Friday, January 6, 2012

What Businesses Can Learn From Facebook Timeline

Now that Facebook Timeline is available to all users worldwide (if you haven't got it yet go here and click Get Timeline Now) I hear more and more people complain that it is not as good as old Facebook. Yet I am sure that when Facebook announces the next major redesign people will be grumbling that they want to keep Timeline. This "New Facebook Effect" is well known. I wrote about it last year in The New Facebook Effect, The Rosetta Stone and Why It is Important for Communicators. It has also inspired many comics/cartoons like this classic 2010 State Of the Web by the Oatmeal.

Since 2005 Facebook has changed many times but this latest change goes beyond the usual tweaking of layout features. When you look at it more closely you realize that it is much deeper, much more clever than all the previous updates,  teaching three fundamental lessons for all businesses.

1. DON'T WAIT FOR COMPETITORS TO MAKE YOUR PRODUCT OBSOLETE. It is tempting to stay with a successful product until the competition forces you to innovate a new version, but this is not a strategy for long-term success. Friendster was ousted by Myspace and Myspace was ousted by Facebook, but Facebook was ousted by... New Facebook -- several times. This strategy explains why so many social media and Internet giants are now ghost towns -- be honest, when is the last time you used your Myspace account -- yet Facebook just keeps jogging along. The lesson is don't wait for the competitors to beat your product; do it yourself and you keep ahead of the pack. Wait until the other guys have a better product and you will be reduced to playing catch up.

2. MAKE FULL USE OF THE RESOURCES YOU HAVE. In the Timeline rollout Facebook demonstrated a textbook case of how a company can exploit something that they already have -- seven years of historical data on millions of users. This data was always stored but was not really being used and many users -- me included -- complained that things they had shared years before were practically inaccessible.  Timeline gives you easy access to all of this old data, bringing into play a resource that was previously just a cost to the company. The lesson here is to look for resources that you may have overlooked. Data sets that were previously just wasting storage space might be enablers for a new business or at least a new feature so someone should be searching for them.

3. LEVERAGE ADVANTAGES THAT ARE HARD TO COPY. Even more important, perhaps, is that Timeline is impossible to copy for new startups because they don't have a data set going back to 2005. It's even hard to copy for other giants like Google because their historical data is primarily just search and email data, neither of which could be used in this way. By switching to the Timeline product Facebook has created a massive barrier for competitors that will give them an advantage that will last for years. The lesson here is that you need to analyze new opportunities and give priority to those that are hard to copy. A great idea that anybody could copy with a day of coding is not the recipe for long-term success, but to build a new product on something that is very hard for others to equal is a more certain route to glory.

Like most people I struggled with previous updates for the first few days, but soon grew to like them and would never have gone back. Timeline was different in that it brought more obvious benefits to users. But the real significance is much deeper and this is not only the most significant reworking of the site but also the most instructive for other companies. It's an interesting exercise to look at your own business and see how many of these three lessons you can apply.




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