What is Facebook anymore? It’s hard to say. It’s a lot like asking what is Google or Microsoft or even GE. It’s a giant company, supported by advertising. That’s inarguable, but Facebooks is something beyond that. It’s a series of experiments.
The social network is constantly tweaking the formula and trying to find new ways to encourage people to share, and this experimentation is supported by its flagship platforms: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and now, more than ever, Messenger. Behind all of these is a series of apps that Facebook launched and then learned from.
Failure Sometimes is the Goal
Failure is success. “You make a ton of progress by making a ton of mistakes,” says Google X’s Astro Teller. Facebook, organizationally, would agree.
Paper is an app that curates a user’s News Feed into top stories. It’s an app designed for mobile content consumption that Facebook is able to use to learn how people consume content on mobile devices. Poke taught Facebook what not to do with ephemeral messaging and led to a new platform, Slingshot, to better compete with Snapchat. Neither took off, but Facebook learned. Rooms is helping Facebook create communities of like-minded individuals outside of Facebook.com with a new take on forums. It’s build by connecting people through interests (interest graph), instead of relationships (social graph) as it’s traditionally done.
Now, there’s Riff, Facebook’s latest app. The app allows a user to shoot a quick video based on a particular topic. Friends can then add to that video with snippets of their own, followed by their friends and their friends. The final product is a community-created video owned by all who participated. Will it succeed? Probably not, but Facebook doesn’t care. It shouldn’t care.
We Can Learn from What Facebook Learns From
Facebook knows what kills it won’t look like Facebook. It will be something completely different, so instead of waiting for that thing to come along. Facebook is experimenting. Taking different ingredients, mixing them, learning from them and turning them into full-fledged products or, at the very least, incorporating learnings into existing ones.
Finding the next great thing will almost surely be an accident, and yes, most of Facebook’s apps are going to be failures. That’s how it works. But for Facebook and the development community, failures are opportunities to make things better or do things better next time.
It’s easy to dismiss Facebook’s experiments as failures waiting to happen, but smart marketers will watch them. We can learn a lot:
- What is Facebook seeing as the future sharing opportunity? Video is the clear frontrunner.
- How is the experience designed? Like them or not, Facebook has become a mobile company, and marketers can learn a lot from how they execute on mobile.
- Are users participating? If so, Facebook may have hit onto something. If not, why?
- Where has Facebook applied its learnings? These apps aren’t being built for fun. They’re experiments driven by a hypothesis that Facebook proves or disproves and then acts upon. Riff was inspired by how people shared the Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s working to see how that kind of sharing can work over and over again, instead of a one-shot, viral moment in time.
It’s easy to brush aside every new platform Facebook rolls out. Let’s be honest. They’re using knockoffs of existing applications, get little support and are then quietly shut down or forgotten about. I can’t remember the last time I opened up Paper.
That’s really not the point, however. Facebook, like Google, can afford to fail. It’s an investment, not an all-in bet. Advertisers can learn from this experimentation, both what and what not to do. Let Facebook fail. It can afford to, and advertisers can, at least partially, reap the benefits.