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Move fast, break stuff and listen: a look at the evolution of Facebook’s Canvas

Only 100 days after launching a major new product, you’d expect its creators to still be in celebratory mood, sipping on the leftover bottles of champagne that slipped by unopened during the launch party. But this was not the case when it came to Facebook’s Canvas.

Facebook’s Zack Hendlin, the Canvas product manager, says that in the first three months the company was already looking to tweak the product to make it more intuitive and useful in the hands of marketers and creatives. 

“The way that we evolve products comes from the ideas that people share with us,” Hendlin says.

“It comes from the ideas that creatives share with us. And it comes from the ideas that advertisers share with us. It’s very much a ‘let’s build stuff and see what works’ method.”

What’s significant about this approach is that it isn’t born out of desperation; it hasn’t been adopted because Canvas is failing to attract audiences.

On the contrary, within its first three months, Canvas was used by creators across 186 countries and Facebook users spent 102 years in total viewing creative efforts published via the format.

Westpac, House of Travel, Air New Zealand and BNZ are just some of the local brands that have already dipped their fingers into the digital paint and splashed creative onto Canvas, and there will no doubt be more to follow.

The point here is that Facebook isn’t looking to simply create a product that works; it’s looking to create the best product possible. It launches products quickly and then consistently looks to iron out existing kinks and provide new options in response to what marketers want.

And while Facebook has evolved into what is often called a media juggernaut, this approach shows its roots are still very much entrenched in its tech origins.

Rather than simply creating a static product and forcing it upon its audience and advertising partners, the company takes on customer feedback and alters what it does.

Richards Partners strategist Peter Thomson recently wrote in the upcoming Idealog that getting things out quickly allows innovators to change their approach quickly.

“In product development and marketing there is a tendency for New Zealand companies to want to gestate an idea for far too long,” Thomson said.

“Instead, we need to learn to get prototypes and campaigns out the door faster, so that the resulting feedback can be used to improve the product. The quicker an idea can get real world feedback, the less time is wasted on things that no one really wants … In New York, I noticed that companies were willing to launch with only a ‘minimum viable product’, meaning that their game-plan wasn’t complete, but that they are willing to launch a product and accept feedback from the marketplace so they could improve things as they go.”

This approach treats feedback as a necessary part of the improvement process rather than a form of criticism—and it’s something that Facebook has incorporated through its Hackathons.

“Many of the major features that today exist at Facebook have been things that came out of Hackathons or intern projects,” says Hendlin.

Facebook’s willingness to take on feedback is reflected in Canvas, which has already had three new features introduced.

“A couple of days before we launched, we were talking to a creative agency and they were saying: ‘it’s really difficult to share a Canvas with my colleagues so that I can get approval, so it would be great if I could send a Canvas to a colleague so that they could see it and improve it’,” Hendlin explains. 

“Within a couple of weeks an engineer on the team built that out and shipped it. It’s now a function that anyone can use.”

Hendlin says Facebook has also entered the testing phase for 360-degree video and linkable Canvases that allow for a number of campaigns to be pulled together into a single narrative.

Hendlin admits that many of these changes, among others that are currently being tested, would not have come about had the company not opened discussions with its creators. Those closest to the product often have a myopic view, limited to what the product was originally created to do. And as Hendlin points out, sometimes the product actually has the ability to do far more.   

“Before our Hackathon, if someone had asked me, ‘Could you use Canvas to make an animated children’s book’, I would’ve said, ‘I don’t think so’, because that just hadn’t occurred to me,” Hendlin says.

“But then this big Brazilian bank had this idea that used the video components and interactive components to tell a story … That was an example of us learning that Canvas doesn’t just have to be used to tell an advertising story. There are amazing stories that people want to tell in other ways.”

Facebook has quickly become the incumbent media emperor (alongside Google), but it seems aware of the fact that a new piece of clever tech could just as rapidly knock it off the throne. And perhaps in a bid not to fall victim to the ‘Innovator’s Dilemma, which sometimes sees great firms toppled by new tech, Facebook wants to keep its innovative spirit alive by constantly questioning what it does. 

However, the willingness of Facebook to shift its strategy based on what it believes is best for its business can be challenging for some of its partners. This is seen every time the company decides to tweak its algorithm—something that again caused concern among publishers earlier this month. As explained by Seven West Media chief executive Tim Worner in and AdNews article, this again reiterated why it was important for publishers to think carefully before ceding too much power to aggregators, like Facebook and Google.

Companies, like these, underpinned by an ardent tech philosophy will always look to change if it’s in their best interests to do so. And if their best interests correlate with users seeing fewer stories from publishers in their newsfeeds, then this will invariably happen.   

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