The previous article on social spamming got around a bit with some of the readers sending in stories of how their apps had been affected in similar ways. One of the readers, in particular, shared his experience marketing an app on Facebook. All of this prompted me to write a follow-up article on getting viral marketing right while piggybacking a social network.

The Zyng Thing!

Let’s start with the company that is most synonymous with viral growth on the Facebook platform: Zynga. Zynga’s growth is so closely linked to Facebook that it is often indistinguishable which of the two was riding on the other’s growth. Was Zynga Facebook’s killer app that grew user engagement on Facebook or did Zynga piggyback on Facebook’s growth to a multi-billion dollar valuation? Either way, Zynga was the first application to leverage Facebook as a marketing platform at such scale and with such success.

Social gaming is a great example of a new breed of user acquisition based not on value or relevance to users but repeated incentives to current users to send invites to gain new users. There are two interesting factors about social gaming in its current avatar.

1. Viral acquisition: Social games rely heavily on virality. This virality is often baked into the game mechanic. Users can acquire time (faster leveling up) or resources in the game by inviting their friends. The entire game is built around users calling other users in. This virality is NOT word of mouth; it has nothing to do with a positive experience that users may have had on the game.

2. Cross-promotion: Social games rely heavily on hits and cross-sell. Whenever Zynga gets a new game out, it acquires users from existing games (cross-sell). However, this has a lot to do with momentum. If a game falls through in between, the audience carry-over suffers. In general, social gaming companies maximize revenues by making users play more games, thereby creating more monetization opportunities.

The two factors above prove one thing: social gaming, unlike every other form of gaming, can scale only on an underlying user-acquisition platform.  Facebook, of course, was perfect as a user acquisition platform.

Social gaming is not a ‘social’ product in the true sense of the word. It is really a regular single-player or multi-player game with a predominantly ‘social’ channel for user acquisition. The critical factor for social gaming to succeed, in its current form, is maximizing the number of invites that users send out. Maximizing this is what led to Zynga’s rapid rise. But the backlash has been equally huge. Users are frustrated with spam in their news feed.

Facebook itself, over time, has taken progressively greater measures to curb the level of spam on the network.  Zynga got a lot of traction because it was amongst the first to show up at the party. The restrictions started coming into play only later. And with the restrictions, Facebook has become sub-optimal for user acquisition of this sort.

Even email spammers got a lot of users to send money to Nigeria before email programs strengthened their spam filters.

Where’s the value, piggybacker?

In an earlier article on piggybacking, I had noted that the key driver for success in piggybacking on another network’s growth is the ability of the overlying network to add value to users of the underlying network. PayPal provided eBay users a method for instant payment. YouTube provided Myspace (and later Facebook) users a way to share videos.

The problem, as I see it, is that Zynga, BranchOut, and others violated this principle with regards to piggybacking on Facebook as a viral platform.

They did not try to add value to a large chunk of Facebook users.

They did add value to a certain group of users; otherwise, we would never have had this segment of 50-something women petting puppies on the internet.

But in doing so, they proved quite obnoxious to another whole set of users, repeatedly spamming them with invites to the game when they weren’t interested.

A social network based on real identity isn’t optimized for spam

Frankly, the above system of “viral marketing” could have worked perfectly under two circumstances:

1. Users were genuinely interested in the marketing message. In other words, it would work well on a network where every user was genuinely interested in playing or trying a social game.

2. The network wasn’t based on real identity. Facebook is based on real identity. As a result, users are more sensitive about spamming their friends and creating poor experiences for them. As with any other experience with technology, users don’t necessarily differentiate negative behavior (spam) from day one and gradually acquire the sophistication to avoid spamming.

Japanese companies DeNA and GREE are both betting on the above right now while moving to a gaming platform based on virtual identity.

Their bet is that with everyone on the platform being a gamer, the risk of spam gets mitigated and since people aren’t their real selves on the platform, the propensity to mass-invite will be that much higher.

Facebook has improved upon its responsibilities as a viral marketing platform over time and Zynga is only recently realizing that Facebook, as a viral acquisition platform, is not optimized for social gaming.

Facebook is first a publishing platform and then a marketing platform

Getting back to Facebook…

In the middle of all this spam, is there anything that gets genuinely popular on Facebook?

Good content! It gets shared and re-shared.

That’s because, at the heart of it, Facebook is a publishing platform. Good content gains popularity on a publishing platform and doesn’t need to spam users. Because it adds real value. That’s the only effective way to piggyback a network sustainably.

At the end of the day, smart marketing (incentive-based conning?) will get you the hits but won’t necessarily scale. What will really work is users who spread the word further, not applications that con users into spreading the word.

Good content adds value to users on a publishing platform. Good games could too if they were relevant to the users. However, the fact remains that the content/game should delight the user in the context of her presence on Facebook.

As the internet evolves more towards real identity across applications, users are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Companies which succeed will be the ones keeping users at the center of their acquisition plans.

They call it viral marketing for a reason: You sneeze (invite), and somebody catches the virus. But spamming a user’s social graph every time a user wants some sheep for his farm is just turning around and repeatedly sneezing in someone’s face. Nobody likes that!

  1. Viral marketing platforms are getting more sophisticated. The best way to piggyback such a platform is to add value for users on it so that they genuinely want to spread the word. What worked for Youtube and Paypal can work for apps on Facebook too.
  2. Facebook is built around real identity. As users get more sophisticated, they tend to get more careful about the identity they project and will become increasingly aware of the kind of invites and messages they send out.
What do you guys think? Do you feel Facebook is moving towards a more sophisticated form of viral marketing?
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