Facebook is the big bang in the universe of social networking. Sure, MySpace and LiveJournal had slightly better than primordial existences before the days of Mark Zuckerberg, but they never held a candle to Facebook’s massive user base, and they weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as the social network quickly became.
From its inception, Facebook has operated under the mentality that it will never be finished — it will constantly be innovating and progressing to remain more than a social network. Unless you’ve been living in a Wi-Fi-less cave, you’re aware of the amazing success of Facebook. So, given its strong company culture of innovation, what can the rest of the business world learn from it?
King Of Innovation
To understand why Facebook continues to enjoy such success, let’s look at some of its more recent innovations.
Timeline: The hotly contested timeline feature is perhaps the most remarkable of the latest changes. Zuckerberg describes it as “a new way to express who you are,” which has been Facebook’s niche from the start. The timeline look takes on a magazine format, with all of a user’s activities and information in the same place. Timelines are highly customizable, but the true innovation here is that users can provide photos taken prior to Facebook’s inception, thus adding their own unique histories to the social network.
Application integration: Another change in the string of dramatic Facebook redesigns that garnered a lot of strong user reaction was app integration with Spotify, Turntable.fm, and other services. This integration has turned Facebook into a sort of “entertainment hub” and recommendation engine. Users’ music, movies, and television preferences will soon be incorporated into their Facebook profiles with continuing updates. Facebook is positioning itself as an all-inclusive information, entertainment, photo, chat, and videoconferencing solution.
Social graph: Facebook already provides advertisers with a host of information about users’ likes, preferences, lifestyles, and habits. With the release of graph search, the tables have turned. Users will now be able to mine the data that’s long been available to advertisers. Each like, check-in, or photo might help a friend or friend of a friend decide where to eat, what to read, or where to vacation. Social graph is a platform for a kind of word-of-mouth altruism. It might as well be called “designed serendipity.”
In Praise Of The Other Guys
With all of Facebook’s innovation in the social space, it’s easy to forget about other platforms. Yet Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, and others have been doing some pretty visionary things, as well. Each is geared to meet a specific set of needs, rather than designed to be as all-encompassing as Facebook. It goes without saying that, in order to grow, these networks must innovate.
While Facebook continues to release major enhancements one at a time, LinkedIn seems to bank its changes and roll them out in a comprehensive release. Twitter, on the other hand, began with an open application-programming interface that led to a proliferation of third-party innovations. When faced with the realization that it would lose users to competitors if it didn’t embrace or acquire these products, Twitter restricted access to the API and formed tighter partnerships, some of which resulted in acquisitions.
Then there’s Google Plus, which is remarkable in that it’s an essential framework for all social media content. It is being transformed into a sort of suggestion engine — a way to understand social interactions across the Web through hangouts and communities. In other words, Google Plus isn’t the site where the action is; it’s the site that tells you where to find it. This tracking of user interests gives Google an understanding of how to serve up relevant ads for revenue in a way that is even more advanced than Facebook’s model.
Observe And Prosper
Just because your business doesn’t operate solely on a computer screen doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two from the social network magnates. There are many aspects of a business that could use a mentality similar to Facebook’s, especially when it comes to innovation. Here are a few recommendations:
Observe your customers: Forget about focus groups and go where your customers (and potential customers) are. Make the world your personal database. This will help you develop empathy and anticipate what customers will want.
Identify what is unique: See if there are ways of interpreting the customer experience that opens up a range of challenges to explore and needs to meet. Perhaps your customers are frustrated with their experiences. Find out why. In these insights lie the seeds of your innovative solutions.
Frame opportunities by choosing where to focus: It’s a good idea to be selective because you likely have limited resources, and your customers probably have limited patience. These opportunities should be set in terms of your strategic intent and the areas where you have the most customer insight.
Brainstorm with context: Root your brainstorming efforts in the customer experience, and make them specific. An appropriately framed opportunity will also help when it comes to brainstorming.
Experiment: Try low-cost, rapid experiments to enable your company to more readily adapt and grow your early-stage solution ideas into truly adoptable innovations. These experiments shouldn’t require huge dollar investments — at least not initially. Bear in mind that some of the most remarkable technologies started out as paper-and-cardboard prototypes.
Kill bad ideas: Ideas are like cabs in New York; they’re everywhere you look. So don’t fall in love with your ideas so much that they prevent you from doing what you should be doing. Google learned this when Larry Page replaced Eric Schmidt as CEO. Upon his return to leadership, Page eliminated 25 unessential projects. He was then able to mastermind the acquisition of Motorola Mobility, greatly gearing Google up for future innovation.
Don’t be distracted by others’ successes: Know your company strategy, who you serve, and why. Continue to elevate your customers’ experience of your company’s products and services.
Reinvent yourself: Sometimes, the greatest success comes after recognizing that a wholesale change is required. If innovation is going to play a part in your long-term success, you need to drive it across all areas of your business.
Be prepared to fail: Failure is a natural part of the innovation process, so embrace it. Learn the lessons to be had, make the necessary changes to recover, and move on. Do not belabor the pain, and certainly do not punish those who took the risk. If anything, praise their willingness to demonstrate that innovation is not only about risking greatly, but also about how resiliently you can overcome setbacks.
You’ll Thank Me Later
Each Facebook interface change has been met with user confusion and, occasionally, outrage.
People are creatures of habit, so this backlash is not surprising, nor is Facebook’s approach to innovation unique. Consider Apple’s decision to introduce the Thunderbolt connector to replace existing iPod and iPhone connectors: The connectors on its suite of devices had not been changed since the very inception of the iPod. Apple customers were in an uproar over this.
Customer ire aside, Apple’s decision was a wise one because it had long-reaching benefits for all players. As much as we bemoan change, people are highly adaptable, and once adapted, they will shift their concerns to the next exciting modification. This is simply a part of owning technology.
The point is, if customers’ desires for stability were always followed, companies would frequently find themselves scrambling while the latest and greatest product or service provided by a competitor destroyed their market shares. Companies must innovate to survive and, in that effort, there are only three options: lead the market, follow the market rapidly, or fall by the wayside.
What we can take away from the ingenuity of social networking is this: Change is a constant, natural element to life and, therefore, business. Companies can benefit by following social networks’ trend of observing their user bases and evolving to suit the future needs of their customers. It’s a fast-paced business model, but if we look at the success of social media, it’s well worth adopting.
Andrew (Drew) C. Marshall is the Principal of Primed Associates, an innovation consultancy. He lives in central New Jersey and works with clients across the U.S. and around the world. He is a co-host of weekly innovation-focused Twitter chat, #innochat; founder, host, and producer of Ignite Princeton; and a contributor to the Innovation Excellence and Collaborative Innovation blogs. He is also providing support for the implementation of the Design Thinking for Scholars model with the Network of Leadership Scholars (an interest group within the Academy of Management).