Why Your Great Social Network Application Failed

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“Should we create a social network application?”

This is a question many lifestyle brand CMOs and Marketing Directors ask, in our very first meeting. My usual answer is “Why? What business objective are you trying to achive?”

The client then usually rattles off recent figures about the number of active users on the larger English-speaking social networks (that number’s somewhere around 260MM – 140MM on Facebook, 122MM on MySpace). Even the reasonably good Universal McCann study from earlier this year looks hilariously outdated, in light of recent growth in the space. Their conservative estimate of roughly 300MM English-speaking social network users is looking low, as we head into 2009.

So, it’s clear that the marketing director is right: the “eyeballs” are there. But eyeballs are not enough when you’re trying to create engagement, and drive revenue, on the social web. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re able to create an app that drives engagement, and users return to it two or three times. That’s great, but what’s the endgame?

Brands are on the social web to make friends, but also to drive revenue. And here’s what I’ve seen in the last year on the social web.

There are about six key reasons for failure here:

1. User Interface/User Experience (UI/UX): If users can’t figure out where to click once they’re logged into the app, they’re not going to be repeat users. This should go without saying, but it’s probably the single most popular cause of lack of adoption. Apps developed for cross-platforum usage (via OpenSocial ) need to be alpha-tested over and over, to ensure that UI/UX needs are met on multiple platforms (Bebo, MySpace, Orkut, etc.)

2. No content to share: If there’s nothing for the user to do on your app other than a one-time or two-time action (e.g. throwing a snowball ), it’s not feasible to expect that most users will respond by sharing the content (e.g. throwing the snowball at another user).

3. Content Undesirable to Share: I sometimes call this the Gamestop problem, and I discovered this application pitfall while researching a major video game brand’s customers. One example of this would be anti-virality of video-game branded social networks; a lot of people may not want their co-workers and friends to know that they’ve joined a Metal Gear Solid social network, because it’s just plain dorky.

Here’s the deal: there are a lot of branded products that users don’t want to share their affinity for with other users because they’re too personal, cheesy or embarrassing. Some of these products would include video games, personal hygiene products, contraceptives or even regulated brands (alcohol, tobacco), because of their impact on one’s social status, or potentially, their employment.

On the other hand, there are certain lifestyle brands that can easily fit into the social space without creating a branded application. Canadian Club did this nicely on Facebook, recently. This is also where the kitsch factor comes into play. There’s a reason that hundreds of thousands of people “friended” Jack In The Box on MySpace; they wanted to share their taste for “low culture” (knowingly or unknowingly).

4. viral coefficient < 1: Most social networks provide application developers with easy insights as to the virality of their application. If, on Day Two of a deployment, you’re noticing that the viral coefficient (the rate at which new users yield viral growth unto other users) is less than 1, then it’s time to quickly iterate the app before devoting more resources to it.

5. Lack of loyalty – Frequently, the biggest problem is not getting the user to install the application, or even to return to it a second or a third time. If multiple use cases are not mapped out during application development, then loyalty is going to be a problem. These use cases should include reasons that users would want to return to your application even if they are NOT alerted to it from a newsfeed-type filter or from another user. If you can’t think of a use case for that scenario, go back to the drawing board.

6. No clear conversion path – For all of the engagement that your application generates, if there are no clear, monetizable conversion paths back to an eCommerce channel (or a branded destination web-site), then the application is still a failure. Seriously, who would create, essentially, a game to generate brand awareness?

If you’d like to plan a social network application (as part of a holistic, multi-channel strategy), drop us a line on our contact page.

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