The Appification of Social Networks – Instagram

| August 13, 2012

Social is the new everything. Everyone wants to ride the Social bandwagon. But with great fad come great fatigue. Consumers who are already on Facebook, Twitter and a hundred other services don’t want to get onto ‘yet another social network’. Appification is an interesting model for building out a social network by doing precisely the opposite: not building a social network.

 

Consumers don’t view apps and networks in equal light. Apps are tools or utilities that provide instant gratification: a quick search, a quick note or picture, the interaction is very transient and transactional. Networks, on the other hand, require investment, the more time a user invests in a network product, the more the user extracts value out of it. While this is great for a network with already has user engagement, it can act as an impediment to traction for new networks that are starting out.

 

To combat this social network fatigue, several would-be platform businesses launch first as an app, a simple tool/utility that helps the user complete a simple action. The key highlight of such an app is that every time the user uses the app. the app allows the user to share whatever she creates. Over time, the app builds traction among users and also an underlying graph of users in their network they share with who interact with their content. At some point down the line, the app ‘zooms out’ to become a larger platform with the original app becoming a mere feature on the platform.

 

The key design principles for appification are:

  1. The app should be simple and targeted. It should solve exactly one user pain point in a simple and effective manner.
  2. The app should prompt the user to share during every instance when the user creates or consumes using the app.

 

There are two reasons why this model of gaining traction has suddenly gained popularity:

  1. Facebook’s creation of the social graph allows sharing as a user action for the first time. Users can share on any of the networks they are already members of. With every sharing action and reciprocal interaction from other users, a new graph gets overlaid which represents the relationship of users around content or interests that a particular app facilitates. In a culture of sharing on top of the social graph, a network can now be turned on at any point on something that looked as innocent as a simple tool.
  2. For appificaiton of a platform to work, the in-leading app needs to gain large scale traction fairly quickly. This has become a reality only recently with the launch of Apple’s and Android’s app stores.

 

This is one of the reasons Facebook bought Instagram, a simple iPhone app, for a billion dollars. One of the key reasons for engagement on Facebook is the photos feature. Facebook is currently the largest host of photos on the net. Instagram, while an app to creatively morph and share photos using simple filters, was gaining popularity very rapidly and had the chops to “zoom out” into a social network around pictures. This, combined with the fact that Instagram was mobile-first in a world fast transitioning to mobile, showed up Instagram as a clear threat on Facebook’s radar.

 

When a platform starts off as an app, the user relationships get created in the backend. In the standalone mode strategy, by contrast, the second side of users needs to be seeded explicitly by the platform as a different exercise. Appification is more of a product and design strategy, while the standalone strategy is more a market staging strategy.

 

It also goes without saying that not all apps out there are going in with a clear strategy of seeding out a platform. Most are simply what they appear to be: apps nothing more, nothing less.

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