How Facebook is like a milkshake

Innovator’s Dilemma author Clayton Christensen is fond of talking about jobs to be done as a way to think about competition. An example he’s cited frequently is some analysis a team did on behalf of a fast food chain to improve sales of milkshakes. The short version is that the team discovered that people were hiring these milkshakes to do a job, namely to fill them up a bit, yes, but also keeping them occupied during their drive to work. As such, the true competition to milkshakes wasn’t other drinks, but things like bananas, bagels and the like. Once the company understood the job milkshakes were being hired to do, they were better able to improve the product (by making it thicker, for example, so it would last longer). I mention this because so much of the analysis around Facebook seems to assume that its competition is exclusively other social, photo sharing or communication services, and this is a little off the mark.

A while back I was teaching some teenagers about managing their time so as to prioritize the most important things, and I used a well-worn object lesson to do so. This object lesson uses golf balls, marbles and sand to illustrate the principle of scheduling the most important things first. The idea is that you can only fit all the objects provided into a glass jar if you put the golf balls in first, marbles in second, and sand in third, so that the smaller items fill the gaps around the larger ones. If you put the sand in first, there’s no way you can fit in the other two items. As I taught the lesson,  the teenagers observed that much of what they do on their devices can be thought of as the sand – they whip them out whenever they have a free moment and fill up whatever free time they might have with social busywork – texting, checking Facebook and so on. This provides an insight about the job teenagers hire Facebook to do, and I suspect it’s true for many of the rest of us too: namely, to fill those moments of dead time we all have so many of – waiting for a train or bus, standing in line, getting bored in class or a meeting, allowing us to procrastinate instead of doing what we really should be doing, and so on.

As such, the qualities of Facebook are in some ways more like content – i.e. occupying our time – than they are like communication. Therefore, Facebook’s true competition does include messaging apps and the like, but it isn’t limited to them. Mobile games, YouTube and other apps are also competitors to Facebook in this sense, because they’re hired to do the same job – killing time. The challenge for Facebook is that, in order to generate more revenue from advertising, it needs people to spend more time in the app. But at the same time, it’s been working hard to improve the “quality” of the updates people see when they log into Facebook. Over the last several years, Facebook has slowly made it impossible to see all updates from your friends, because it wants only to serve up updates you are likely to interact with (i.e. spend time with), increasing engagement. However, there’s only so much of that content that your own friends will serve up, which has led Facebook to try other models, such as Pages for business, and the Following model for celebrities and other people we don’t want to connect with as friends. The fundamental flaw with these other approaches is that users have to explicitly opt in to every business or person they’d like to follow. That’s time-consuming and inefficient as a way of getting users to opt in to seeing more content, and few of us will ever bother to do this with more than a few brands or celebrities. How, then, to expand beyond content shared by my friends in a more efficient way?

I believe the Paper app is the answer to that question. It’s a totally new approach to getting you to spend more time with Facebook that starts with the classic friend-centric experience but also broadens it out considerably from there. By making topics (tech, photography, sports, business, food etc.) rather than brands the center of the experience, Facebook can serve up a much broader set of content that’s not shared by friends to its users, potentially dramatically increasing the time they spend inside Facebook’s apps and opening them up to much more advertising. As I share in my recent Techpinions post, Facebook (and Twitter) has three key levers for growth: user growth, increased user engagement, and more revenue per user. As user growth slows (which it started to do at Facebook back in 2011) the other two become all the more important, and Paper is a critical ingredient in boosting both user engagement and revenue per user.

As such, I think we’ll see the Paper experience around topics eventually make its way back into the core Facebook experience. I’ve wondered, along with others, whether Paper might become the default app for Facebook in time, and I still think that’s possible. But I think it’s more likely that Facebook is using it to test users’ response to adding content not shared by friends into the Facebook stream. If it works, it’ll spread. If it doesn’t, Facebook has tested it in a low-risk environment. This is likely to be the way Facebook continues to experiment going forward: releasing new apps that take some existing element of the Facebook experience (or a new one) and make it the core or only feature, as a way of testing what works, rather than experimenting with the core Facebook app and risking alienating users.