In the May 15 issue of the New Yorker, Facebook is profiled in a ten page article that features some insightful commentary by founder Mark Zuckerberg. Unfortunately, the article is not online – for those of us who spend too much time thinking about this stuff, it’s a good read and worth tracking down. A bit of the article deals with how Facebook got off the ground – how the site was developed and rolled out, eventually becoming one of the most visited sites on the internet. A big part of Facebook’s success was being in the right place at the right time, though as the article points out, Facebook had a number of competitors – they weren’t simply handed the keys to the castle. In preparation for a talk I’m giving this Friday, I figured it would be interesting to sit down and think about Facebook’s critical success factors. Zuckerberg rightly acknowledges that “gating” the networks was a huge factor in long-term success – but what were the things that brought in that initial audience and kept them coming back? Here’s my take on Facebook’s critical success factors, in a convenient list form.
- There was a huge market. Until that time, Social Networking Services (SNS) had largely been targeted and adopted by an older demographic. Friendster was largely popular with twentysomethings, not high school students. Whatsmore, in 2004, Friendster was on its downturn from the market, and Myspace was not the phenomenon it was today (in Summer 2005, a study I piloted found ~5% penetration from Myspace on campus). In 2004, a lot of us felt burned and a little jaded by SNS due to our Friendster experiences, but there was a whole enormous youth market segment that hadn’t had that experience, and Facebook captured it.
- The Experience was designed for college students, by college students. I’ll talk a little more about key features later on – but the fact this site was designed by members of the demographic it served is huge. The youth perspective informs every facet of the site; Zuckerberg’s decisions weren’t screened by a 27 year old product manager. In my last job, I managed extremely bright, extremely technical students for five years. These students taught me many things – including the need to keep my hands off of projects that motivated the students. Had Zuckerberg been answering to a 30 year old manager, or a 45 year old CEO, the site would have been different.
- Privacy. Beyond the market segment and the experiential aspects of the site, the fact Facebook walled networks was its most critical component. That the students could create their profiles for their audience (other students on their campus), and for their audience only created trust in the site. It also created behavior that made the site viral – students were incentivized to create profiles for each other, rather than for the world at large. As Zuckerberg notes in the New Yorker article, the privacy is largely false – but for most students, the privacy is good enough.
- Socioeconomic motives. People commonly cite the fact that Facebook was started at Harvard as a factor in its success – that these ivy league students proved tastemakers for the rest of the country. Sure, this may have been a slight motive very early in the rollout process, but I do not believe it is a critical factor. However, there are critical socioeconomic factors tied in to the Facebook. First, the class of student who uses the Facebook is a unique subset of the youth market. That is to say, they are the privileged class of youths who can attend a four-year college. The Facebook represented a place where they and their like friends could be found; I’m sure I can dig a study up where it shows that high school students of like socioeconomic and educational status cluster together. The Facebook allowed these like clusters to be transplanted virtually, into a members-only place. Compared to a Myspace or Friendster, where you’re forced into the pile with everyone else, this made the initial adoption of a SNS much easier for members of this socioeconomic class. As Facebook radiated outward, taking on colleges further down in US News rankings, it was a class effect that elevated the perceived status of membership, one that continues today.
- Features, and the Experience. That the Facebook was designed for students by students merited its own bullet on this list. However, there are a number of features Facebook incorporated that made the service sticky. Here are the most important
- Feature – Organization by Classes. The Facebook allowed people to list their class schedules online, making them browsable. That is, if you’re in English 101, Section 9, you can browse all the other profiles of students in English 101, Section 9, as you sit in English 101, Section 9. Think about how powerful this is. The kid sitting next to you who you never talk to? You know his favorite bands, his interests, you’ve browsed his friends and realized you actually have friends in common. This was an incredibly important part of Facebook’s early success.
- Feature – The Poke, or low-involvement communication. In Facebook, you can poke people. It means nothing and everything. There’s no documentation for the feature, but the students got it. The poke is a way to simply place yourself on someone else radar, and it quickly became culturally appropriate to poke. The poke is the precursor to full-duplex communication; for students trying to figure out who its OK to talk to and not, the poke is a low-involvement way to test these waters. Low-involvement communication is a key factor of Facebook, and it really makes sense in a situation where communication barriers are still being figured out.
- Feature – Groups. Groups are a way to say everything or nothing about yourself. They’re a fun way to come together to represent part of your identity. Mostly, though, they just gave students another fun thing to browse endlessly – and you were rewarded for your wit (most group names are in-jokes).
- Experience – Directory Services. The Facebook is a directory. As it turns out, students need that directory to figure out how to contact each other. The directory provided by their school? Not so good. A directory like Facebook? Invaluable.
- Experience – Simplicity. The Facebook is a simple website. It uses common design features, uses text links for feature navigation, and the site is largely unobtrusive. This means that students could learn it fast. The site isn’t full of Ajax, there aren’t overly complicated functions, and the Facebook doesn’t try to design above anyone’s head.
- Experience – Speed. Those of us who suffered through Friendster, and loathe browsing MySpace on Firefox know how important speed is. The Facebook has always been lightning fast – and that has helped their brand immensely. Lets face it, when we browse a social network we want to move around frequently and rapidly. We’re stumbling, not following an explicit path. Fast response enables this fun stumbling process, and the fact that Facebook has stayed consistently fast has left a very positive impression in users minds. Anyone working in the SNS space should keenly try to replicate Facebook’s successes in this area.
A couple of things to keep in mind. In making this list, I approached the question from a past perspective. I wanted to explore what worked for Facebook in 2004/2005 – factors that contribute to their success today. There’s no doubt that I’ve missed things, or that people have different opinions. Please leave a comment if you do. Readers should also note that Facebook hasn’t done everything perfectly – they’ve made mistakes like any other business. I’m just concentrating on their success factors, because I think it might be useful for those of us in the SNS space to think about. Again, feedback is welcome.