The Art of War: Facebook’s Strategic Plan for Ultimate Victory

This article will take approx 4 minutes to read.

Have you heard of MySpace? I had, once upon a time. Now, it seems to be off the grid. Facebook on the other hand has been making a progressive march to the sea and is taking no prisoners. In February of 2007, Facebook reported 18M users, up from 7.5M 7 months earlier. (Edited) Toronto claims 1 in 10 Torontonians as Facebook users (approximately the size of the Baltimore City population).

Facebook’s success has not been overnight. When it began, it was created as a closed social network for primarily high school and college students. Users would be able to join Facebook if they had a valid email address from a registerd University or other school. There was a smaller percentage of workplace networks where users could join if they had a valid company email address, but by and large these networks were much smaller due to reluctance of companies to join the social media revolution and risk employee productivity losses.

On the flip side, MySpace grew astronomically to become the world’s largest social network. It boasts over 60M users and caters to a similar, albeit younger crowd. It was, at one time, common to sit in movie theatre or a mall food court and overhear teenagers talking and asking questions like, “Do you have a myspace?” (Which begs the question, what exactly is a myspace? Is that like putting something out on the internets?).

This entry examines Facebook’s strategic moves and how they have put the nail in the coffin of MySpace, who seem to have fallen off the grid. The ultimate strategist was Sun-Tzu who penned the ultimate memorandum on military stragy, The Art of War, so the natural standard to compare Facebook’s strategy is to this treatise. How did Facebook achieve success overnight? What tactics were employed? Let’s examine.

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

MySpace was an uncrackable entity. They received untold benefits when Technorati began indexing MySpace blogs. They maintained a loyal following of kids who literally lived on MySpace. Anyone could join MySpace, and anyone did. Including plenty of sex offenders. Facebook, on the other hand, maintained a low profile. Their network was closed. They did not let just anyone join. Until September, 2006 when everything changed. Despite initial user outcry that Facebook would become like MySpace, exactly the opposite happened.

“All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”

When Facebook opened to the public in the fall of 2006, the move was greeted by more than a fair bit of criticism by the existing Facebook user group. The concern for privacy involved in opening the service up to potentially the same dangerous people that plagues MySpace. Real networks of friends feared being inundated by random “friend adds” that diluted the quality of the network. Facebook recognized the potential problem and managed the transition well. Typical searching that is prevalent in other services did not exist in Facebook, and still doesn’t. Users have to know someones email address or name to add friends.

“The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops. The general who does not understand these may be well acquainted with the configuration of the country, yet he will not be able to turn his knowledge to practical account.”

Facebook recognized that the “MySpace Generation” was growing up. High schoolers were becoming college students. College students were becoming young career professionals. Adapting to this changing and unchangeable dynamic placed Facebook in a position to maintain their user base and gain more. MySpace, on the other hand, has failed to adapt to the changing demographics and the tide of public tendency. They have failed to identify with their demographic and adapt to the unchangeable change.

“Adjust the tactical implementation of each strategy to contemporary market conditions (phase, section, pattern, swing level, and volatility).”

Facebook has enjoyed fast growth since 2006. Between July of 2005 and February of 2006, the userbase has increased 280%. The most notable growth has been in Canada where 1 in 10 Torontonians are Facebook users. Toronto users, in fact, outnumber New York users by a ratio of 2.5 to 1. In the major metro areas of Canada – Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver there are nearly 1M users combined.

“In order to carry out an attack with fire, we must have means available; the material for raising fire should be kept in readiness.”

Two weeks ago, the nail in the coffin came to MySpace. The nail took Facebook from competent competitor to “Killer App”. Before the Facebook Platform was released to the public, it was just another social networking site. Users could have profiles. They could import an RSS feed. They could update their status. They could write notes on other peoples profiles (on their “walls”). But there was nothing particularly distinctive in terms of features. That all changed with the Facebook Platform, a.k.a. f8. Watch the f8 keynote announcement.

The key to understanding the proverbial nail in the coffin is a good understanding of what people outside of Facebook can do now. Now anyone can create an application that can be added to any Facebook users profile. At the time of this writing, there have already been 131 external applications built for on f8. Users can add their Flickr photostream, update Twitter, skin YouTube videos and there is even an app to help users find local happy hour hotspots from Unthirsty.

The trend here, in my opinion, is that Facebook is becoming more relevant by offering users more options. There is no poor layout pollution issues that plague MySpace. The sharing of profile changes among friends ties users together more as opposed to isolating users to their own “little corner of the web”. In true social networking style there is not only the “social” aspect, but the “networking” as well. MySpace has never had this and the continued incompetency from MySpace management will further the trend toward MySpace becoming a “fringe service” that is nowhere near as mainstream as it used to be.

