Saturday, November 27, 2010

How To Bootstrap Your New Social Network

What Can We Learn From Facebook and
Disappointing Google Wave and Buzz?
These days I seem to hear new social networking sites launching every other day: Social classified ads site, social site for college students CollegeOnly (I touched on them in my earlier blog), social group site The Fridge, open source privacy-sensitive social network package Diaspora, personal network site Path, etc. If you look at location-based social network (LBSN) only, there are dozens of them starting out following initial success of Foursquare. It seems like every website is either thinking about starting up a new social networking site or incorporating social networking feature into existing site.

This got me wondering. Is there any lesson that we could draw from failed social network attempt, such as Google Wave and Google Buzz? What strategies can we imitate from Facebook and LinkedIn's success? What should be the strategy for new social networking site to bootstrap themselves?

Here are 9 bootstrapping strategies that all social network startups should consider:

1. Find the niche user base

Smaller, more focused user base will allow startup to cater the new social network site to their target audience. Start the site with specific use case in mind. In order to have specific use case, the site must focus the user experience on specific user base.

Great example of this is Facebook. It first started out as Harvard social network, then expanded out to Stanford, Columbia, and Yale, and soon to all colleges. By focusing on college students, it was easy to cater the entire site to target audience. In addition college students are more likely to experiment with new sites, and this also helped Facebook build initial user base. This may be another reason why you see many social network sites starting up geared to college students, such as CollegeOnly and The Fridge.

You could argue that this is what Google overlooked when bootstrapping Google Buzz. Rather than trying to build core user base, Google incorrectly assumed that users will flock to the new service if you placed Buzz right on the Google Mail UI. Their strategy was to target everyone from the day one. While Google Buzz had its values for some, not all Google Mail users found the value. User adoption of Google Buzz has been disappointing at best, and its opt-out way of targeting all Google Mail users was disastrous at worst.

Funny, Yet Underscores Anti-Buzz Sentiment Cultivated
By Importing All Google Mail Contacts For All

2. Provide value to the target audience

Early Days of Facebook Users Spent Most
Of Their Times Browsing Profiles & Photos
Once focus user base is defined, the next thing is to decide on what values to offer to the user base. In reality, what value to provide is often the first impetus to launch social network site (like "let's build professional networking site" in case of LinkedIn). One thing to keep in mind when identifying the value is the target audience. The site must have a feature that has perceived value from target audience perspective.

A good example is Facebook. Facebook started out as profile photo surfing site for college students. Facebook had clear idea of what to offer, and it understood college students will spend time surfing friend's photo profile. New social network site must understand what feature would be valuable to their target audience.

Best way to do this is to build social network site for yourself. Just as Mike Zuckerberg understood college students need as a student himself, you are far more likely to succeed if you build a site for yourself.

3. Add signature user experience

User experience is very important. Great user experience is to social network site functionality like great presentation is to nutritious food. Great user experience is critical part of the entire package.

It used to be that websites were criticized by their available features (or lack thereof). But as more and more horizontal features such as user commenting platform, recommendation platform, and social connectivity platform are shared and available off-the-shelve, features alone can no longer be differentiating factors. In today's social network sites, user experience is one of the key determinants in appealing to users.

Consider MySpace user experience. Although MySpace had its peak before Facebook did, MySpace failed to expand outside the core user base, and gave rise to Facebook. It's debatable that what factors have attributed to MySpace's dethrone, but I would argue that one key thing that MySpace failed miserably was user experience. Does anyone remember how MySpace user profile page looked before their UI makeover?

MySpace Thought That It's Okay To Let User Sprinkle Confetti On Their Page;
Maybe.  If Your Readers Are Colorblind...

It's not surprising why MySpace had been hemorrhaging users.

On the other hand, one good example is It is yet another meta flight search site, but with very refreshing user experience. It is perhaps the simplest air travel site that I've seen on the web so far. After easy calender day selection for departure/arrival date and airports, it returns available flights in Gantt chart showing layover and overall travel time. What a difference visual display of flight schedule makes. Add to this user experience, easy way to perform another search by adding a new tab to make similar searches, we have a winner.'s Brilliant UI Showing Flight Schedule In Gantt Chart
(It Also Made Ron Conway's 12-Startups-To-Watch List)

4. Make it easy to join; use Facebook, Twitter, Google ID

When people visit a new social network site, one of the most dreaded part is filling out user information and creating yet another account, not to mention password. This new account creation is often enough to turn the prospects off and have them move on to the next distraction. I am not sure why websites think that having user create new accounts will be value to anyone. It will be the case that most of users, especially those who will be early adopters of the new site will likely have dozens of usernames and a few passwords they use (if they are security conscious), and dozens more that they've created, but forgot.

Creating an account does no one any good. It does not guarantee any revisit any more so than you handing out business cards to total strangers in a parking lot.

