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How should app developers look at OpenSocial?

Wow, what an interesting announcement on the OpenSocial standard that’s coming out. As always, Marc Andreessen has some insightful commentary here.

I wanted to give some context on this entire thing from the app developers I’ve talked to:

RockYou and Slide in the lead at Facebook, developers looking for other channels
Overall, the app developers I’ve talked to feel like Facebook is somewhat of a lost cause, if you are writing a new app. Now that Slide and RockYou are fully entrenched as the top apps (just look at the leaderboard), they’ve been able to sustain their lead by cross-selling applications. For those who haven’t been following that, basically it means that with millions of installs, RockYou and Slide can easily cross-promote a new app through an existing one. This is done either at a feature-level, providing links to the new apps, or when you are installing the popular app, it takes you to an interstitial that asks if you want to install the new one.

Being able to launch quickly is important because your viral growth is dictated by:

new installs = existing installs * viral coefficient

They can build a bigger “seed” of existing installs, and thus, they can get more new installs. With the same product and the same viral-ness (determined by the coefficient), they will still pass you, no matter what.

Interestingly enough, of course, Slide and RockYou are listed as launch partners on OpenSocial, and it may be likely that they are gearing up to do it again.

Looking at other platforms
As a result of this, app developers have been looking for other social networking platforms to build on, some of which are included in the group announced, which include:

  • Orkut
  • Salesforce
  • LinkedIn
  • Ning
  • Hi5 [Note: my employer MDV has an investment here]
  • Plaxo
  • Friendster
  • Viadeo
  • Oracle

This set of publishers is really fantastic, and encompass a huge number of users – from a unduplicated, registered users standpoint, you are talking about hundreds of millions of users overall.

That said, this group is also very different from each other – you have different demographics of users with different sets of goals, with different usage patterns located in different areas. In particular, it strikes me that LinkedIn, Oracle, Plaxo, and SalesForce are in one big lump of US-centric business audiences versus Orkut, Ning, Hi5, and Friendster, which is more consumer-oriented and substantially international.

I think this means that even if OpenSocial is able to allow widgets/gadgets/apps to function technically, it doesn’t guarantee that you can build in one place and not “localize” it to the target social network, and that you can get strong traction without understanding which platform you are getting yourself into.

Let’s look at how that might affect viral growth:

Maximizing growth and virality

One of the fun exercises that you can do to understand viral marketing is to install all the top Facebook apps and see how they drive a viral loop. In particular, which ones try to get you to invite right away, and how many try to get you to fill something out before you invite, etc.

A particular lesson you can glean from this is that virality is deeply ingrained inside consumer psychology. One example is Boozemail, which is run by my friend Adam Rifkin and his company Renkoo. A couple observations on Boozemail:

  • The fundamental emotion it’s hooking is “reciprocity” (like gift giving)
  • Thus, when someone buys you booze, you feel compelled to “buy the next round”
  • Unlike gifts, however, booze can be bought for many people at once
  • Booze is also something you buy regularly (not one-time, or for special events, like gifts)
  • Also, booze is something that is uniquely college-oriented and 21+
  • As a result, Boozemail is uniquely viral because when you receive a drink you want to send one back, but when you get to that screen, you can feel comfortable buying A LOT of people booze

Looking at this, you can learn that real world analogies matter a lot! And also that all the subtle hooks in the app – how it’s positioned, what emotion it hooks onto, how comfortable you feel sending it on, etc., all play into the viral loop.

From a user perspective, of course, Boozemail might work quite well in the US college-centric audiences, but bring it to Salesforce, and it might hold a different connotation.

Write-once-run-anywhere? Or Write-once-succeed-anywhere?
So returning to OpenSocial, if I were a developer on this platform, the problem that it’s solving is to ensure that I wouldn’t have to do a bunch of annoying things like use new markup languages or new API structures for every network, but ultimately, this is a “write-once-run-anywhere” proposition but not a “write-once-succeed-anywhere” proposition.

I think that for anyone who is developing applications, one very smart thing to do would be to understand the respective userbases of the companies participating, and ultimately choose one or two to focus on. In the cases where you are talking about audiences in the Philippines (Friendster) or Brazil (Orkut), it might be worthwhile to spend a lot of time trying to understand what internet paradigms work over there and why, and then focusing a series of apps to own that audience.

Either way, it’s a very interesting step, and it’ll be fun to see how things will develop.

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