Comments

  1. says

    Aaron,

    Way to call it. “Continued incompetency from MySpace management” nails it. Fox got fat and happy with their acquisition and expanded laterally to expand their reach while the franchise itself was stagnating — this happened to McDonalds — relative to the changes in the marketplace. Perhaps the hoopla surrounding the F8 announcement shook up Fox management. But perhaps it is too late. Facebook’s competitive advantage lead is at least a year — and the gap in managerial culture, the geeks versus Hollywood, is probably even greater and ultimately the determining factor, eg Google vs Yahoo.

  2. says

    Thanks, Minger. I don’t know if I agree with your take on Fox management. I don’t think they care and that’s certainly their prerogative.

  3. says

    Aaron, I suspect they will care once the disparity dents the bottom line of their MySpace property. That’ll happen when advertisers begin to realize MySpace traffic is mostly spam and rubbish and start shifting their dollars, following the users who move to Facebook and elsewhere.

  4. says

    “It boasts over 60M users and caters to a similar, albeit younger crowd.”

    Totally untrue… MySpace’s demographics skew a lot older. This is a common slam by the “techno-elite” that want to bag on MySpace.

    MySpace, while technologically unstable at times, still allows people to create their own page. While Facebook is clean and clutter free, to basic users it looks like an e-mail interface, clean but pedestrian.

    This is the problem with people that are “techno-elites”, they totally miss the point. You have to understand the bulk of people on MySpace couldn’t design a webpage if their life depended on it (and it shows). MySpace offers them a place to do that, where they feel they are learning something, they have a place on the web, and feel like they “designed” their own page.

    People that blog on there don’t even realize half the time there are blogs past MySpace. They don’t know what RSS feeds are, they don’t know what wordpress is, they don’t know what feedburner is… To most of the users it is a web destination to these people, while I enjoy facebook, I don’t think it offers all the features MySpace does for the basic user. To a lot of people that don’t know any better MySpace is “the web” to a lot of them.

    I am not saying the site is the end all and be all, because there are numerous problems with it. But before you trumpet the rise of Facebook you need to get your facts about their competition right and understand why people use the site.

  5. says

    Kevin-

    I’ll ignore the veiled insults.

    I think the argument can be made that personalization does not have to include design. It is _because_ most people can’t design, that MySpace shouldn’t allow people to design. Most MySpace pages do not work in anything other than IE. Most use complex javascript that isn’t even done by the user but yet still crashes various browsers.

    If design was meant to be accessible, then maybe MySpace is doing the right thing. However, most professional designers are charging anywhere from $1000 to $10000 or more for their work proving the fact that design is a professional industry.

    You wouldn’t want me to represent you in court, would you? Worse, if I represented myself, I’d probably go to jail. I’m not a lawyer and the profession is a professional one.

    Facebook, on the other hand, doesn’t offer the design flexibility. True. But with f8, they offer way more customization avenues than MySpace does.

    I know you do quite a bit professionally on MySpace. Good deal. It’s still a hole over there and it’s not getting better. Facebook, on the other hand, continues to step up their game.

    MySpace will be dead in 3 years.

  6. says

    You can’t use javascript on profiles on MySpace. You haven’t been able to for almost a year.

    The “Techo-elite” wasn’t a veiled insult, I am talking about the general technology people that write about MySpace. I didn’t mean to play on your blog name, sorry about that. They all say the same things, their coding sucks, the page layouts are horrible, the site has a ton of backend issues… I don’t disagree with any of those claims at all because they are all true. MySpace also censors people (that is why I no longer blog on there) and has a litany of other issues.

    But the thing is most of the users just don’t think like that. It’s like a food critic ripping on McDonalds… Yes the food is garbage but there is a reason why so many people eat it and will continue to eat it. You are technologically advanced, as well as most of the other critics, but you are so detached from the mindset of the actual users though that you miss the point of why it is successful.

    As far as all these new facebook applications, half of them are features that are already in MySpace (video, classifieds, etc). And another large percentage are things that people already can deploy on MySpace ie: slideshows, random little widgets and games.

    There hasn’t been one Facebook application that I have seen that can’t be done in someway on MySpace. I sat down and went through them one by one the other day to find out what business applications there were.

    As far as MySpace being dead in three years so will all these other social networking sites as a new fad comes into play or there is such a plethora of options that it will get watered down.
    The way things are headed every single company is going to jump on board and make their sites social networking capable, it will get to the point that people will be looking for a new trend to come along.

    Also I would like to point out that you are wrong about adding people on facebook, I sat down last night and sent out 150 friend’s requests to users in a group on Facebook. They just have to approve me, just like MySpace does.

    Soon there will be bot programs for Facebook just like there were for MySpace and people will be getting hit with tons of friend’s requests. It is the nature of the beast, people will always be able to adapt and promote.

  7. says

    Kevin-

    While I admit enjoying this tete-a-tete, I don’t have enough time in the day for it. Let me just close this out with a few points.

