By now, just about everyone is familiar with the Facebook Success Story. In a nutshell, in 2004 a young Mark Zuckerberg launched “the facebook,” a social networking site he created for his college friends. Flash forward to the present day: What began as a small venture among friends is now a social media giant. Over 1.4 billion people worldwide interact with their friends on Facebook every day.
We now live in a world of ubiquitous social connectedness thanks to sites like Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, and of course, the dominant platform, Facebook. In fact, in 2016, some 78 percent of U.S. Americans have a social media profile.
When you think of all this social media saturation, a casual analysis of its widespread use might lead you to think that Facebook actually created a brand-new need for such platforms among consumers. It wouldn’t be difficult to jump to the conclusion that Facebook instilled this insatiable desire to connect with others via social media platforms.
And while this may be an understandable leap to make, it also happens to be entirely false.
To assess the social media landscape and conclude that we have seen the rise of a new need among consumers is to ignore a very important fact, which is the underlying reason people use these platforms. In other words, people are hiring products like FB, Twitter, and Instagram to do a job, and that job is exactly the same as it has always been. It’s only the context that has changed.
This job is nothing new. Before the internet, people wrote letters to friends and family; they got pen pals; they wrote letters to the editor to express their views and be part of a conversation; and they shared photo albums or slideshows of their lives with captive audiences of friends and family. And, in the early days of the internet, people joined usenet groups or signed up to things like alt.tv.recarts to share opinions with strangers.
Today, those same needs drive people to sign up for Twitter and express their views about politics or pop culture or whatever is on their minds; or post their vacation or food photos or selfies to Facebook and Instagram (and get to feel like “real” photographers in the process, thanks to all those professional-looking filters).
The takeaway here is that while the context changes, the job -- and hence the needs, or the desired outcomes of the customer -- really doesn’t. People have always wanted to communicate with one another, and a successful product will allow them to do so in better, faster, more comprehensive ways than ever before.
Why does this matter? Well, if you approach product development guided by the mistaken belief that you’re going to create a revolutionary new need for your product where none existed before, you’ll just be spinning your wheels and spending time and money on something that’s doomed to fail. The fact is, you aren’t going to create a new job -- as we have seen, those remain constant, it’s only the context that changes. To ignore this fact is to risk suffering a fate similar to that of Google +.
Google hatched the initial plan for Google + in 2010/2011, and by most accounts this was fueled by a desperate desire to compete with Facebook. According to Mashable senior reporter Seth Fiegerman:
Google launched Plus without a clear plan to differentiate the service from Facebook. It bet on a charismatic leader with a flawed vision, ignored troubling indications about the social network's traction (or lack thereof) with users and continued throwing features at the wall long after many had written Google+ off for dead.
One lesson here, as Fiegerman correctly points out, is that “The slow demise of Google+ sheds light on how a large technology company tries and often fails to innovate when it feels threatened.”
Feeling threatened, Google rushed out their product and didn’t stop to ask some very important questions: What job would customers hire the platform to do? What unmet or underserved needs would Google + fill? Instead, they in essence tried to create a new need among consumers -- in this case, a self-referential need for a Google-created copycat social media platform -- without stopping to examine its purpose or adding any value. They just kept slapping on features, hoping something would stick. And (in part) because of this failure to ask the right questions and understand the underlying job people would hire Google + to do, Facebook remains the social networking giant where people share their thoughts, opinions, and photos of their life — and Google + continues to die a slow and quiet death.
Don’t feel bad: It’s easy to get your head turned around and lose sight of the job-to-be-done given just how quickly the context of our world changes. Think about jet lag medicine: Your first thought may be that this must be evidence of a relatively new need in the marketplace. After all, airline travel only became popular in the 1950s. But people have always had a need to be awake when necessary, and sleep when necessary, and that’s the real underlying job people hire jetlag medicine to do.
Another modern-day example is Botox. Surely, you may be thinking, the need for a smooth unlined forehead is an invention of our time? Well, in fact, people have always hired products to do the job of making them look younger, more refreshed, and more beautiful according to the norms of the day. In Victorian times ladies were advised to coat their faces with opium at night, followed by a quick morning wash with ammonia. In Elizabethan England, to achieve that healthy and desirable “pale glow” women (and men) slathered their face with poisonous white lead.
The lesson in all this? No matter the context, the jobs people hire products to do have remained fairly constant over time. Your mission is to discern those jobs, discover unmet and underserved needs, and create real innovative solutions for your customers … hopefully ones that are non-poisonous.