Why Facebook Is Even Bigger than You Think

Fast Interview: Stanford professor BJ Fogg explains why the social networking site is the most powerful thing ever invented.

And you thought Facebook was just for getting a date! Stanford Professor BJ Fogg, who is writing a book about the psychology of Facebook, believes the social networking platform is revolutionary because it takes the dynamics of one-to-one persuasion and scales it up to millions. He explains why this changes the whole game of politics and business, why marketing as we know it will cease to exist, and why the notion of a target market will become perpetually beta.

Why study the psychology of Facebook?

I've long been interested in how technology can persuade people and how it can change people's attitudes and behaviors. Facebook has emerged as, I think, as the most effective persuasive technology ever.

You think Facebook is the most powerful persuasive tool in human history — including radio, telegraph, TV, and all those other things?

Facebook is the precursor of something I'm calling mass interpersonal persuasion. That is a new phenomenon and the most important thing to happen in the world of persuasion since the advent of the radio over 100 years ago. Radio changed the game for persuasion because it allowed a message to be broadcast to thousands and millions of people, which was previously not possible. TV was an extension of that, but I don't think it was the big leap that radio was.

Facebook takes very strong interpersonal influence dynamics — the way people persuade each other face-to-face in small groups with peer pressure, reciprocity, flattery — and allows those to be used on a mass scale because your social networks are built in. Friends influence friends, who influence friends, and that keeps rippling out. They can reach people very quickly for very little cost and ordinary people can set these in motion. It doesn't require a big broadcasting company or a big PR campaign. If you get the right message in the right way, you'll effect millions of people. Facebook has been the best platform for that, but I think in the future it will be commonplace.

Couldn't you say the same thing about other platforms like MySpace?

I think the other platforms will get there. I think Facebook is leading because it has a high trust culture. Unlike MySpace, where you can be linked to people you don't know or find out they may not even be real people, in Facebook you generally know them or you have some certainty they're real people. Persuasion hinges on the credibility of the source. The advantage of Facebook is the source credibility is very high.

What's an example of Facebook as a persuasive force?

In the political sphere, you have the fairly prominent example last fall of a group rallying support and raising awareness for the Burmese monks. I have to admit, once I saw that come across my newsfeed — and I saw seven of my friends had joined the group — I really woke up to that issue and started noticing it in the newspaper.

How do you see these persuasion dynamics playing out in business?

A lot of our exposure to services and products is now going to be socially mediated. It's going to be very hard to create a centralized broadcasting message about a brand or product. That's gone. Organizations need to understand how to get distribution within these social networks. How do we get friends to tell friends? How do you create new viral videos? How do you create groups that people are going to join? How do you create events that people will invite other people to? That's where mass interpersonal persuasion comes in. Through the newsfeed and my social network, interesting stuff now comes to me; I don't have to go searching for it.

This brings us to the idea of the long tail and niche communities. Do you see marketing drilling down into these niches in a much deeper way?

As a brand, you can worry about all these micro niches and micro markets and the long tail, but I think at the end of the day you're not going to have enough resources to do that. You have to focus on creating a spectacular product or service, and your market will find you. The people it resonates with will share it with others, and it will be distributed. It's a big leap of faith for marketers to think they're not going to have an active role in marketing. Once you figure out where it's going, then you can start putting resources into continuing to go into that market or expanding into others.

So marketing is going to become more user-driven?

Exactly. Even the notion that you know who your market is may go away. You have a lot more visibility now into who's using your service and why, and you can see how it gets socially shared. You don't have to pre-define your market right out of the gate. As long as you watch what's going on, you can adjust and go with what's working. That's been a big lesson for my start-up and I think it's a lesson for lots of people. If you stay tuned to the metrics, both the quantitative and qualitative feedback, you discover the real genius of your creation, rather than trying to impose it on a market that may or may not want it.

What is your startup?

We built an audio tool that allows groups to communicate privately, either live or recorded. It's called YackPack. We thought it would be a tool for connecting families, affiliate groups, and so on. That turned out not to be it. It's a really good tool for teachers, especially ones who teach language. Who knew? When you create a product or service, you can think you know what your market is, but what you really need to do is listen and watch. I'm such a huge advocate because at YackPack we did not do this fast enough. If we had said, Okay, we have to shift gears because we're a language learning company, we would have saved a lot of time and money. It's really about listening and adapting.

You recently taught a course at Stanford where you had your students create Facebook apps that turned out to be very popular. How'd you manage that?

Within 10 weeks, they got 16 million people who installed their apps. The week of the final, they had collectively over one million users a day. We talked about psychology, metrics, and this feedback loop between users and creators. We really wanted to tune the students into listening to users. Pay attention to the comments about your apps, watch the numbers, try things, look at other examples and imitate them, think about the psychology, tap into motivation and persuasion, make your best guesses and see what happens.