    1. I did not say you could put javascript on profiles. I said, “Most use complex javascript that isn’t even done by the user…” which indicates it’s MySpace’s fault, not the users. Perhaps I wasn’t clear on that.

    2. On the contrary, I think I am fairly in tune to the general population of users of MySpace and other social networking site. More than one avid MySpace user has told me that they don’t use it anymore because friends don’t actually communicate with each other all that much, it’s annoying to have random adds from random people who never talk to them, tired of MySpace services being unavailable, etc.

    3. I am correct on searching users in Facebook. Tell me where I can go and search for people 21-40, male or female, 10 miles from 21244 in any relationship status. If you know someones name or email address (having communicated with them via gmail or hotmail or something), or if you really want to browse individual networks, you can add people. You missed my point completely.

  8. says

    I have been on MySpace for less than a year, but find myself checking it nearly daily. I, more recently, joined Facebook and haven’t done much with it. My sister told me about Facebook and was really excited when I joined. 1 message sent, that’s it. I tried to join her college group as I know a lot of people with whom she goes to school. I did not have a valid e-mail address, so I could not join. I tried my company e-mail address, again no go. I am sure my company e-mail address is correct. Anyway, the ease of use with MySpace makes it much more appealing to me at present. As more people I know grow passionate about Facebook, I may migrate. As for networking, I think web 2.0 is about as social as it gets and LinkedIn for business is great.

    Until next time…

    Keith Porterfield

    a Student of Sales

  9. says

    Well if nothing else, this has saved me a job this afternoon. I was toying with the idea of signing up with MySpace to help publicise my blog, having waded through the same procedure with three other social networks but now I think I’ll leave it and watch sme horseracing.

    The only thing I’m uneasy about at Facebook is the ‘random play’ option in the relationships section. What the hell is that all about?!

  10. says

    I just recently joined facebook and I love it. I don’t visit very often, but it is a fantastic site. I’ve even found someone I used to go to school with which is pretty cool. Myspace, eh. I’ve never seen the attraction to it or how people can spend hours on it but I guess I understand it more now. I have always been on the web, but I can see how people who don’t know anything about technology or the web can make something out of myspace.

  11. says

    It would be cool if you guys recorded a 1 minute video explaining your choice of myspace or facebook and email it to me. If I get enough, I’ll post a video. Total democracy. No one is telling you what to say. Just tell me which one and why and let’s see where the dice fall. :)

  12. TMx says

    I went through this dilemma of joining either Facebook or MySpace a few months back – I’ve been a late adopter to this social media thing. More of my friends and acquaintances (aged 25-40, educated, professional, urban) were joining Facebook and telling me what I was missing. Now it’s like a todal wave – each day I get a new friend request – from someone I KNOW (even if it’s from a long time ago). Compare this with MySpace. I took one look at it’s crass interface, coupled with its bad offline rep made the decision easy. It was like being invited to go to a new hip pub (re: emphasis on real conversation with people you know) vs. going to the touristy, mega dance club (loud, crass and disconnected). There’s an exclusiveness to Facebook (despite it’s opening up) that MySpace doesn’t get. It reflects how people prefer to socialize – small networks of known people who then expand out gradually. MySpace is dying. You can smell it in the air.

  13. says

    First off kudos to Aaron for writing this article comparing Facebook to MySpace using Sun-Tzu’s Art of War. The Art of War truly is the greatest book on strategy to date and it’s also one of the oldest. It was designed for war strategy but applies to all aspects of life such as business. After all business is just like war. Aaron, this is one of the best business articles I have read in sometime, great writing!

    Kevin and other supporters of MySpace. I have to disagree with some of your comments. MySpace is dying fast. I work for a research company and we have an area of business strictly for youth research and youth marketing. Personally, I work with influencing youth (i.e. Cool Kids, well-networked, etc.) If you’re not on facebook then you likely aren’t on the internet much if at all. No one talks about MySpace in any of our surveys and focus groups. Hi5 still gets more talked about than MySpace but even that is dead. The most common comments I hear from youth and young adults not on facebook…”I keep getting weekly email requests from all friends to get on facebook.” “Some of my friends even send me personal emails encouraging me to join.”

    All one has to do is observe youth & young adults in public internet settings such as high schools, universities, and internet cafe’s and you’ll see first hand how popular it is. And now facebook has capitalized on incorporating cell phone technology. You can observe youth and young adults constantly getting text message updates that someone sent them a facebook message or tagged someone in a photo.

    I see people in their workplaces, highschools and universities all checking facebook, some even more religiously than their hotmail, gmail, or yahoo email accounts.

    There is a new language/slang for facebook emphasising the strength of their brand:
    “Don’t email me, facebook me.”
    “I’ll send you a party invite on facebook.”

