Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications and How to Avoid Them, Part 3

This is part III of a series on Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications. Read Part I and Part II

8) Not Enabling Recommendations

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 book.

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.

Netflix Tell a FriendMany 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.

This is part III of a series on Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications. Read Part I and Part II

8. Not Enabling Recommendations

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 book.

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.

Netflix Tell a FriendMany 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.

9. Failing to Set a Good Example

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.

10. Failure to See the Larger War

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.

Seagulls Attacking

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.

11. No Business Plan other than to Grow

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.

This is part III of a series on Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications. Read Part I and Part II

Published: July 11th, 2007

Hi there. So...I'm trying an experiment. I'm experimenting with product design and growth hacking strategies on a new project called What to Wear. It's a super simple service that sends you a daily email containing clothing recommendations based on the weather. My focus is to make it really useful, and it's free to sign up. Let me know what you think!