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Shane Snow is a Mashable contributor, cofounder of the new Contently.com, and infographic artist at Credit Loan, Wix, and Mint.
One of the main challenges for social networks stems from a question ancient philosophers have debated for centuries: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In social media, the dilemma often takes the form of, “We need users for our network to be useful, but users won’t join the network unless it’s useful.” A social network’s utility is derived from the people belonging to it.
The second great challenge in social networking is spreading to new users at a fast and sustainable pace, i.e. viral growth. Virality is the pot of gold every startup yearns for. It can’t be obtained without first solving the chicken-and-egg puzzle.
This month, a social startup called Hashable (no relation!) released an iPhone app after a few months in private beta. Hashable helps users make introductions and track their connections and relationships through “people checkins,” using Twitter hashtags and e-mail. Without publicity, Hashable’s private user base grew by itself to more than 5,000 members before the app officially launched.
How does a new site like Hashable get past the chicken dilemma, when others can’t? Hashable CEO Michael Yavonditte says he “looked at all the successful networks” when designing his product. “There are things to learn from all successful companies in adjacent spaces,” he says. Here’s a quick look at the science behind some of the most well-known social networks, and how they cracked the philosophical egg.
How Facebook Did It: Start Small and Exclusive
When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in 2004, he positioned his social network as private and exclusive. Psychologically, this made users want to join, in the same way his fellow Harvard students were dying to join fraternities where all the “cool kids” were. (See the movie for a dramatization of this).
Facebook was able to gather thousands of users — half the Harvard undergraduate population — in less than a month. It was immediately useful because the user base was instantly robust, and the site had features that facilitated interaction, keeping users coming back.
Though Facebook is now a 500+ million user giant — and no longer exclusive at all — Zuckerberg got past the initial chicken-and-egg problem by going after a tiny subset of the potential users for his site and making them believe they were privileged to be part of it. Luxury brands use this psychology all the time. Websites like Gilt Groupe use “members only” tactics to get people interested in joining. As they say, people always want what they can’t have.
How Tumblr Did It: Make It Useful Even If You’re Alone
Micro-blogging platform Tumblr began as a nonthreatening way to keep an online journal. What made Tumblr really take off were social features like following and reblogging, but those features came well after Tumblr had a large following itself.
Tumblr now averages millions of posts per day and billions of page views each month. It bypassed the chicken-and-egg problem because it started off as something that anyone could do by themselves: click twice to post anything on a blog. Thousands of users joined because it was useful to them; social features tacked on later fueled explosive growth.
Other examples of social networks that used standalone utility to bypass the chicken problem to some degree include LinkedIn (a free place to host your resume online) and, for bands, Myspace (a free webpage to host your songs and announce shows).
How Twitter Did It: Cater to Geeks and Influencers First
Twitter may have been the social network most mocked by mainstreamers in the beginning, yet it now boasts more than 190 million accounts. Many of those accounts belong to the old mockers, moms and technoramuses who now talk about tweets on cable news — people who never would have adopted Twitter before the network effect took hold.
Twitter solved its chicken/egg conundrum by focusing on acquiring tech-savvy early adopters who were influential among geeks. The site catered to them, marketed toward them and basically let the nerds run wild (letting members determine the way Twitter should be used, and then developing the site around those use cases).
How Foursquare Did It: Use Game Psychology
Foursquare is a good example of a social network that is not very useful unless there are people to share it with. Founders Naveen Selvadurai and Dennis Crowley tapped into their video gamer roots and built a system that made users feel like they were playing a game rather than using a social network. Badges for visiting new places, points for using the app frequently, and the ability to stake claim to your favorite local spots and become a Foursquare “mayor” helped bridge the gap between “I have no friends on it, so why should I do it?” and “Aha, this is actually useful,” once more people were on the service.
Of course, Foursquare’s successful use of games to grow its network gave rise to scads of imitators. Whereas some people have game mechanics fatigue by now, when done correctly, games work and will continue to do so.
Repeating The Experiments: How Hashable Is Doing It
In science, hypotheses are proven (or disproven) by repeating experiments and achieving identical results. Yavonditte and crew hypothesized that the success of the biggest social networks is scientifically repeatable. Here’s how Hashable is testing that hypothesis:
- Start small and exclusive. Hashable started out as invite-only, focusing on the tech scene in New York City.
- Make it useful as a standalone app. Hashable becomes an address book and digital business card, and is a tool for making introductions to users and nonusers alike. “Hashable can be used with people that are not currently users,” says Yavonditte.
- Cater to geeks and influencers first. In an effort to reach influencers in the New York tech scene, Hashable has been inviting groups of potential users to its offices for personalized demos and exclusive, early versions of its iPhone app. Yavonditte demonstrates how to use the app, and everyone in the room uses it to “check in” with each other, making new networking contacts in the process. Then Hashable sends these new users out the door, who then convert their friends to the service. By targeting respected people with large numbers of contacts, Hashable hoped to spark growth. It’s apparently working.
“We’re focusing on outreach to certain types of users — heavy social media and Twitter folks that also happen to be interested in tech industry,” says Yavonditte. “But this is quickly spreading outside of that.”
- Use game psychology. Hashable hired Chris Carella, longtime game designer and founder of Super + Fun to architect the game aspect of the platform, which includes points for making intros and checking in with people, rewards when introducees connect, and leaderboards showing the most influential people in various segments. Hashable recently hosted a party (in real life) for the top 100 New York users at the Gold Flower Restaurant in Chinatown. Free cocktails and vegetable dumplings for power users are apparently quite motivating, as competition to be on the leaderboard was fierce.
The challenge of all social software is breaking out from tech insider circles and into the mainstream. Using the techniques that successful social networks have employed to break free of the chicken-egg dilemma, it’s possible to repeat science and build an early adopter following. At the end of the day, however, in order to reach the mainstream, a social app has to have mainstream appeal.
All the right techniques used with the wrong product is like a henhouse full of sick birds. If no one wants your chickens, it doesn’t matter where they came from. Get the product right, however, and a few network-growing tactics can launch you on your way to Internet fame. Or wicked good omelettes.
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