I would love to gripe about most social apps sucking, but the truth is they don't. Why is it that there are so many crappy apps out there in general, but most well-known social apps are actually pretty good? Because social apps are a product of natural selection. They have to be good to survive.
There are two success measures of social apps:
- Growth. Social apps need to grow organically. The critical success metric: organic growth rate. How many friends will a new registrant encourage to sign up, as well? If one person signing up is worth another 1+ additional new accounts, then the user base will grow exponentially. If < 1, then the population will grow slowly and fizzle over time.
- Engagement. Users need reasons to maintain a high level of engagement.
The recipe for growth
- Provide reasons for signing up. It's not just to create an account, but to do something fun or satisfy curiosity.
- Provide a reason to encourage someone else to sign up. How does the user's own experience get better with more friends?
- Avoid the spamming effect. People won't invite their friends if it might be perceived as rude to clutter their inbox with it. This is hard to get right but critically important.
- Utilize existing affiliations to grow the user base through offline networks. For example, allowing people to associate their activity with an organization such as a church means they're more likely to invite the rest of their congregation.
- Make it painfully easy for him/her to sign up. A 20% dropoff rate could be the difference between a weekly organic growth rate of 1.1 and 0.9. Unacceptable!
One of the best examples of a growth recipes I've seen is cubeduel.com where co-workers can anonymously rate one another. You can't see your own rank until you've rated enough co-workers. Unfortunately, they miss on engagement.
The recipe for engagement
- Keep it fun! (This one's obvious in theory, but difficult in practice.)
- Allow people to express themselves in creative and varied ways. Ratings are simple, but open text or photo upload makes everyone's experience more personalized and compelling.
- Give users ways to impress their friends. Give friends ways to show their approval.
- Hide information! When emailing an update, provide enough information to spark curiosity. Hide enough information so it's left unsatisfied until they click to the web site and ideally perform some action that results in new triggers for their friends.
- Smartly market new features. Novel functionality gives new reasons for old users to come online.
A great example of an engaging product feature is Facebook's photo tagging. When you get tagged in a photo, Facebook emails you telling you you're in someone else's picture, but they don't show the picture to you. What if that's not me? What if it looks weird? Oh my god, wait, what if it was that one picture from the bachelor party? Curiosity. Unsatisfied.