Why Facebook Won
posted on 29th Jul 2010
Last week Facebook announced it had reached a milestone – 500 million worldwide subscribers. At the same time, and with much less fanfare Bebo’s new owners, Criterian Capital Partners, who bought the company after it was offloaded by AOL, announced the social network would return to producing original video content that it had become known for at its peak. A tale of two not-very-different social networks. So where did it all go wrong for Bebo, Myspace and more importantly where did it all go right for Facebook?
Launched n 2003, it became the first great social network, before being sold to Rupert Murdoch for $580 million in 2005. Myspace was great for connecting with bands and finding new music. The service even allowed users to alter the look and feel of their pages with a limited knowledge of HTML, or even with no knowledge of HTML and code copied and pasted from other sites. The end result would often be a mess of dark text on dark backgrounds, bright text on bright backgrounds, colours that clashed and pages so weighed down with code would take a small lifetime to load. It had plenty wrong with it. But at its core was music, its what brought people together. Groups of friends would often have similar tastes in music so Myspace made perfect sense. But it also depended on people having tastes in music and wanting to seek bands out. For some, as unimaginable as it is, music isn’t a major part of their life and so a need to be on a music social network just wasn’t there. While Myspace’s popularity has waned the fact it has a niche audience of music fans and artists, once nurtured, could see the service continue long into the future.
Mashable, the worlds leading social media blog carried the headline ‘Bebo Bigger Than Google’ in 2007. Now it was only related to Ireland, but the Ireland of 2007 had a love affair with Bebo. In colleges, schools and homes the length and breadth of the country students and teenagers were connecting, talking and sharing information about anything as long as it wasn’t educational! Like Myspace, Bebo also allowed users to pimp their profiles leading to similar problems regarding aesthetics and load time. It also suffered from the perception it was for kids and original video content such as ‘Lonleygirl15’ and ‘Kate Modern’, while ground-breaking in their format and important in the success of the site, lived up to that perception. Bebo’s demise can be traced back to the sale of the site in 2008 for $850 million to AOL. Original content was axed and a redesign of the Bebo layout didn’t strike a chord with fans who were now deserting the site in favour of Facebook. Bebo was only popular in Ireland, the UK and New Zealand, which could of played a part in its downfall. It wasn’t truly global so friends or family from outside of those countries probably didn’t use the service. For anybody who went travelling the world to places like the USA, South America, Australia or Asia, Bebo wasn’t that well known, coupled with a tag of being for kids and the 20 somethings who should have been Bebo’s customers made the move to Facebook. A return to original content may not hold the key to Bebo’s second coming, maybe the Bebo brand is damaged beyond repair. It doesn’t have a niche like Myspace does and so will need to differentiate itself from Facebook in order to clearly identify its value to new and lapsed users.
The growth of Facebook has been phenomenal, adding 100 million users every six months since 2008. It’s growth in Ireland has been just as spectacular, growing by 400% in just over 18 months to it’s current figure of 1.73 millon users. From the beginning the service has gotten it right. A staggered release (initially just Harvard students could join, then other students, certain companies and eventually everyone) ensured bugs could be ironed out, that there would be instant ‘buy in’ from those who were granted access to it and with the service proving so popular in schools and universities the media caught on and hyped up the service. Not just in the USA but around the world. The social network has constantly tweaked its service to make the user experience better. Additions such as allowing third party developers to create apps, a move towards real time updates and the creation of pages for brands all helped to make the service better for users, developers and business. Each change, no matter how minute, has been to extend the users time spent on the network, the longer th ebetter because it increases reliance on the service making users less likely to move. Although the detractors of the site have been more vocal of late issues such as privacy, it has done little to dent the surge in growth of the website. If anything, I think it has allowed Facebook to demonstrate how it responds to customer complaints through easier to navigate security settings and the establishment of a Facebook safety page at facebook.com/fbsafety.
This Google offering launched in early 2010. it was a poor mans attempt at a social network and a practical guide in ‘How Not To…’. Foisted upon Gmail users it came with poor navigation and aesthetics. Word is Google will try a new attempt later this year called ‘Google Me’. In Google’s own words search (its core business) is moving in a more social direction and they need to be involved.
Twitter is the internet superhighway. Links to information, pictures and video are shared at an astounding speed. But it lacks the depth and social ties that Facebook comes with. Everything is text based with external links. Twitter brought real time updates to the public, which Facebook later adopted. A report posted in Tuesdays Mashable suggests Twitter will incorporate video and photo’s into its stream. This points in a move towards Facebook in terms of style, but also adds more depth to its micro-blogging roots.
A location based social network that allows you to check in to real locations, check reviews of those locations or avail of offers at those locations (if they’re businesses!). Foursquare brings a whole new dimension to social networking – location. Facebook and Google know the importance of the local connection – after all I might be able to buy cheaper clothes online but if I want to find a restaurant then I will be looking much closer to home. Foursquare is too niche at present but presents a huge opportunity for the future as smart phone handsets become the norm.
So it would seem for now Facebooks position is fairly secure. They got there by providing a superior service, playing to their strengths and avoiding the pitfalls that foiled competitors. Their advantage is the sheer size of their network and the relative longevity the service has operated. The longer the better, things like having to shift years of photo’s onto a new network, or maintaining multiple profiles because some friends may not move, are all real issues a competitor will need to deal with. The size of the network means that any ground breaking new developments by smaller competitors could be replicated and rolled out to more people faster than the competitor who created it. However, it might be fair to say they have yet to meet a formidable opponent in the social game, but for now they remain in an untouchable position.