Six years ago, Facebook began encouraging developers to integrate their products into its social network. The company hoped that attracting external apps to the site would help engage users, fill up News Feeds, and increase the all-important data it would eventually use to target ads. Things haven't always worked out as planned. A look at Facebook's twisting journey.
The first Facebook apps ran entirely within the familiar blue-hued site. You remember them—and maybe still play them, even if you don't admit it. Games such as FarmVille, Pet Society, and Are You Interested? were both addictive (ooh, virtual blueberries!) and maddeningly communicative ("Jane Smith found some premium white mystery eggs to share with friends"). As annoying as those updates were, they also lured millions of new users, and exponential growth ensued, especially in games. But some felt the Facebook experience suffered.
Companies wanted to capitalize on Facebook's popularity, but it wasn't clear how. "Everyone asked questions like, Should The New York Times abandon its website and just build a Facebook app?" says Mike Vernal, Facebook's director of engineering. "That seemed silly. For a lot of websites, just being in the Facebook frame doesn't add a lot of value." Facebook needed a way to be useful to a broader range of apps. So Vernal helped launch Facebook Connect, the first version of the log in button, which signs users in to apps using Facebook accounts. The button is used about 850 million times a month.
A new like button let you share to Facebook friends while on an outside site. Likes were soon a key social media barometer, as well as a way for Facebook to see which sites users visited. Today, you can share how far you're running, videos you're watching, and other info directly from mobile apps—all of which tell Facebook your interests. "That means we can serve you more relevant stories and make your experience better," says Doug Purdy, Facebook's director of product management. "Now, could some of those stories be ads? Of course."
When consumer attention began to tilt toward smartphones, Facebook was caught off guard. "We felt comparatively underinvested in mobile," says Vernal, "so we spent the latter part of 2011 and a lot of 2012 trying to reinvent the platform as something that was almost entirely focused on mobile." As a result, Facebook introduced the App Center—which recommends not just Facebook apps but also ones for Android and Apple—along with a new ad format that advertises those apps in mobile News Feeds. During the first two quarters of 2013, the ads drove 71 million downloads.
In April, Facebook bought Parse, a coding toolkit that makes it easy to create versions of the same app for Android, iOS, and other operating systems. Not coincidentally, Facebook has the only ad format that lets developers reach 1.2 billion users on different devices. If developers don't take interest, Facebook may fall permanently behind in the mobile race. But if its plan works, the company will be valuable even to apps made for its competitors' platforms—providing fresh content for Facebook News Feeds and data about users, all while adding a new source of ad revenue.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.