Facebook’s Ethan Beard: Driving Engagement — and Growth — Through ‘Social Design’

As director of platform partnerships for Facebook, Ethan Beard oversees the network of developers who build on the social media giant’s massive user network to create applications and sharing features for websites. Beard joined Facebook in 2008, after serving as director of social media and director of new business development at Google.

In his role at Facebook, Beard manages developer relations and marketing to companies using the Facebook platform and Facebook Connect, which brings the popular “like” feature to external websites and mobile applications. An average of 10,000 new websites integrate with Facebook each day, and more than 2.5 million sites have done so since the platform launched in 2007.

“The Facebook platform allows you, as a user, to take your Facebook profile and your Facebook friends with you to any other website,” Beard said while serving on a panel discussion about social media at the recent Wharton Global Alumni Forum in San Francisco. “Our focus is … mapping out the connections between people, and helping [them] build out what identity on the web looks like.”

During an interview at the Global Alumni Forum, Beard discussed the next wave of growth opportunities for Facebook, and why he expects “social design” to become a source of disruption in a number of industries, from gaming to retail to commerce.

An edited version of the transcript appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does Facebook strike the balance of giving users more ways to share things with their friends, both on and off the site, with the need to respect people’s privacy?

Ethan Beard: [Privacy is] at the core of Facebook in many ways. One of the things that we build into all of our products — whether they’re products that we work with on our own or the way in which we expose those products to partners — is giving users very clear control over who they share information with and how they share it. It’s really important to us that users understand precisely when they want to share a piece of information [and] who is going to see it.

That reflects itself also in how we expose our technologies to our partners…. We work with them to make sure that it’s very clear to users the sort of information that they’re sharing, why they’re sharing it, and then what the partner will do with that information and the benefit that a user will get from it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you tell me a little about how the developer network works? Does Facebook sign off on each company or group that wants to use the technology? What are you looking for in a potential partner who is using the platform?

Beard: I lead a team called Platform Partnerships, and we work with all of the companies that are building on the Facebook platform. The Facebook platform is free, it’s open and anyone can build on it. You don’t have to come to talk to us; you can just simply come to the website and agree to our terms of service, [which] have various rules and restrictions on what you can do with the information that you get from Facebook.

At its core, what happens is that all of the data that you have on Facebook is — we believe it’s yours. You have this information, it is information about you, and it’s who your friends are. What we’ve done with the Facebook platform is enable you to take that with you to lots of other websites or other applications so they can personalize the experience and they can make it social. So when you go to a travel site like Gogobot, you will actually be able to see recommendations on where you’d want to travel or friends who you might want to ask about a place….

Knowledge@Wharton: As Facebook has grown, how have users surprised you in terms of what kind of information they want to share and how they want to share it?

Beard: We’re now in 60-plus languages, ][with] hundreds and hundreds of millions of people, over two thirds of them outside of the United States. What’s actually surprising is that people are almost the same around the world in the sense of how they use Facebook and how they share information.

When I first thought about it, you would expect to see geographical differences and things like that and really, at its core, people are people. They want to connect with their friends, they want to talk with their family and they want to share the important things that are going on in their lives. That’s the same whether you live in Italy, whether you live in Africa or whether you live here in the United States.

Knowledge@Wharton: Facebook currently has more than 750 million active users. Do you think the site has peaked in terms of growth? If not, what are the next growth markets for the site?

Beard: Facebook has grown immensely over the past seven years that it’s been around. Yet we are still just at the very beginning. So if we have six hundred million people on Facebook, there’s something like six billion people on the planet. I think the Internet population is probably two to three billion, so we think that we’re still at the very beginning.

In many ways, what we’re trying to do with Facebook is get everyone in the network. Once everyone’s in the network, you can actually start to build really amazing and compelling experiences on top of it. We think we still have a long ways to go to getting there. We’re currently blocked in China. China is one of the largest countries on the planet, so obviously, there’s a huge opportunity there. Similarly, in India, we’re still at the early stages. There are lots of countries where we think there’s growth…. New people are coming online all the time, especially in developing countries where mobile phones are just becoming the way in which people access the Internet.

Knowledge@Wharton: A lot of the services that Facebook has added, and the applications created by other websites using the Facebook platform, seem to be focused on aggregation, or having news, recommendations from friends and other information all in the same place. How important is that in terms of the total Facebook experience?

Beard: It’s more about curation than aggregation and it’s actually curation by your friends. Facebook, in many ways, doesn’t have a voice. There’s no Facebook news or Facebook TV [application] when you come to the site. Everything that you experience on the site has been contributed by the people you’ve chosen to be friends with, the people who are important to you. Generally, the information that they’re sharing is stuff that they think is important and that they want to share there. That’s a really important aspect of the way the site works.

Knowledge@Wharton: Has it been a conscious choice not to have a “Mr. Facebook” or some kind of voice for the site that appears on everyone’s page? I’m thinking back to MySpace, where everyone was friends with [co-founder] Tom Anderson when they first signed up.

Beard: Facebook is very much not about Facebook; it’s about the users and about allowing users to connect and share with their friends and their family and the people who are important to them.

Knowledge@Wharton: To move more into the general social media sphere, what kind of applications or start-ups do you think are going to be the wave of the future?

Beard: We believe at Facebook that social media is really transforming lots of different industries. The kind of disruption that you saw with social gaming with companies like Zynga and Playfish and Playdom, these are companies that put people first and put people at the center of the games.

In many ways, social games are more about the interactions you have with your friends than they are about the game-play itself. In fact, if you strip your friends away from them, they’re not particularly compelling games. But because they have [interaction build into] them, they’re some of the fastest growing games ever. CityVille by Zynga went from zero users to 60 million users in the course of six weeks because it [focused around] playing with your friends. We call this concept “social design,” which is really putting people at the center of the application. It drives engagement, and it drives usage incredibly well.

We think what’s happened in gaming is going to happen in lots of other industries. Gaming frequently leads the way on lots of different platforms; we think a similar thing is happening in social media. Whether this is commerce or recruiting or travel, lots of these industries are, at their core, about people. We think you’re going to see a lot of transformation and disruption in these industries frequently by start-ups that say, “I’m going to make a social experience first and foremost,” and go from there.

For example, you could imagine a store that says, “By default, when you shop in this store, everything that you look at and everything you put in your shopping cart will be shared with your friends.” And then by doing that, that store would get so much more traffic and distribution from your sharing, they’d be willing to have lower and lower prices. And so you’d get a benefit by having lower prices and you’d be able to discover what your friends are actually looking at and shopping with. It’s a fundamental rethinking of the way that commerce works today.

It would be hard to [add that feature to] an existing site — if Amazon turned that on, it would be shocking for those of us who use it. But it’s easy for a start-up that is starting from the beginning….

Knowledge@Wharton: In the future, what do you think is going to separate the social media companies that make it in the long term from those that don’t?

Beard: The social media companies that succeed will be the companies that don’t try to put social … on the side, but are really social from the ground up and set user expectations that what you do within this experience will be shared, and that’s actually of value. And that the discovery that you have within the experience comes from your friends and therefore you are sharing and contributing back, [which] is creating an overall value in the entire network.

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