In the last several years we’ve seen the rise and fall of many
social web applications. While most of our attention gets paid to the
hugely successful ones like YouTube and Facebook,
we can also learn a lot from those that have failed. Here are some of
the common pitfalls that lead to failure when building social web
If you build and release your social web site and nobody uses it,
you have the cold start problem. This problem affects most social
sites, and directly results from designing for the network. The effect
of the network is that nodes on the network (web sites) have attention momentum.
We pay attention to certain nodes (sites) already, and so if
you’re trying to add one to the network then you have to build
your own attention momentum over time. This is not easy.
Too often, though, this hurdle is underestimated. The first step is
to admit there’s a problem. Say “This is not working. Our
early users are not using the site how we want them to”. You
would be surprised at how often this doesn’t happen.
Instead, what often happens is that more money is pushed into features
or marketing, which is precisely the wrong move.
Strong social sites build value one user at a time. If one user
finds value, then they’re much more likely to tell others or
invite their friends. Strong sites don’t succeed by attracting
“markets”, satisfying entire groups of people with a
certain feature set. Instead, they succeed on a smaller level, really
focusing on individuals and their immediate social network. Then they
can branch outward. One strategy in particular is to design for your
friends, get the system working well for them, and then release it to a
I got this email in my inbox the other day from a well-meaning entrepreneur who was building a new social web site:
“(our site) aims to combine the best elements of
Digg, Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon, as a mechanism of social discovery
and personal expression – but with the unique element of
I get so many of these it’s not funny. This is a clear case of
focusing on too many things. If you can’t describe what your site
does with a single, clear idea then you’re trying to do too much.
In addition, a comparison to other sites in this way is a bad idea,
because they’ve already beat you. They already have a strong
brand while you have a weak one.
The ease of adding social features makes overload likely.
Development frameworks make adding friends, tags, profiles, blogs, or a
host of other social features much easier than it was even a couple
years ago. This is the opposite to a barrier to entry, where the hard
part is building something at all. Instead, the ease of adding social features is a barrier to focus. If you have every feature under the sun you’re probably not focused as well as you could be.
So focus on one thing that isn’t being addressed. It
can’t be something like “the unique element of
real-time”. It has to be something inherently valuable, like a
common frustrating activity. Nail that one thing to the ground, and
show people how you do that one thing better than anybody else.
Think of the most successful social sites out there. They usually
focus on a single thing. YouTube (video), Netflix (movies), eBay
(auctions), MySpace (friends), Flickr (photos), Del.icio.us (bookmarks)
and most of the social features on those sites are aimed at making that
one activity better. These are just the giants. There are many more
niches that are successfully designed for that are even more focused.
Threadless focuses on t-shirts. Last.fm on music. etc…
What makes Google so terrifying to their competitors is that they
never stop getting better. They’re executing each and every day
to make their software the best it can be. For example, in September of
last year they did the unthinkable: they completely killed off the
interface paradigm of a solid, growing product: their Google Reader software. But they replaced it with an even better interface that was universally acclaimed.
It’s too easy to fall into the desktop software mindset of build, release, and wait for the next cycle. But with social software, you don’t have the opportunity to stop improving.
Your community is always growing and changing and so your management
has to as well. There will always be things to do, screens to improve,
questions to answer, and wording to tweak, support docs to update.
This can seem daunting, but I think it’s mostly about mindset.
If you see it as a sustained problem, then it will be one. If you see
it as an opportunity for continual improvement, your outlook will be
When you mess up on a social web app, as you undoubtedly will, you
have to come completely clean or your users will smell your fear and
hate you for it. Social sites are not typical software…they ebb
and flow depending on the community and how it evolves over time. You,
as the manager of a community, must act accordingly.
Consider the recent Digg dustup
in which the Digg community pushed back on the site after they tried to
remove a certain DVD-cracking code from user-submitted entries. At
first, Digg tried to explain the situation away by saying they were
legally obligated to as the result of a cease-and-desist letter. The
basic message was “our hands are tied”.
But then the Digg community overwhelmed the site and got the DVD
crack code up anyway. The failure of Digg management to stand up for
their users initially resulted in the user’s aggregate behavior.
Digg didn’t lose out, however, as this community passion provided
an opportunity for them to ride the wave, so to speak, reversing their
course and standing up to the cease-and-desist. Their apology letter
and reversal suggests they quickly realized that pointing the finger
wasn’t the right course. Only by accepting responsibility for
their user base could Digg keep their respect.
