Head over to our on-demand library to view sessions from VB Transform 2023. Register Here

As Facebook gets ready for its monster IPO, which will likely value the company at more than $100 billion, I thought it would be valuable to take a look at some of the critical product decisions that have led to its success.

In this third installment of a four-part series on what Facebook has done differently from most companies, I’m focusing on virality (see links to the rest of the series below).

Social media is fundamentally changing marketing, and Facebook understands that. A key driver of the company’s growth is the people-tagging feature in Facebook. Even though Flickr was a better product than Facebook Photos for many years, the virality of people-tagging rocketed Facebook to the top of the photo-sharing pack. People-tagging served both to increase user acquisition and drive repeat usage.

For those who have been offline for the last five years, here’s how people-tagging works: You can click on a face in a picture and assign a name to it. This can be a link to a person already on Facebook or someone not on Facebook. If you tag someone who’s not on Facebook, you can tag her by name and email address.

If someone isn’t on Facebook already, they get an email saying that someone has tagged them on Facebook. Who doesn’t want to open an email from a friend that promises a (potentially embarrassing) picture of them?

For people already on Facebook, it serves as a mechanism for re-engaging with the platform. Although both of these drivers are less relevant now than they were five years ago because people now live on Facebook, it’s an important lesson for startups on increasing engagement.

The days of generic advertising targeted at the masses are dwindling. Marketing in the future will need to be personally relevant. Online products must have marketing built into them. Unfortunately, too many companies erect walls between product and marketing.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed at a large Internet company to run marketing for a number of products, including a finance product. It’s a very good product and one that I use nearly every day. The job description claimed that the person in the role would be “challenged to think beyond the obvious, creating and executing cutting-edge strategy for one of the world’s most recognized brands.” One of the interviewers was a senior leader in the company’s product organization. He asked me how I would market the finance product.

I said I would create a widget that bloggers could put on their blogs. The widget would scan the page for the names of public companies and automatically insert a module with live quotes for any companies mentioned in the story. This was a win all the way around:

  • Readers would get value from the experience. Instead of a silly banner ad that just said “Try our finance product,” it would show the value that the product delivers in a context the reader cares about.
  • Bloggers would get value by providing live quotes for their readers, something they might not be able to do on their own.
  • The company would get value with a non-standard placement that readers would pay attention to.

The interviewer’s response: “That’s a product idea, give me a marketing idea.”

It’s a product and marketing idea. Sure, I could tell you to go buy banner ads on CNBC.com or Bloomberg. But I know from experience that personal finance inventory is among the most expensive ad inventory on the Web. (Brokerages can afford to spend a lot of money!)

Google, with Google+, doesn’t understand the very basics of acquisition marketing and user engagement. I just invited a friend (actually an imaginary friend, Paul Paulson) to join Google+. Paul joined Google+ immediately.

Here’s what should happen next:

  • Paul should automatically be connected to me. Paul acted based on my recommendation; there’s a very high likelihood he’ll want to be connected. It would also give Paul content that would be relevant to him because he knows me.
  • As soon as Paul joined, I should have received a message saying, “Hey, your buddy Paul just joined Google+! Drop in and say hello.” I would likely have been a lapsed user because none of my real friends were on Google+. Knowing that at least one person I know was on the platform might get me to re-engage. It would also create a better experience for Paul, because it would provide some social proof that people he knows are using Google+.

Google+ does neither of these.

Google+ even biffs basic things like updating the URL field when viewing posts to make it easy to share content.

I can’t guarantee that doing these things would save Google+. But I can guarantee that they would be much more effective and a lot cheaper than running generic TV commercials.

In 2012, the best creative isn’t the one with the finest photography or the highest production values. It’s the one that speaks directly and personally to each user.

Be sure to check out the other stories in this series:

Instagram understands a secret of Facebook’s success: Visuals

Secrets to Facebook’s success: Identity

[Image credit: jokerpro/Shutterstock]

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Discover our Briefings.