Randi Zuckerberg: How we built an online goliath

Randi Zuckerberg: How we built an online goliath

“I graduated from Harvard University in 2003,” begins Randi Zuckerberg. It’s a fact she says she only mentions because her famous younger brother, Mark Zuckerberg, did not.

Zuckerberg is wearing bright yellow – a burst of colour on the stage at the Australian Chambers Business Conference in Melbourne in August. She’s bubbly and charismatic, gushing about how much she loves Melbourne. You half expect her to break for cheers, but judging her sombre corporate audience correctly, she doesn’t.

Her connection to Facebook began when her brother begged her to leave her New York advertising job to come work for free in Silicon Valley. “He needed a free marketer, and I was his big sister,” she says.

She refused. She had her “dream job” at global ad house Ogilvy. So Mark Zuckerberg called their mother. Eventually she relented and headed to California for a week to check it out.

“I was blown away,” she says. “Though, to be fair, I had very low expectations.”

She entered Facebook when it consisted of four or five adolescent boys coding around the clock. “They had such a sense of energy and passion,” she says. “They knew they would change the world.”

She stayed, becoming Facebook’s head of marketing for the next six and a half years. In that time, she helped Facebook become what it is today.

Facebook’s marketing in the early days rested largely on the concept of exclusivity, allowing signups only to certain colleges at first. “We waited until lots of people at a school were begging us to launch Facebook there before we would do it,” she says.

As Facebook grew, she says the team was often overawed by what they had created. During the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, users changed their profile pictures to black ribbons, and used Facebook to organise to help those affected however they could. The Facebook team watched an organic social movement build before their eyes. “It was the first time [I saw that],” Zuckerberg says.

But there were lows as well.

The team worked for more than a year on the newsfeed – Facebook’s front page that shows what your Facebook friends have done since the last time you logged in.

“We were so sure it was going to be awesome,” she says. On the day it launched, users were directed to a page with a big green button, with ‘awesome’ written on it, that would redirect them to their news feed.

“But people protested. Hundreds of protestors came to our office with signs. People joined groups called ‘a million against timeline’. We were like, we’ve created a platform so viral people used it to protest our own product!”

Over time, Facebook learned how to deal better with its users. The team learned the importance of pre-launch testing, and of allowing users to become involved.

This was especially the case with translating, when Facebook invited its multilingual users to help translate the site into other languages. It took 48 hours for the site to be translated into Spanish. A few years later, it took only 24 hours for it to become fully functional in Farsi.

Intriguingly, Zuckerberg says during this period, even she wondered about how her team should manage their Facebook accounts. “I wanted them to be on Facebook as much as possible, to be brand ambassadors,” she says. But on the other hand, finding the line between what should and shouldn’t be part of their professional image was complicated at times.

Part of Facebook’s success, Zuckerberg says, lies in how it was able to preserve its start-up culture as the company grew. “There are so many Silicon Valley companies who, as they grow to several thousand employees, become corporate… they become not cool to work for.”

She says Facebook avoided this by emphasising that good ideas – ideas that could change the company – could come from anyone. Facebook still runs hackathons, where its employees have all night to work on a project outside their area of work, which then has to be presented to the company. “People did really fun things,” Zuckerberg says. One group made a giant QR code on Facebook’s roof that can be scanned from passing airplanes. Another group combined their love of Facebook with their love of beer, making a keg that would update Facebook whenever you poured from it.

But Facebook’s employees have also made really useful things. “Most of these great ideas didn’t come from the top. They’d come from interns or low-level employees.”

Zuckerberg’s own contribution was Facebook Live. “I was always interested in traditional media, and how it interacted with social media,” she explains. So she made a live video program that streamed on Facebook. At first, she was just interviewing Facebook engineers about what they were working on that day. But then, American pop star Katy Perry wanted to be interviewed. The next week, the White House called and said President Obama was keen to do a ‘Town Hall’ on Facebook Live.

Soon the Facebook Live team was reporting on the news. In 2010, Zuckerberg was nominated for an Emmy Award for her coverage of the 2010 mid-term elections. “I didn’t realise,” she says. “I thought if you were nominated for an Emmy they’d roll out a red carpet to your house. They don’t. And why would we check?”

It was at this point that that Zuckerberg decided to leave Facebook. “I caught the start-up bug,” she says. “How could I not.”

Today, she runs R to Z Studios, a social media consultancy firm.