Here’s a template for how to say you’re sorry.
No matter how prescient your designers and how well thought out your
design strategy, there is no way to design a perfect social web site
that doesn’t need ongoing management. Yet, some social start-ups
fail to recognize this and launch their app without a designated
caretaker. The result is a slow failure…the worst kind of
failure because it’s not immediately apparent that it’s
In any decent social app, use and users are always changing, always adapting and pushing the limits of your software. So as Matt Haughey, founder of Metafilter, says in his excellent Community Tips for 2007, “Moderation is a full-time job”.
The success of many social start-ups proves this to be true. Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, when asked about making online communities work, admitted there is no silver bullet, but added:
“A lot of our success came from George (Oates),
the lead designer, and Caterina (Fake). Both of them spent a lot of
time in the early days greeting individual users as they came in,
encouraging them and leaving comments on their photos. There was a lot
of dialogue between the people who were developing Flickr and their
users to get feedback on how they wanted Flickr to develop. That
interaction made the initial community very strong and then that seed
was there for new people who joined to make the community experience
strong for them too.”
Stewart’s description is exactly how George described it to me when I met her at SXSW.
She could not over-emphasize the value of her and Caterina spending so
much time with users…24 hours a day greeting them, showing them
how to use Flickr, and generally saying “Hi”. It was clear
to her that a huge part of the early success of Flickr resulted from
that personal attention, that personal connection that someone on the
other end cares about what’s going on. A full-time community
manager is crucial to providing this level of attention.
When your social app begins to grow and you start to attract more
and more new people to the fold, you begin to see trends in their
initial confrontation with the software. The same issues crop up
repeatedly. People have the same problems over and over again and the
community manager spends more and more time answering the same
For example, uploading that first batch of photos might be
intimidating for those folks who have never done it before. Let’s
imagine they all run into the same problem: how do you get photos out
of iPhoto and into your Flickr account? There are certain steps to do
this, but it is not entirely clear, especially if you’ve never
had to export pictures out of iPhoto before.
It’s the community manager’s role to help people at this
stage. They’ll chat and email with the person to help them along.
But their role should also include figuring out when archiving common
problems will make a big difference to a large group of users. If the
process of exporting from iPhoto is archived at a URL, then the
community manager only has to point people to the brand new
“exporting from iPhoto” page instead of explaining it over
and over again.
One strategy to avoid repeating the same things over and over again
is to use these interactions to feed a FAQ or a user’s guide.
Whenever you start to see trends in help, add it to your FAQ and add a
section to the user’s guide. This will allow the community
manager to focus on the latest, more unique problems without having to
rehash older issues again and again.
This seems pretty obvious now that we’ve talked about a
general case. But it’s not so obvious when you’re in the
heat of battle and these issues are cropping up unstructured for the
first time. The secret is to observe patterns in the questions people
ask but also in the underlying cause of the questions while leaving
enough design time dedicated to creating a healthy set of resources
that can serve future users.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but it is possible to focus too
much on social value when creating social web applications. Why is
that? Well, because much of the motivation within social sites is
actually rooted in personal value, or answering the question:
“what’s in it for me?”. I’ve dubbed this the Del.icio.us Lesson because it was Del.icio.us
who gained so much attention for the social value of tagging but it was
really the personal value of saving bookmarks that drove the site.
At the beginning, when you’re building the service, is not the
time to focus on social value. There is no social value because there
is no user base. So adding tags in the hopes that people will discover
new things is probably premature at this stage, for example. Instead,
focus on how a single person can use your service even if others
don’t share or tag anything.
Think about YouTube, a killer
social app. Even at the very beginning YouTube was providing personal
value: hosting your videos for free. If they had been charging for this
feature, no social design in the world could have caused the growth
that free video hosting did. So while YouTube excels at getting viral
growth out of the sharing of videos, they’re providing a
valuable, personal service at the same time.
It should also be noted that altruistic people, or people who do
things for the good of the group regardless of personal benefit, are
incredibly rare. They’re so rare, in fact, that they make a very
poor population to design for. There just aren’t enough of them
to make up a significant population in any area. Even Wikipedians,
who have been called altruistic at times, are mostly driven by
reputation…the reputation they gain from their peers and other
Thoughtful recommendations are the best possible way to increase
your user base. It is word-of-mouth in action. When someone takes time
out of their day to say something really nice about your service,
making an honest-to-goodness recommendation, you will definitely see
positive results. The question is, are you making it easy for your
users to recommend you?
