Social Network Applications: A Marketer’s Guide


facebook_small.jpgADOTAS EXCLUSIVE — The Facebook Platform celebrated its one year anniversary a few months ago. Never before have I seen the introduction of a new platform, Web site or service so quickly change the marketplace. There are more than 20,000 applications, some with nearly 2 million daily active users available on Facebook alone. Businesses and even venture capital funds have been created around the development of social network applications to capitalize on Facebook’s popularity.

OpenSocial, an open platform for application development across multiple social networks, spearheaded by Google, was quickly developed and launched to compete with (or maybe complement) the Facebook Platform. The opportunities presented by the Facebook Platform and OpenSocial are very exciting from a developer’s perspective. Now they can focus on building cool technology and not on building traffic from scratch. From the perspective of consumers, they have more choices and better ways to communicate while having fun on their favorite social networking site. But what does it mean for brands? How can brands successfully leverage these platforms to build their business?

What is a social application?

First, let’s define a social application. A social application is a tool or service that is installed by a user of an existing social network that takes advantage of the friend relationships, profile data and other information that the user has supplied to that social network. Think of applications as features or mini websites that you can add to your profile page to enhance your experience on that social network.

More times than I care to count, I hear the terms “application” and “widget” used interchangeably, and as this space evolves, it’s important to know the difference. The primary differences between applications and widgets are that applications leverage the friend relationships, profile information, interests and communication tools of that social network. A widget doesn’t have access to this information. Widgets are also usually smaller and self-contained elements of a user’s profile. Additionally, as mentioned above, applications are mini Web sites that can contain full Web pages living inside the social network, while a widget can be placed on many different social networks, blogs, or other sites all simultaneously.

Why are applications important?

Prior to applications, if businesses wanted to interact with the users of a social network they were limited to creating profiles on that social network or to using existing online advertising methods to drive traffic from that social network to another site. Both approaches can be limiting if the goal is to engage and build a long-term relationship with users. Applications are important because of the unprecedented access they give to the users of social networks– over 100 million people on Facebook and more than another 100 million on MySpace alone. Applications allow a brand to engage users where users already are.

How marketers can leverage social applications

There are three primary ways marketers can use applications to achieve their marketing needs.

Application advertising – This is standard CPM or CPC based advertising that can be purchased on specific applications. This can be a great, cost-effective way to reach a niche audience within a social network. Like traditional online advertising, application advertising can help marketers achieve branding needs as well as drive traffic back to their sites. There are several great application-specific ad networks including appssavvy, SocialMedia, and RockYou that can help marketers buy the right media on applications.

Application sponsorship – Application sponsorship is a great way to build a brand by associating it with an already successful application.

Custom application – Building a custom application to meet specific marketing objectives offers the most powerful marketing opportunity on social applications. Done correctly, it creates a viral, long-term connection with your customers and offers the opportunity to engage with them every day as they regularly visit their favorite social network. Creating your own successful application can be challenging so I’ve included five tips that will hopefully make life a little easier.

Five tips for building a successful application for your brand:

1. Think long term – If you learn nothing else from reading this article, this would be it: think long term. An application should be viewed as a long-term investment just like launching your first corporate website. Because users need to install an application and agree to give you access to some information about them, the hurdle for installing an application is higher than visiting a website. But once the application is installed you have a direct link and communication channel with the user. This is a very powerful opportunity, one worthy of long-term consideration. This doesn’t mean that campaign-based applications can’t be beneficial, but brands and agencies need to think about things from a long-term perspective when doing their planning.

2. Clearly define the goal of your application – I always recommend establishing one clear goal for an application. For companies like RockYou and Slide who have built businesses on growing apps and selling advertising, their goal for each application they develop is simple — get millions of people to use it so they can sell ads on it. But for brands that don’t have an advertising model, this probably doesn’t make sense. Here are some possible goals for building an application for your brand:

• Build brand and presence on social networks – A great way to do this is to create an application related to the lifestyle of your brand. For example, Nike just launched a Facebook application geared toward helping hoopsters organize and find pick-up games globally.
• Extend your current online business – If you have an existing online business, make it easier for users to participate from within their favorite social network. Doing so can be very powerful.
• Launch a new product – Creating a contest or game application can be a very cost effective way of spreading the word about your new product.

3. Choose the right partner – As I talked about above, the rapid growth of social applications and the constant changing of the Facebook and OpenSocial platforms means that working with an expert is probably the way to go. The launch of the revamped Facebook profiles last week is a perfect example. Unless you or someone on your team is living and breathing this stuff, building a successful social application on your own can be tricky.

4. Iterate – Just like your core product, your corporate website or your marketing message, your social application needs to be analyzed, modified and reworked on an ongoing basis. The most critical iteration should come in the first month of the application to ensure it’s setup for viral growth. The last point is critical. The biggest single opportunity of an application is the viral potential. By leveraging the built in invite, update and messaging systems of a social network, it’s possible to build an application used by hundreds of thousands of people with minimal promotional investment. To make this happen you need to optimize your application for viral growth. Your goal should be for every new application user to bring in more than one other user. This will yield exponential growth.

5. Make it simple – Successful applications are easy to use and instantly give users satisfaction and benefit. We learned this the hard way. The first application we built at Votigo in June of 2007 was almost a 100% replica of our contest community website. The problem with this approach is that we were trying to build a community within a community instead of enhancing the existing community. We failed to make it really simple for users to benefit from the application immediately. Lesson learned.

There is no question that social applications are here to stay. While the applications and the platforms they are built on are constantly evolving, it’s clear that applications have become a critical part of our participation on social networks. You need to think of applications as the strongest way to build a permanent presence within a social network and the best way to deeply engage the users of a social network.


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