From Jae Kim – Director of Social Media Products, FaceTime Communications
These days I seem to hear about the launch of a new social networking site every other day. There’s Neezz.com, the classified ads site; CollegeOnly, the site for college students; The Fridge, a social group site; Diaspora, an open-source privacy-sensitive social network package; and Path, a personal networking site. And the list goes on and on.
If you look at location-based social networks (LBSN) only, there are dozens of them starting out, following the initial success of Foursquare. It seems like every organization is either thinking about starting up a new social networking site or incorporating social networking features into their existing site.
This got me wondering. Is there any lesson that we could draw from failed social networking attempts, such as Google Wave and Google Buzz? What lessons can we learn from Facebook and LinkedIn’s success? What should be the strategy for new social networking sites to bootstrap themselves?
Here are nine bootstrapping strategies that all social media startups should consider:
1. Find a niche user base
Smaller, more focused user bases will allow a startup to tailor the new social networking site to its target audience. Launch the site with a specific use case in mind. In order to have a specific use case, the site must focus the user experience on a specific user base.
Great example of this is Facebook. It first started out as a Harvard social network, then expanded to include Stanford, Columbia, and Yale, and soon to all colleges. By focusing on college students, it was easy to tailor the entire site to a target audience. In addition, college students are more likely to experiment with new sites, and this also helped Facebook build its initial user base. This may be another reason why you see many social networking sites
popping up, geared towards college students, such as CollegeOnly and The Fridge.
You could argue that this is what Google overlooked when bootstrapping Google Buzz. Rather than trying to build a core user base, Google incorrectly assumed that users would flock to its new service, if you placed Buzz right on the Google Mail UI. Their strategy was to target everyone from day one. While Google Buzz had its values for some, not all Google Mail users found the value. User adoption of Google Buzz has been disappointing at best, and its
opt-out approach of targeting all Google Mail users was disastrous at worst.
2. Provide value to the target audience
Once a target user base is defined, the next step is to decide on the value proposition to the user base. In reality, what value to provide is often the first impetus to launch a social media site (e.g., “let’s build a professional networking site” in LinkedIn’s case). One thing to keep in mind when identifying the value proposition is the target audience. The site must have a feature that has perceived value from the target audience’s perspective.
A good example is Facebook. Facebook started out as a profile photo surfing site for college students. Facebook had a clear idea of what to offer, and it understood college students will spend time surfing friends’ profile photos. New social networking sites must understand what features would be valuable to their target audience.
Best way to do this is to build a site yourself. Just as Mike Zuckerberg understood college students’ needs as a student himself, you are far more likely to succeed if you build a site that you yourself would use.
3. Add signature user experience
User experience is very important. A great user experience is to a social media site what great taste is to a fabulous meal. In other words, a great user experience is a critical part of the entire package.
It used to be that websites were criticized by their available features (or lack thereof). But as more and more horizontal features, such as user-feedback platforms, recommendation platforms, and social connectivity platforms are shared and available off-the-shelf, features alone can no longer be differentiating factors. In today’s social network sites, user experience is one of the key determinants in attracting users.
Consider the MySpace user experience. Although MySpace hit its peak before Facebook did, MySpace failed to expand outside its core user base. It’s debatable what factors caused MySpace’s decline, but I would argue that one key area where MySpace failed miserably was its user experience. Does anyone remember how MySpace’s user profile page looked before their UI makeover?
It’s not surprising why MySpace hemorrhaged users.
On the other hand, one good example is hipmunk.com. It is yet another meta-flight search site, but with a very refreshing user experience. It is perhaps the simplest air travel site that I’ve seen on the Web so far. After selecting departure/arrival dates and airports with ease, it returns available flights in a Gantt chart showing layover and overall travel time. What a difference visual display of flight schedules makes. Add to this user experience an easy way to perform another search (i.e., adding a new tab to make similar searches) and you have a winning recipe.
