The growth of Facebook is the success story of our times.
The social media giant has astonished with its development and the way it's shaped an entire generation, getting hundreds of millions around the world hooked on social networking. Over the years it has evolved considerably, though its ethos has remained the same - as has its familiar white and blue color scheme.
The evolution of Facebook as a business teaches us valuable lessons about seeing new opportunities and changing business goals. Here are a few.
Begin with a solid idea and a clear purpose
No one could have foreseen the kind of success Facebook has now achieved when it first started out as a social network for university students in Harvard, but the idea obviously resonated with many people.
Not just students, but people everywhere are very eager to know what's going on in the lives of those in their social circles. People love to share and to think out loud. Everyone loves to have an audience, however small it may be. Facebook's success, and that of other similar networks, rests on this one fundamental principle - allowing people to share information and cultivate relationships.
The lesson: Ideas and vision power successful businesses. They guide a company through its ups and downs, and help it scale newer heights. More than innovative, an idea has to be sound in order to be successful.
Change is risky, but an opportunity to grow
When you're as popular as Facebook, tinkering with anything is a risk. People usually don't like change - they might even hate it if they;re comfortable with the existing ways. But change is also inevitable. It's a sign of progress and evolution.
Facebook began with a basic interface in February 2004. It contained profiles of its users and updates about who had befriended whom. There was little else going on. A couple of years later arrived the News Feed, the first major change on the network, as it moved beyond colleges and towards general public. By 2008, Facebook had a significantly different and refined look. In 2010 the network opened up to businesses/brands for them to have dedicated Facebook pages and invite fans/followers to connect with them. Now we had almost everyone joining the network, ballooning its numbers.
The year 2011 saw the introduction of the Timeline, accompanied by a big cover photo at the top of the page. There were also numerous other small updates and refinements that Facebook made to its site in order to improve its aesthetics as well as enhance the user experience.
These changes were not always accepted happily. In fact, many were very vocal about their displeasure with them, yet the network continued to see greater usage and bigger follower bases.
The lesson: Change can be scary but don't let that fear hold you back, or you risk stagnation. When you're able to execute the changes well and convince the users/customers of the usefulness of the new features, they will learn to accept change - embrace it, even.
When you mess up, accept the mistakes and rectify them
It's natural to falter as you grow and undertake changes. Privacy advocates have often criticized Facebook for its confusing settings and for failing to adequately notify users of the risks to their privacy.
In an open letter penned by founder Mark Zuckerberg himself, Facebook apologized for not providing users with adequate control over their privacy settings and proposed to correct it. This was way back in 2006 and was only the first of the apologies from Facebook. A couple of years ago the company apologized once again, this time for carrying out "secret psychological tests on 700,000 of its users in 2012."
The lesson: Honesty and transparency help. Be brave enough to admit your mistakes and make good on them. Despite its many mistakes, people worldwide continue to place their trust in Facebook.
Have a clear purpose but be open to evolution
Facebook is a lot of things but most importantly it's a marketing giant.
That is not surprising because in a capitalistic society - when an idea, company, or even an individual attains success, they become the focus of marketers. Big companies want to go where consumers are flocking to in big numbers. With the kind of success and reach Facebook's seen, along with the user data it's gathered, its importance to the world of marketing was inevitable.
After allowing businesses to create dedicated pages in 2010, Facebook saw a jump in the number of small and big companies joining the network. With the help of PPC advertising, Facebook marketing became a force in attracting consumers and is only gaining more traction with increasing user bases.
One study by HubSpot conducted back in 2012 found that 42% of marketers believe that Facebook is critical to their success, a number that's only expanded over time. Over 77% of B2C companies polled said they had found customers via Facebook, with 43% of B2B companies asserting the same. Here's an even more impressive statistic: Facebook is the top preference of 80% of social media users for connecting with brands of their choice.
Facebook's been very smart to tap into its popularity to create for businesses platforms that help them market themselves to their target audiences. It's created quality products to achieve this goal.
Its ad network has become a "billion-dollar advertising machine." The company says its ads work because "they're personal, relevant and easy to measure on both desktop and mobile". Facebook understands business, marketing and human psychology, and has made the most of this knowledge.
The lesson: Facebook didn't start out with the aim of becoming a marketing behemoth, but its popularity over the years, and its willingness to try new things, took it in that direction.
Facebook hasn't strayed from its main purpose, which is helping people share and connect. It has, however, added many more dimensions to its offering to match its exponential growth.
As it became hugely popular with the general public, business interest was bound to follow. Facebook was quick to capitalize on it. It's continued to refine its platform along with its services, and as a result gained even greater success.
The importance of vision and the art of embracing change
Not everything Facebook tries works out - its recent push for wider internet access in India via Internet.org being one such example. But that won't stop it from trying. Zuckerberg says Facebook is guided by a larger mission - "to make the world more open and connected." His vision has grown in line with the company's influence. Marketing might be beside the point for Facebook's larger purpose, but it's certainly powered the company's growth.
As business owners, we need to be guided by our vision as we make decisions that affect our companies and workforces over the long term. It's a huge responsibility. At the same time, however, we need to be open to the changing trends and evolve with the times. If we want to be innovative in our fields, we have to risk taking bold initiatives as well and not mind failure.
What are some of the lessons you have taken away from Facebook's success? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Main image via Shutterstock