Three User Experience Lessons Learned from Facebook

The Facebook IPO has come and gone, and views are understandably mixed on what it means for the future of social. The fact that investors were arguing about whether Facebook is worth $16 billion or $10 billion is amazing for a property that was considered insane for turning down a $1 billion acquisition offer from Yahoo! just five years ago (read more about Facebook going public here and here).

For comparison, News Corp purchased MySpace for $580 million seven years ago. From 2005 to 2008 it was the most visited social networking site in the world. For a brief period of time in 2006 it even surpassed Google as the most visited site in the U.S. Last year it was sold to Specific Media and Justin Timberlake for a paltry $35 million.

The intertwined stories of Facebook’s success and the MySpace collapse create a compelling parable on how to approach user experience — that only by being about great customer experience is monetization of the business model possible.

Let’s look at a few lessons we can learn from this comparison.

1. Take the time to do a beta.

MySpace: The company tried to build their user base as quickly as possible and as a result they struggled to scale. MySpace became overwhelmed and buggy as their popularity exploded among young people eager to express themselves and their tastes.

Facebook: From the start, they got the chance to get things right with a small group of users. Facebook’s humble beginnings as an exclusive property allowed them to expand slowly and manageably from campus to campus and, eventually, the open Internet.

2. Your initial KPIs should be about the experience.

MySpace: After News Corp purchased MySpace in 2005 they were anxious to see a return on their $580 million investment. Murdoch made revenue promises MySpace couldn’t reach ($1 billion by 2008). This inevitably put the focus on making money rather than making the experience right. Additionally, the deal they made with Google required a certain number of user visits on a regular basis, which put yet another KPI before user experience.

Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg held off on going public for as long as he could. Facebook has also shown a willingness to make changes they feel will improve the experience regardless of the impact it might have on short-term revenues. Their controversial updates frequently frustrate marketers and agencies as much, if not more, than the privacy experts. At times, marketers do not even seem to be a stakeholder considered in the design of the site and apps. Of course now that Facebook is seeing a lot of revenue pressure as a newly public company, new ad products such as Facebook Exchange make us wonder how long this thinking will last.

3. Have some taste.

MySpace: The site was quickly overcome with a deluge of advertising — different shapes, sizes, and levels of intrusion. And by encouraging complete profile customization, it became a reckless, noisy, user-generated design free-for-all, repulsing more mature demographics.

Facebook: Marketing messages are worked into the experience seamlessly. Ad spots are unobtrusive and feel relevant based on Likes and personal information (though admittedly, some pages on Facebook are looking more and more like old-fashioned classified ads). More restrained, visually exhausted users flocked to the serene white & blue pages as the MySpace collapse ensued.

There’s a saying: if you’re a user of a product and it’s a free product, then you — the user — are the product. That is, your eyeballs, your data, whatever, are being resold to marketers. That means the experience had better be amazing because that’s your compensation as the user.

Zuckerberg’s famous quote is all about this: “We don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”

This applies to marketing as much as startups. Start with creating a marketing “product” people can’t resist or live without, and then your KPIs — shares, views, brand preference and equity, etc. — will take off. Don’t, and as the fate of MySpace has shown, they will crash.

Regardless the outcome of Facebook’s foray into public fiscal accountability, the lessons gleaned from its phenomenal growth will be useful to marketers for years to come.