4. Make it easy to join – use a Facebook, Twitter, or Google ID
When people visit a new social networking site, one of the most dreaded parts is filling out user information and creating yet another account, not to mention a password. This new account creation is often enough to turn the prospect off and have them move on to the next distraction. I am not sure why websites think that having a user create new accounts will be of value to anyone. It will be the case that most users, especially those who will be early adopters of the new site, will likely have dozens of usernames and a few passwords they use (if they are security-conscious), and dozens more that they’ve created but have forgotten.
Creating an account does no one any good. It does not guarantee any return visits any more than you handing out business cards to total strangers in a parking lot.
Instead use what’s already out there. Allow users to sign up with your service through their Facebook, Twitter, and Google IDs. Most successful social network sites do this, and more need to embrace existing user accounts.
5. Leverage Facebook and Twitter for viral advertising
Another reason to link with existing social networking accounts is to leverage the social net to launch viral marketing. Remember seeing one too many Farmville updates from your Facebook friends? Do the same (of course, with the user’s explicit permission). It’s unlikely that people will complain about too many of your new social networking ad bits (that will be a good problem to have). If you are offering enough value as discussed in #2, people will in fact thank their friends who introduced it to them.
Check out mentionmap of me. It visualizes the mentions of people and hashtags in the most recent tweets. Oh, don’t forget. They offer an easy way to retweet about them.
6. Make it addictive by adding games or gaming elements
Building value, targeting the new site to a specific audience, and making it easy to join with viral marketing is a good start, but often not enough for sustained growth. As a new social media s
ite, you’ll need repeat hardcore users; users like those who propelled Zynga to a billion-dollar enterprise within three years of launch. Your service needs to be addictive for users to spend lots of time and for users to spend lots of time, it needs to have gaming elements.
One of the huge windfalls for Facebook was Zynga’s success. With Zynga’s FarmVille, FrontierVille, Cafe World, and Mafia Wars popularity surge, Facebook was able to attract and retain those social gaming addicts. This explosive symbiotic relationship between Zynga and Facebook is something that Google has been working on to recreate on their social networking site.
Game-like features can be integrated within the site as well. Foursquare and SCVNGR are geolocation-based social networks (GBSN) that incorporates gaming aspects. Foursquare gives badges as you check in to places, along with mayorship to those hardcore users, which encourages users to compete with others. SCVNGR has added challenges to GBSN so that users can engage in ad-hoc games when they check in at places.
7. Embrace third-party developers by offering a useful API
While it is important for the site to provide value for its target audience, it doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting in creating additional value. No one has exclusive right to creativity, and certainly no one understands users’ needs better than the users themselves. When tools to integrate third-party applications are available and developers see the value in targeting the audience that you are attracting, they will build applications to become the Zynga for your site.
Take a look at the iPhone app store and Facebook API. The iPhone app store offers the Facebook mobile application, which is arguably why people are buying smartphones like the iPhone. The Facebook API enables Zynga games to be integrated with Facebook, which played a key role in increasing active daily user counts since 2007.
8. Take risks to provide innovative features
When you have all of the above, you then have to innovate. It is far too easy for someone to copy what you are already doing. Just take a look at all the Facebook-wannabe startups just coming online. You have to take chances to build upon existing features to provide more value, above and beyond the feature that you started out with.
Look at what Facebook did. Starting out as a profile photo sharing site, it added an innovative feature (some might call it evolutionary, but no one did it as well as Facebook), News Feed. The idea of making it super easy for anyone to subscribe to a friend’s news was a huge hit. Initially, Facebook ran into some resistance from users, but they kept tweaking its features and look-and-feel to make it the de facto standard of all social networking platforms.
Facebook had their share of flops as well. Does anyone remember Facebook Beacon? What about its overly simplified privacy controls UI? But, Facebook consistently took chances with new features and responded quickly to user feedback to continue improving their features.
Facebook continues to expand their core feature set by introducing Facebook Groups, Deals, and Messages. Not all of them will succeed, but they will be the first to learn from these lessons and iterate on them.
9. Listen to user feedback and iterate fast to increase value-add
Fast iteration is the key. I discussed in my earlier blog entry about the importance of fast iteration, especially when you are entering a new market. You have to listen to user feedback and incorporate it into the feature as if it’s coming down from board members. Ultimately, it will be the users who determine whether your new site will succeed.