The 10 biggest trends in social media, according to Randi Zuckerberg

1) Luxury living without luxury spending:

Zuckerberg says a slew of start-ups are gaining traction by offering people the chance to live luxurious, decadent lives, without the price tag.

Airbnb, for instance, offers tourist accommodation without the hotel price tag by teeing up tourists with city residents happy to rent out their spare room. RentTheRunway allows women to rent out designer couture for the night for a fraction of the full price. FancyHands and TaskRabbit link up busy people with cheap personal assistants, who bill by the hour and do your chores from their own home.

2) The loyalty programs of the future

The next big trend Zuckerberg sees is the increasing sophistication of brands on social media. “It’s about emotional connection, and access,” she says. For example, she cites the AFL’s regular fan-only giveaways on its Facebook page. Collingwood Football Club highlights a ‘fan of the week’, and uses a picture of the fan as its display picture. Overseas, Gilt Group – a high-fashion group-buying site – allows its Facebook fans to browse the day’s sales for an hour before they go public.

“This is what the loyalty programs of the future look like,” she says.

3) Social media as a platform for customer service

“If you can only do one thing with your social media efforts, do this,” says Zuckerberg.

Customers have a mindset that brands will quickly respond to them on social media. “If no one responds, it’s a really negative experience,” Zuckerberg says.

This can make things difficult for brands such as airlines, which get a “bum deal” on social media. No one posts about the good flights, only the bad ones, giving the impression that customers are less satisfied than they really are. “That means things like airlines have to work even harder than most. But the ones that do it well, do it really well.” She singles out Qantas and ANZ as those who make good use of Facebook.

4) Mobile first

Zuckerberg says so many companies in Silicon Valley now think only about mobile. Many don’t even bother to make desktop websites. But it’s not just start-ups such as Instagram doing this. Starbucks in America has launched an application where customers input their credit card details into their phone, and from them on can merely swipe their phone to pay for their coffees, leaving their wallet at home. Chase Bank allows people to take mobile photos of their cheques, which are then transferred to their accounts without the need to go into the bank.

5) Experts are curators

“Now there’s an entirely new way to be an expert. We have an entire industry of curators.”

Zuckerberg gives the example of Tourism Australia, which, with three million fans, is the largest Facebook page in the country. Holiday snaps and professional photography are curated to create Facebook albums highlighting the best Australia has to offer.

This is something corporations can easily do to show their experts in their field, Zuckerberg says. “Think about what you can curate for your clients and customers.”

6) Humour in social media

People don’t want corporate professionalism on social media, Zuckerberg says. It’s an intensely personal forum, and brands are increasingly using humour to engage their clients and customers.

7) Crowdsourcing

Bankers, venture capitalists, all financial intermediaries are losing ground, she adds.

Kickstarter, a platform where people pledge money to see a project get off the ground, has funded more artistic projects than most national endowments for the arts.

But it’s not small amounts being funded on crowdsourcing platforms.

Eric Migicovsky and a small team recently raised $10 million dollars to develop a watch that connects to your smartphone to download weather information, reminders, and all manner of things you might want without fishing around in your pocket.

8) People as platforms and brands, meaning the message can’t be controlled

Through social media, people are increasingly becoming media companies in their own right, producing and promoting content. “Good news travels faster than ever before,” Zuckerberg says. “But so does bad news”.

She says she was recently cornered by a Hollywood movie executive who told her Facebook was taking away the ability of movie houses to release bad films, “which we need to do to survive”, she reported the executive saying. The feedback on bad films is now immediate. Studios can’t splash out on marketing and hope a few million will see a film before word gets around that it’s not up to scratch. The film-goers stop going right after opening night.

9) Video and live-streaming

As internet speeds increase, corporations and individuals are finding new ways to combine videos and commerce. Zuckerberg describes this year’s Cyber Monday (an American shopping day associated with large online sales), when several channels popped up giving customers the ability to buy the products that they could see featured on the live video in front of them.

Accountancy firm Deloitte uses video streaming on Facebook to drive recruitment. By interviewing Deloitte staff about their work, fans get an inside look into what it’s like to work there. “It gives people a real peek under the curtain,” Zuckerberg says.

10) The gamification of everything

We’ve covered gamification before on LeadingCompany. Everything is becoming a game, but luckily for us, it’s the things we avoid or dislike doing that are doing it most successfully, Zuckerberg says. Modern alarms charge you a $1 every time you hit snooze. Scales tweet your weight. Nike has an app that updates your social media status whenever you go for a run. Whenever someone hits ‘like’, you hear cheering in your head.

Not a bad way to make life more interesting.


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