In our world lots of people make recommendations, but many of them
are paid to do so or are looking after their own interests. Take, for
example, the Publisher’s book descriptions on Amazon.com. These
are always super-positive…they explain why the book is so great
and why you should buy it. They would never contain anything negative,
never contain anything that might potentially hurt the sales of the
And, as a result, the book description tells us exactly what we
would expect from a publisher. To Amazon’s credit, they have over
time given individual reviews and ratings more prominence on the
product page, signaling that that content is more valuable to users.
And of course it should be…those people aren’t biased in
the way the publishing house is.
sites add incentives for recommendations so that people give them more
freely. Netflix, for example, allows you to give “free
movies” to friends while you tell them about the service. This is
a good approach. Netflix does not reward you for this…the act of
giving is all that you get. If Netflix did give you a free movie that
would introduce too much bias…and while more people might make
recommendations it would quickly turn into a case similar to the
publishers…as people would realize that there is something in it
for the recommender.
People tend to imitate the behavior around them. It’s how we
learn. We don’t just gravitate to a new place and automatically
know how to behave there. We watch others and do what they do.
A solid strategy, and one that is often overlooked in social sites,
is to set a good example of what a member of that community does.
Specifically, to have a member of the project team illustrate what good
behavior is. Do they send helpful messages to others? Probably. Do they
post friendly comments? Yes. Are they happy to be here? Yes. So good
examples start with the caretakers of the site…what they do will
be mimicked by the initial set of users.
A good example of this is Seth Godin and Squidoo. Seth continuously eats his own dog food (he’s created dozens of lenses). One of his more popular lenses is The 8 Free Things Every Site (or Lens!) Should Do,
in which he gives advice about how to attract attention to your web
site or lens. In creating this Seth is adding value to the service,
giving others a good example about how to use Squidoo, and also selling
the service itself.
From a social standpoint, this has a very positive affect. If
Squidoo is good enough for its founder, then it’s probably good
enough for other folks, too.
One of the few metrics that matters for social apps is how many
people are using it. But no matter how fast you can grow, this
doesn’t happen at once. It’s actually a series of battles
over time, crucial moments that you overcome that generate the next
level of attention for the application.
Many social sites fail to see the larger war of which they are a
part. Instead, they focus on one or two explosive moments, like being
Techcrunched, that will make or break the service. But the truth is
that getting Techcrunched is just super-fast attention…the
people coming from Techcrunch are not motivated people who have
incentives to use your service in the way that those driven by
word-of-mouth will be.
Techcrunch is not word-of-mouth. Getting Techcrunched or Slashdotted
or getting Dugg…is like being involved in a drive-by shooting.
I’ve also heard it described as getting seagulled…they
swoop in for the attack and are gone in a second. Here at Bokardo this
has happened several times, and each time I get less and less value
from the attention. The people who come are not my main audience,
although a small number of them might start reading regularly. The
event surely isn’t like a great recommendation by a peer or
reviewer, which is what social design is all about.
So the larger war is a long-term focus on providing value not the to
TechCrunch crowd, but to a much more specific population that really
cares about what you’re doing. This population doesn’t do
drive bys…their attention is much more valuable than that.
The success of MySpace and Facebook has really caused an over-focus
on growing a huge user base to eventually sell or show advertising to.
Percentage-wise, the number of social apps that reach this size is
relatively tiny…these sites are extreme outliers but are super
well-known because they get all the press. We all have to admit, the
success of 23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is a great story.
All too often, however, social sites have no other strategy than to
follow in the footsteps of these Black Swans, to grow and grow and grow
over a year or two and then to figure out how to make money at that
point. But the hard part isn’t figuring out how to monetize a
site with millions of users. The hard part is surviving long enough to
grow that big.
The first problem, put brilliantly by Josh Kopelman, is to get users to pay a penny. He calls this The Penny Gap,
which happens when the multitude of competing services are free and the
biggest challenge becomes getting users to pay even a penny for what
you have. He says:
“The truth is, scaling from $5 to $50 million is
not the toughest part of a new venture – it’s getting your users
to pay you anything at all. The biggest gap in any venture is that
between a service that is free and one that costs a penny.”
While it is possible to make money on a huge user population by
advertising or selling out to a Google or Yahoo, it’s an
incredible risk that only a few people will successfully navigate a
year. Wouldn’t it be better if your users were paying you all
along? Offer them tiered services, with a free plan that provides the
basic valuable service and premium plans that provide something more.
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