what to expect ahead of a "mystery" press conference.

By way of hints, all Facebook said on their invitation was: “Come and see what we’re building.” That’s as brisk and broad a stroke as words will allow, but Facebook does not seem to be promising the world. “See what we’re building” is fairly modest in tone, no?

Not in the media’s retelling, which clearly signals that expectations are too high to surmount. A representative headline reads: “Facebook calls 15 January press conference, promises something big.” Got that? Something. Big. So much for that modest tone, huh?

“I think the real take away is that Facebook actually now cares if people are paying attention, it cares to build anticipation,” said Yahoo! Finance Sr. columnist Michael Santoli, in the attached video. “There was a lot of talk around its IPO last year that they didn’t cater to public expectations, didn’t really care what Wall Street thought, and I think we’re seeing the stock run up here in a very aggressive way probably in response to that sentiment, as much as whatever is going to be announced tomorrow.”

Some are claiming this next “big” thing will be a Facebook phone, with others positing that the company will unveil enhanced search functions. In terms of the phone, Mark Zuckerberg , chairman and CEO of Facebook, has called that prospect the "wrong strategy." But others – including The Wall Street Journal – say the mogul doth protest too much and Zuckerberg is actively working with handset makers.

Facebook is obviously not talking, so anyone who can tell you for certain whether the product is going to be phone or feature is suffering from premature prognostication. We can, though, offer answers to one question: Does Facebook even give good conference? That might give us a good a hint at the stock market’s possible reaction.

Facebook used to hold regular pressers, but they’ve gone to the mattresses since their disastrous public offering in May. Obviously this means we’re working at a bit of a disadvantage in gauging market reaction. But here’s what we know: Zuckerberg was famously aloof and off-putting during the IPO presentations. That hardly bodes well.

When Facebook introduced Skype video chat in June of 2011, you could hardly roust members of the media from their slumber. It was mostly framed as a reaction to Google’s foray into social media, with its Google+ unveiling. Back in October of 2010, Facebook introduced their “Groups” privacy settings at a press conference. That was another snoozer. In fact, it seems that, when it comes to press conferences, Facebook is as metaphysically far from Apple as possible.

With Steve Jobs dead and the company’s products falling into the incremental-advance state, perhaps even Apple can’t do Apple press conferences well anymore. But Facebook is still at an obvious disadvantage. In most cases, they can’t even pull back the curtain to reveal a tangible gizmo. Instead, they talk computer settings.

Hold the Ambien.

In the end, the media’s nostrils are already flaring about this "mystery" press conference, but the sum total of the parts is this: We have a company that is somewhat charmless in the public square, set to introduce either a phone -- in which case they’ll have to explain away their oft-stated hesitancy on this topic -- or a product that is largely conceptual.

Either way, it’s hardly a recipe for certain success. Considering that the stock hit six-month highs last week in part on misplaced anticipation, traders would probably do well to heed some caution in the prelude to Tuesday’s press conference.

Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' County Lines column for six years. Fuchs speaks regularly on business and journalism issues at venues ranging from annual meetings of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers to PBS to National Public Radio. His recent book, "Local Heroes: Portraits of American Volunteer Firefighters," earned widespread praise. He is on the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. When Fuchs is not writing or teaching, he serves as a volunteer firefighter. You can contact him on Twitter: @MarekFuchs.

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