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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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