What were some of the most successful apps they created?

KissMe, Send Hotness, and Perfect Match all got millions of users and were viral. People invited their friends and they grew very, very quickly. Send Hotness and KissMe were kind of flirty apps. When you look at the college scene, a lot of what they're doing is exploring relationships and those apps seemed to promise to let people do that in a new, fun way. People on Facebook are there for certain reasons, and the apps you bring to them have to fit the reasons that they're there. You can't say, Oh, now we're going to have you learn to make quilts. They're not on Facebook to make quilts.

What's the takeaway?

The ability for ordinary people to create something, put it out in the world, and use metrics and iterations to make it better and better. It's going through this loop of innovation and product design, being guided by users and user data. It's continuing to improve products and experiences based not on guesses, not on consultants, not on checklists, but on real data and real usage. That's very exciting, and it's only going to get easier.

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12 Comments

  • Susanna Schick

    "You can't say, Oh, now we're going to have you learn to make quilts. They're not on Facebook to make quilts."

    damn. no wonder I can't get anyone to join my quilt group. ;-)

    but the big question is, why can't I "facebook" this article? I love sharing interesting articles with my friends, and Fast Company is one of the few publications I read which doesn't let me do that. I am not going to waste my time subscribing to digg, etc. when I can just post stuff to facebook. get with it, FC.

  • Clayton Johnston

    Facebook is the best free tool that I have ever had the pleasure of using in 8 years of trading online...

    You have hit the nail on the head with the Trust Factor BJ Fogg & Kermit... No longer can people hide behind, Corporate Identies, Companies and WebSites, Profile Names or Avatars... Facebook has given the internet the missing part of the puzzle in Human Interaction Online, Trust....

    We can now choose who we friend and talk too on a daily basis.... The ability to find likeminded people is second to none.... Thanks to facebook I have genuine friends in over 150 countries now and the speed of information to find genuine people is amazing.... I rarely use google to find what I need now, Facebook has Quality People, Quality Products and Quality Information..... Facebook has ensured people become transparent and real with other people...

    In the early days I went to Facebook, Now Facebook Comes to me and it's all automated... Love It.... Now I can stay Connected with thousands of friends at lightspeed... Who Needs Instant Messaging when I can stay in touch in my own time when it suits via facebook and share my life... The Internet really has come of age and Social Networking is king !!

    Remember " THE PEOPLE BUILT FACEBOOK " Facebook didn't build us... The Freedom to interact unconditionally, who needs the News and Papers when u have real people !!

    " Many Minds Make Lightwork "

    Clayton J
    www.zenergenius.com
    Founder

  • Peter Koning

    If you're going to create something and "just put it out there", I think the first thing you still need to do is survey your market.

    You can actually use Facebook to do market research, e.g. use the Lexicon service or just type in your keywords into the search box and see what groups and applications there are on that topic, and what they're talking about.

    Peter
    http://www.facebookpayday.com

  • Kishore Dharmarajan

    Someone has said that the next revolutions won't happen on the streets or the podium. It's going to happen on Facebook. How true it feels, after reading this excellent article.

    www.kishoredharmarajan.com

  • larke paul

    I believe the "killer app" part of Facebook is the speed at which information is consumed and disseminated. In the "old days", an individual would have to attend an event (physically, not virtually), be inspired, call or even send letters to friends, and rally support through a multi-step, multi-day process. Facebook eliminates the steps--if you have the Facebook Blackberry application, information transmission is literally seconds away. By nature, people want to be "in the know". Interesting how Google is making social networking tools available to anyone--thousands of groups, on top of those that currently exist, are right around the corner. A person's Facebook main page is like a personal version of People magazine. We're not all super-stars, but our friends can read about us as if we were written up in a supermarket tabloid; however, most people are truly making difference and recruiting people to participate, via Facebook.

  • sean comeaux

    BJ is on to something for the most part. That is a very good analysis.

    @ Kermit: "And you thought Facebook was just for getting a date!" What? Who thought FB was just for getting a date? How out of the loop are you? Sorry buddy, no one's thinking that except for paranoid old folks who watch too much unsubstantiated investigative reporting. In fact, that is another major difference between FB and MS. Facebook is an online extension of the school and college social groups and friends. People aren't logging on to FB searching "for hot chicks/guys" they don't know to add, flirt with and hook up with. Not even close. In fact it doesn't work like that at all. Much like linkedIn unless you know someone you don't/can't add them, that's not how Facebook is designed.

    My advice? Get a clue, then get your writing assignment.

  • Gene Lu

    Great article Kermit!

    Another noteworthy article about the success of online communities (in this case, Flickr) can be found at: http://alistapart.com/articles....

    It's interesting to compare and contrast the approach and the results of both online communities.

  • Jonathan Gilbert

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