Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Is Facebook a Gateway Drug?

I was reading an article on Techdirt this morning on "Why Facebook Can't Become Twitter: Its Closed Nature." The article talks about how Facebook's privacy features prevent it from becoming more like Twitter, since Twitter is all about openness while Facebook tries to ensure that you are communicating only to the people you choose to communicate to. In Techdirt terms, this is a weakness of Facebook -- "closed" is synonymous on that blog with "bad." They are so adamant on that point that they continue to assert that Apple is missing out on huge opportunities by controlling their software and hardware -- the same Apple that makes billions by ensuring the quality of their customer experience. But I digress.

It is correct that Facebook is more closed than Twitter. It is also true that this fact keeps Facebook from adapting in certain ways, and could act as a restraint on their ability to evolve. But the same closed nature makes a platform like Facebook far more attractive to a certain type of consumer.

I spend time on Facebook, and I dabble in Twitter, but my wife does neither of these things. She's not a Luddite, per se -- she loves her iBook -- but she's not into technology or the Web the way I am. Every now and then we talk about online services, and her primary concern in this arena is privacy. Her personal connections tend to be few but quite close, and she's repelled at the idea of just anyone being able to read what she writes or view her status. Something like Google Latitude scares her to death.

My wife, in short, will never use Twitter. Not only does she not see the point, but she would never want to broadcast little facts about her life to anyone who happens to follow her. But I could see her, in time, moving to Facebook. If Facebook were not a closed platform, she would not be willing to make that move.

In this way, I think, Facebook -- and other closed services -- are like gateway drugs. They give you a taste of what's possible, but they protect you from falling too far down the rabbit hole. If you find that you like it, maybe you venture a little further out into the many ways that the Web allows you to publish your life. But for many, many people, Facebook will be just fine. They'll be happy with that degree of disclosure and no more.

Techdirt's big blind spot is they assume that everyone is the same. They take it for granted that we'd all be using open source software and building our own PCs from components if we had the chance, but the truth is that most of us would rather not bother. We buy Apple computers because we like that some decisions -- the ones we find to be boring and aggravating -- are made for us, by people we've learned to trust. We use software with built-in limits because those limits contribute to an overall experience that we find attractive.

We like our gateway drugs, not in spite of their limitations, but because of them.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Social Marketing Plan Starts With "Social"

I came across an interesting post this morning: "How To Build a Social Marketing Plan."

It didn't get off to a great start. The following are the first six steps:
  1. Start small
  2. Define your market objective
  3. Select your target market
  4. Assess your current web capability
  5. Set a strategy
  6. Measure your engagement
In short, this advice comes straight from the desk of Captain Obvious. What professional marketing plan wouldn't include these elements?

It gets better, though. The following are included under the header "Important advice" (and is good enough to quote in full):
  • Pay attention to your customers -- don't just sell. Traditional marketing has all been one way. A company decides what messages it wants to project on its market and it broadcasts those messages out via an ad or press release. But new word-of-mouth tools are two-way media and they offer the remarkable advantage of a real conversation. Listen to your market, take into account what they have to say, and you will have a very loyal set of customers.
  • Content is king. Content is critical with any of the new word-of-mouth tools. What you offer must be relevant, interesting, and authentic and designed to bring readers back. Add new content often. Remember that when content is not updated, readership will drop off, often rather precipitously. Make certain that your content (or comments) add value and aren’t just to self promote. If they are, they will stand out as such and you may regret it.
  • Give to get, but mostly give. If there is one truism in using any of the new word-of-mouth tools, it is that you must give to get – and give generously. On a group at Facebook, be the one who answers the question or provides the help and advice. Your generosity will earn you visibility in the group and give you credibility.
These three points are critical, and they're usually the elements that marketers forget. When you attempt to market through social networks, you are crashing a party. The people at that party were already having a good time when you showed up, uninvited. They're not going to take kindly to you blasting them with a self-interested, top-down message that reeks of insincerity.

Social networking is a conversation. If you market through these channels, you need to join the conversation and respect your customers as equals within the relationship. More than that, you can't ask them to give you something (their money, their attention, their regard) until you've offered them something equal or greater in value in return.

As Microsoft would say, welcome to the social. Social marketing is a conversation and a transaction. The prospect is challenging, a little frightening, and (if you're in the right line of work) deeply exhilarating.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Community: The New Info Overload

I've read a couple pieces lately about a new form of information overload: online communities. Apparently we're all so busy with Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed that we're abandoning blogs (or so says this piece on TechCrunch). Soon, it would seem, all we'll have time for is Twitter feeds.

This is a nice little irony for those of us old enough to remember the original "information overload." This was back in the days of Web 1.0, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and it was a serious problem that a whole bunch of news feeds and websites were pushing data at us all the time, far faster than we could consume it. It was literally "push" back in those days; I remember a fairly popular screen saver that would display news and information headlines when your computer was inactive.

(Which, by the way, in hindsight looks like the stupidest publishing plan of all time. Great, display time-sensitive information on a subscriber's computer at the precise moment when you know s/he's not using it. That will work for sure. You can then use the proceeds to fund a door-to-door sales operation that caters exclusively to customers who aren't home.)

