Social Design & Optimization: The Power of Network Effects
One of the most interesting things I’ve been studying over the last year has been the power social design and network effects. Even though many of us have used Social Media for quite sometime, it has typically been what I would call a disconnected and fragmented system of communication. Now, of course, I have to make a statement like that to catch your attention, but, really, is it that far off?
Lets think about this for a second, how many of the conversations we have daily are disconnected and fragmented? How many times have you known a friend or person that could be engaged in a conversation, but, the only way to get them involved was to send them a URL or share the link? Still doesn’t seem like the most optimal experience.
A couple examples of this are with early versions of the wall on Facebook, and, even up until today, the way twitter handles the conversations around an individual tweet. Can you truly share the individual tweet? Or, have a conversation around the tweet?
You’ll notice that it tries to find tweets around things with “a question” in it, while in reality, I’d probably want tweets related to Chicago Bears. And, yes, these experiences have been what we know as social communication on the web today. But, that still means that whether it is a Social Network or Information Network, the way we communicate, engage in conversations, discover content and have discussions is still broken in my opinion. Or, are new sites like Quora and Namesake helping us think about Social Media in ways that we haven’t up until now and connecting the dots on those conversations that were broken.
Namesake has done a great job in really building in network effects and real time components into the interface and because of that, it makes the site super viral and sticky in my opinion. Now, I’ll go into this in a bit, but, here is a screenshot for example on their conversations in a stream:
Notice the “faces” that you see within the post of all your friends and others that are interacting on a stream item. There is also a little “route” button that can allow you to route a conversation to a friend. But, you can also invite people to join conversations and interact in real-time. This is how conversations should be happening:
Ever since seeing Sean Parker’s video on the power of network effects, I have made it a priority to extensively research social design and network effects, and try to understand them as thoroughly as possible. While I’d love to say that I have come to a full understanding of this, I feel we have only begun to tip here and there is much more that we will be discovering. To be quite honest, it seems as though as new products and services become available and technologies are advanced, the more innovation we will see in online social communication.
To take a step back for a moment though, in order for us to understand the power of network effects and the social design principles that go along with it, we need to define them? So, what are network effects? To quote Sean Parker referencing Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian:
“When the value of a product to one user depends on how many others there are. “
Parker points out that while it feels like network effects applies to almost every site, it truly applies to communication networks like Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn; Marketplace like eBay; Games brought to us by Zynga; and platforms such Facebook and the Apple iPhone. On the other hand, companies like Yahoo!, Google, and MSN are less effected by Network effects, as they are considered to be information services and does not generally depend on the number of users participating in the service to derive value proportionally to the number of users on their service.
In the case of Social Networks, the more people register and become users, the more useful the website is to its users. This is why it makes it more and more important to leverage the power of networks, and design even more socially than current model. Giving the users, friends, guests, etc. of our websites the ability to communicate, connect with others, share/discover content, and discuss content is going to be more and more significant in the latest iterations of the web.
As product and marketing people, designing more socially plays a larger role in the products that we create and how we market them. Being conscious of the way that users can discuss the content on our networks is just as important as how they share that content off network. Along those same lines, content has become much more distributed, in my opinion, and leveraging external audiences to increase traffic and participation is essential. I would almost go as far as to call it a shift in the way we promote content and distribute that content, pushing links is not as important as increasing the discussions and conversations around content, which is why it’s not online a form of product design, but, also a factor of marketing optimization…which is where I came up with Social Design & Optimization…I’ll touch more on this in a few.
When it comes to social design, there are a few key principles that are applied that can really increase the virality of a site. Mainly it revolves around getting people to share content, engaging others, and participate more in conversations, or even games. Zynga has made a killing off getting others addicted to gaming and Facebook has done this through photos and tagging. By definition, these actions are what making people more social is all about.
Notifications are a big part of social design because they alert a user there is something waiting for them to take action on. All of the major social sites involve a notification implementation of some sort and this usually encourages users to act upon them.
Most people see a notification and act on it. But, it’s not just important to say “we’re going to have notifications!” Because, there is is obviously a lot more to it than just implementing them. You’ve got to think through the notifications. Understanding the actions within your system that should invoke a notification is even more important. You want to make sure that you are getting the right balance of being in a users face or overly spammy, that balance could make or break someone actually checking their notifications or not.
Speaking of things that should invoke a notification, tagging is a big one. Tagging is also great in that it gives a site a great discovery element that previously might not have been there. When I tag a friend in a photo on Facebook that was at an event with me, but others might not have known, the possibilities of new friends and increased friending is going to increase because of my tag. But, also, on sites like Quora and Namesake, tagging or assigning someone an expertise will increase the number of times that person interacts with the content and/or other users in that topic. Also, on sites that are professionally or content driven, this will likely increase friending, which in turn will increase engagement, as well.
While notifications and tagging are more related to features that you’d want to implement on your site to increase the virality and discoverability, external sharing is just as important. Because of it’s importance, the implementation of the buttons you use on your site are going to help the promotion of content on external networks. There are sites like Share This that provide an all in one and customizable solution for sharing across all social networks. In my opinion though, it is much better to figure out what sites actually make sense for your particular niche and demographic. The two that seem to make the most sense now at days are Twitter and Facebook, and everyone should implement the Tweet Button and Facebook Like Button. But, it isn’t just a matter of implementing them, it’s implementing them correctly. Many publishers don’t turn on faces and don’t realize the importance of concepts like Social Proof. So, they implement the Like button, but never get the most value out of it because of a lack of engagement around it and/or the lack of likes that turn into shares with thumbnails, which also improves the interactions it gets on Facebook.
While it is the standard implementation for the Facebook Like Button, many publishers, high profile and smaller blogs, don’t realize that their implementation is broken and the “share” aspect that gets you in the actual news feed is missing.
Further than Facebook and Twitter there is the thought process of whether you are promoting content on sites like Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon. If you are, including those buttons, where it makes sense, is going to be a move that will help the spread of content. You might want to think through niche social media sites that might have buttons and could be very beneficial to your implementation.
It’s really important to think through all of this carefully and make the right decisions on implementation. Leveraging off-network audiences are a huge way of driving traffic and visibility to your content. This will not only help the traffic, but, the visibility could eventually lead to more links, which will lead to more eyeballs and probably even larger traffic through organic sources like SEO and Direct.
The final thing to harness is the power of Social Proof within design. Social Proof is the psychological theory that once we see that others are using or engaging with an object that we should as well. Basically, lowering the barrier of a “like”, comment, or any sort of engagement on an item. This is why including the facepile is so important in the Facebook Like Button implementation, because, when people see their friends faces, and they feel like their friends are typically pretty smart people, they will act on the item to conform to the group. The use of faces are so important that Dave McClure wrote an entire post titled: The Faces, the *FACES*… it’s *ALL* about the Motherf**king FACES!
Harnessing the power of network effects and social design have been crucial up until now, but, are going to be even more so as we becoming a more connected and real time web. From the way we design our websites, content and networks to the way share content into streams off our websites network. The audiences that we building around the web will be just as crucial to the ones we build on our own sites. Knowing how to leverage concepts like social proof and injecting content into the stream will just make us that much more effective at driving traffic and/or building products that will eventually be constant funnel of virality.