    Now about the design of facebook for users. Most users prefer the design options of facebook over mypace. Yes myspace can do more but more is not better. People prefer simple over flashy. Look at the iPod. It’s very simple and easy to use with almost no flash. Facebook is more user friendly to the average user as it is simpler. This new F8 platform thing may change that (i.e. complicate things). We’ll just have to see.

    The challenge facebook has is creating a sustainable revenue stream but I think facebook has a few things in mind including this new f8 platform. Not too sure how it’ll work out though because most people are not signing up for all of the applications. Some of the users who do sign up for the various new facebook applications simply do so because they are sick of getting requests for it.

  14. DBL says

    I didn’t see any “veiled insults” at all in Kevin’s comment. I did however see a claim that “to a lot of people that don’t know any better MySpace is the web” — which is simply a ridiculous claim on its face. Do these people not use webmail? Do they not use YouTube? Don’t they see comments there? Is MySpace their Google, too?

    Come on, this is total nonsense. Yes, there is a technological divide of understanding between the newbies and the elites, but to claim that many of the newbies were somehow born directly into MySpace without learning *anything* about the surrounding web culture, is obviously an argument from somebody with an axe to grind.

    Even the most computer-unsavvy people I know, who just do email and light surfing, know what ‘blog’ is. And these people are much less computer-savvy than your average MySpace user. They don’t do web comments — they barely even do email. But they aren’t idiots. They know what web comments and blogs are, even if they don’t know what RSS is.

    So, sorry Kevin — but it just beggars belief that “a lot” of MySpace users are as stupid as you claim.

    Anyway, more to the point of this I definitely prefer Facebook, but it has nothing to do with what I can or can’t put on my profile. It has to do with what other people can’t put on theirs. After all, a social networking site is useless if you don’t actually look at your friends’ pages and when they are all freeform ugly eyesores that look like somebody did with HTML what a 2-year-old does with crayons. (A two year old has only two rules: use everything offered. And draw it as big as your arm can make it.)

    I *have* to look at my friend’s pages on a social site. This exercise is a much, MUCH more pleasant exercise on Facebook than on MySpace.

    And it’s as simple as that. MySpace isn’t really social networking: it’s a place for people to advertise their personal styles. It’s a billboard. If you act like a MySpace page in the local pub they’ll treat you like a salesman. If you act like a Facebook profile in the local pub you would blend right in. Facebook has the power of simplicity: it’s just a place to interact with your friends — emphasis on ‘interaction’ — there is no design, there is no (well a lot less anyway) self-promotion — just show up, just like in real life. MySpace is overwrought and missed the mark. Facebook hit it dead centre.

    But I don’t agree that Facebook Platform is necessarily such a great thing. A lot of the apps are quite good, but quite a few also seem to be angling to turn Facebook into MySpace. There are even a couple of developers now trying to make auto-play music work on Facebook profiles — I seriously hope they are blocked from doing this. The point is not that the people who want it, want it. The point is that then their friends have to listen to it again … and again … and again … Facebook should remember that the people with value invested in a profile are not just the creator but all of the visitors to that page. Therefore, when you say something like, ‘If that’s what they want on their profiles, they should have it’ — then you’ve just forgot to consult over 90% of the people with a stake in that decision. If I start to get autoplaying music on Facebook pages, in my view, it’s the beginning of the end, Facebook will follow MySpace into this theoretical death to be followed by another service that *really* gets it.

  15. says

    Great comments and discussion!

    I agree with many but I think you’ve said it DBL.

    I was sick of getting invites to all of these social sites – there seemed to be no end – until I just stopped joining.

    Well finally after hearing about it so much, I had to check out Facebook, and found I was somewhat addicted for a week or so. Now after a few months I have it under control. I check it for a few minutes every couple days – and am excited to catch up with old friends and classmates. I’m in the 30-35 age range and I find it very easy and enjoyable to use.

    I agree with DBL’s take on MySpace – I just never could get into it – it was just everyone’s ad page – hard to read, just plain ugly at times… and very SPAMMY!!

    I think Facebook has a long way to go before it disappears but yeah, for now it’s the most popular and appealing of the two. Of course there will be more – the popular ones will find new ways to avoid spam, corporate ads and the like…

  16. says

    I think that myspace will die, and facebook will takeover unless it makes some fairly major changes. The average user should never be allowed to have such freedom in styling their profiles. I can’t even read most of my friend’s pages as they are so jumbled, or have been infected by spam design sites code.

    From the ease of use point of view facebook is light years ahead, they regularly add new features and seem to know what they are doing. It will be interesting to see how it fairs in the long run. Facebook really shines when you are at college/university seeing what friends are up to etc. I do worry sometimes just how easy it is for people who are my ‘freinds’ can see about what I am up to. I guess you just have to be careful who you accept. The picture tagging feature is great for finding out what happened after a messy night out!

    Great article.