So where's the irony? For many of us, Web 1.0-style information overload was mitigated by ... blogs. Blogs covering niche topics have become some of the most effective information aggregators out there. I know I don't need to read the sports section, because I read blogs written by people who read it for me. I don't need to follow political news, because (again) I have a trusted blog whose authors consume that information, break it down, and spit it out for me in easily-digestible nuggets. So the notion that blogs themselves will be overcome by the sheer weight of ambient information being pushed out by Twitter, Facebook, and innumberable cell phone applications is curious, since that's exactly the problem that helped make blogs popular in the first place.

It also poses a question: what is the information digest of the future? Because we're certainly not going to be content with information overload, any more than we were the first time around. If blogs die because we no longer have time to read them, what will take their place? It certainly won't be that super-randomizer known as Twitter. It might, though, be an ambient information aggregator that digests Twitter feeds and news and commentary and sports scores and ... who knows, maybe even blog posts ... and spits all that out in an easier format to take in.

Crack that nut and you've got one hell of a service. But I don't know. For now I'm sticking with my blogs.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On Memes and "Mob Wars"

Lately I've been playing a game that turned out to be a meme.

The game in question is "Mob Wars," a Facebook hit that reportedly has more than two million active users and brings in a cool $1 million each month.

The game is a bit like the "Grand Theft Auto" video game franchise. You play as a mobster working your way up through the mob. You start out committing small crimes -- mugging, say, or burglary -- in exchange for cash and "favor" points from the Godfather. Higher crimes require more and more equipment (guns, vehicles, etc.), and you need money to buy the equipment, so you keep committing crimes in order to finance your operations. I found the game to be diverting in the way that most role-playing games are: they put you on a track of repeatedly performing small tasks in order to collect rewards that you need to advance to new tasks, and so on indefinitely until you reach the end or lose interest (whichever comes first).

Then I reached Level 15, which unlocks the "bank robbery" job, which is when I realized the evil genius behind "Mob Wars": I needed to recruit a bunch of new gang members to pull off the bank job.

A little more background info: there are two types of gang members in "Mob Wars," hired guns (fictional characters you can hire in exchange for favor points) and friends you've invited into the game. At level 15 I had already "hired" four goons, and with favor points pretty hard to come by, I wouldn't be able to hire any others for a long time. The bank job, though, requires fifteen gang members -- eight more than were currently in my gang. That meant that I needed to bring a lot of friends into the game, or I could forget about completing that bank job -- and I really wanted to pull off the bank job!

This is where the game became a meme. "Memes" are one of my favorite ideas. They are, in a nutshell, ideas that reproduce themselves. Christianity is a meme: it's a set of ideas that tells you that it's really important to convince other people of the truth of Christianity. The idea uses you as an agent to reproduce itself, much in the same way as a virus uses a cell's machinery to reproduce. Memes tend to get a bad rap because of the virus analogy, but they need not necessarily be good or bad. And to me, there's something particularly cool about the idea of an idea which, though inert in itself, is constructed in such a way as to spread itself more broadly.

"Mob Wars," though, has clearly been deliberately constructed as a meme. It's a game that sends me out to get more people to play the game. And it does that by dangling something that I want in front of me and saying, "You can have this shiny bauble, but first you have to invite some friends..." Many Facebook games do this ("Now you've completed the intelligence test, but to see the results you first must invite five friends...") but it's easily the smoothest and least annoying example I've seen so far.

This is a powerful, if a bit underhanded, way to build a community. The role-playing game formula is a proven winner: give people a series of small tasks to complete, each with a limited payoff, and encourage users to grind away at your game. RPG's rarely ask for a huge time commitment up front; each task is relatively small, but when you add up all the little tasks you perform it turns out you've spent a lot of time at it. In the process you become quite addicted to the payoff, especially once you start realizing how much time you're spending and feel like you need to make that time worthwhile. The genius of "Mob Wars" is that it introduces the meme-like activity not at the beginning, before you're really engaged and it's easy to say "no," but well into the game when you're already committed to the development of your character.

This suggests a community business plan: build a site around a meme.
  1. The Game: Hook your users on a series of small tasks (with gradually increasing payoffs), then present them with bigger tasks that require larger and larger teams.
  2. Community Standing: Grant special powers on your site to users who have a certain number of registered users in their Friends List. (Note: those powers should provide a tangible benefit to those who have them, otherwise no one will care.)
  3. The Big Idea: Your site serves a community built around an idea or cause so compelling that members will want to bring their friends and family into the fold.
  4. The Bargain: Visitors to your site get special prices on certain merchandise, but only if they place an order with others as a group. Prices go up or down depending on how many first-time buyers are included in the group (so as to encourage a steady flow of new blood).
Certain types of community build themselves. Just get them started and they'll take care of the rest.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Happiness Is Catching

Came across an article this morning, on how a recent study indicates that happiness is like a disease:
Joy to the World
Researchers have found that happy people tend to "cluster," which is to say that in a given population you are more likely to find happy people in groups than singly or in association with unhappy people. The researchers interpret this as indicating that happiness spreads socially: your happy friends make you more happy, their happy friends make them more happy, and so on.

Of course, there's another possible interpretation here: that happy people are happy because they are in groups -- they have a strong set of social connections -- so that happiness is an effect rather than a cause. It's also possible that there is correlation without causation: happy people are more sociable because they're happy, and therefore are more likely to form social connections than their depressed, unhappy fellows. But let's not go there. For now let's simply go with the researchers in believing that happiness spreads via social bonds, and that online communities are therefore virtual happiness engines.

Yay us! We make the world happy!