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What Facebook should have learned from religion

The social network didn't start as a commercial concern. That makes it tougher to believe that it will ever be one--unlike churches, where there has seemingly always been a collection plate.

When I was little, my parents used to drag me along to a Catholic Church so that I could spiritually contemplate my day of rest.

While there was no way I could question that I would go to hell if I used a vile word like "bloody" or "damn," there was one element of the Sunday service that always seemed odd: the collection plate.

My dad explained to me that we should always give some of what we earned to the Church. It was only many years later that I saw that the priest lived in a far nicer house than ours.

These days, I have no time to go to church because, of course, I need to catch up with my friends online every Sunday. Yet the notion of the collection plate still lingers.

What would Facebook be like today, if it had insisted on a collection plate from the very beginning? One of the great concerns that many of the wisest advertisers have is that Facebook simply doesn't feel right as an advertising medium.

As Procter & Gamble's general manager of interactive marketing and innovation, Ted McConnell, put it at a Digital Media conference in Cincinnati: "I really don't want to buy any more banner ads on Facebook...I have a reaction to (Facebook) as a consumer advocate and an advertiser: what in heaven's name made you think you could monetize the real estate in which somebody is breaking up with (his) girlfriend?"

Yet churches have managed to monetize the real estate in which you pray for a raise, for your own salvation, for a cure for cancer, and for yet another Wild Card team to win the Super Bowl.

How did they do it? Perhaps by never being too idealistic in the first place. Churches were, and often still are, the primary social-networking places for many.

Vanity Fair's brilliant story about a man who claimed to be Clark Rockefeller, but was really someone far more sinister, revealed that he often sealed his deals with the well-heeled by meeting them in churches.

One might also argue that churches have better ads than Facebook too. CC Au Tiger 01

Yet for all their supposed celestial idealism, churches have always maintained a healthy understanding about money and the material world. So much so that when television came along, we were suddenly soothed by the vision of Oral Roberts and other preachers who used the visual medium to enrich their mission. (Can you believe that QVC was founded as late as 1986?)

Perhaps the founders of Facebook were too enamored of the social-networking movement they were creating to ever think hard enough about money. Perhaps they felt that in creating this movement, issues of money were not merely irrelevant or at best secondary, but a little too dirty--a little too '80s.

Now Mark Zuckerberg is acting as if Facebook is the world's next great new medium, touting its 150 million user base.

But as Ted McConnell suggested: "Who said this is media? Media is something you can buy and sell. Media contains inventory. Media contains blank spaces. Consumers weren't trying to generate media. They were trying to talk to somebody. So it just seems a bit arrogant...We hijack their own conversations, their own thoughts and feelings, and try to monetize it."

As Wikipedia asks for donations, as pornographers try to get themselves a bailout, churches of all denominations sit there quietly, gaze upon their chastened flocks, and continue to be a home for social networking.

I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg wishes today that he'd had a collection plate from the very beginning. It might have saved him from becoming an adman.

(Disclosure: Yes, I've been responsible for Procter & Gamble advertising in the past. No, I don't know Ted McConnell. No, I am not a church member. No, not even the Church of Scientology.)