Instead use what's already out there. Allow users to sign up with your service through Facebook, Twitter and Google ID. Most successful social network sites do this, and more need to embrace existing user accounts. Support multiple of them depending upon your target audience.

5. Leverage Facebook and Twitter for viral advertisement

Another reason to link with existing social network accounts is to leverage the social net to launch viral marketing. Remember seeing one too many Farmville updates from your Facebook friends? Do the same (of course with user's explicit permission). It will be unlikely that people will complain about too many of your new social network ad bits (that will be a good problem to have). If you are offering enough value as discussed in #2, people will in fact thank their friends who introduced it to them.

Check out mentionmap of me. It visualizes the mentions of people and hashtags in most recent tweets. Oh, don't forget. They offer an easy way to retweet about them.

Cool Visualization Of Your Twitter Network
(Don't Forget The "Retweet" Button On Lower Left)

6. Make it addictive; add game elements or add games

Building value, targeting the new site to specific audience, and making it easy to join with viral marketing are good start, but often not enough to have sustained growth. As new social network site, you'll need repeat hardcore users, users like those who propelled Zynga to billion dollar enterprise within 3 years of launch. Your service needs to be addictive for users to spend lots of time, and for users to spend lots of time, it needs to have game elements.

8 Out of Top 20 Facebook Apps Are From Zynga In Nov 2010
One of the huge windfalls for Facebook was Zynga's success. With Zynga's FarmVille, FrontierVille, Cafe World, and Mafia Wars popularity surge, Facebook was able to attract and retain those social game addicts. This explosive symbiotic relationship between Zynga and Facebook is something that Google has been working on to recreate on their social networking site.

Game-like feature can be integrated within the site as well. Foursquare and SCVNGR are geolocation-based social networks (GBSN) that incorporated gaming aspects. Foursquare gives badges as you check in to places along with mayorship to those hardcore users, which encourages users to compete with others. SCVNGR has added challenges to GBSN so that users can engage in ad-hoc games when they check in at places.

7. Embrace third party developers by offering useful API

While it is important for the site to provide core value for targeted audience, it doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting in creating additional values. No one has exclusive right to creativity, and certainly no one understands users' need better than the users themselves. When tools to integrate third party applications are available, and developers see the value in targeting the audience that you are attracting, they will build application to become the Zynga for your social network site.

Take a look at iPhone app store and Facebook API. iPhone app store brought Facebook mobile application which is arguably why people are buying smartphone like iPhone. Facebook API brought Zynga games to be integrated with Facebook, and played a key role in increasing active daily user count since 2007.

8. Take risks to provide innovative feature

When you have all of the above, you then have to innovate. It is far too easy for someone to come up with copycat of what you are doing already. Just take a look at all the Facebook wannabe startups just coming online. You have to take chances to innovate the existing features to provide more values, above and beyond the feature that you started out with.

Facebook is a good example. Facebook started out as photo profile surfing site. Then it added innovative feature (some might call it evolutionary, but no one had it as well as Facebook), News Feed. The idea of making it super easy for anyone to subscribe to friend's news was a huge hit. Initially Facebook ran into some resistance from users, but they kept at tweaking its features and looks to make it de-facto standards of all social networking platforms.

Facebook had their share of flops as well. Does anyone remember Facebook Beacon? What about overly simplified privacy control UI? But Facebook consistently took chances with new features, and reacted quickly to user feedback to continue improving their features.
Facebook Had Their Share Of Failures,
But They Reacted Quickly To Correct The Problem

Facebook is continuing to innovate their core feature set by introducing Facebook Groups, Deals, and Messages. Not all of them will succeed, but they will be the first one to learn from the lessons and iterate on them.

9. Listen to user feedback, and iterate fast to increase the value-add

Fast iteration is the key. I discussed in my earlier blog entry about importance of fast iteration especially when you are entering a new market. You have to listen for user feedback, and incorporate them into the feature as if it's coming down from board members. Ultimately it will be users who determine whether your new site will successfully attract and maintain critical user base.

If you would like to add anything to this list, I would love to hear from you. Any other word of wisdom to share with fellow entrepreneurs?


  1. Any new social network has the same problem that other social networks have - how do you get fans when the only value proposition you have is interacting with other people? It's a catch-22. You're definitely right about utilizing addictive game elements and social elements. Farmville, for example, isn't even a game. But people spread links for Farmville because their UI says stuff like "Robert needs your help building a barn" or other stuff like that to make you feel guilty. Other ways of jumpstarting your site include advertising on Facebook or even growing your Facebook page on GetMorePopular and other techniques. Facebook is clearly the best place to grow your site because when people post about something all of their friends see it.

  2. Wow, that makes a lot of sense dude.

  3. the mentionmap is sweet! I don't think I've seen that before, I've seen screenshots I think, but have never seen the name of the site! Thanks


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