There’s a lot of buzz at the moment around “social” aspects of software, websites and so forth; so much so that the word is starting to lose its meaning. It’s an important consideration nonetheless, because humans are social creatures and the best kind of marketing is the kind that other people do for you, for free.
As usual, though, lots of companies get it subtly wrong, thinking that adding social functionality or a community aspect is enough. Social features aren’t a silver bullet; they’re actually sort of besides the point.
Games which automatically tweet your achievements are an example of such a ham-fisted, confused approach. That kind of thing irritates and alienates those you’re trying to attract, and indeed damages the reputation of your existing customers amongst their friends or peers. Sure, it gets eyeballs for a brief moment, but the fall-off and collateral damage are horrendous. People don’t share things that way; it’s not organic and it reeks of necktie-wearing sleazy marketeering.
Building in social features for their own sake isn’t a route to massive success. Anyone who tries to tell you that taking an arbitrary app and adding Twitter or Facebook integration (or adding a forum to your website, or adding a StumbleUpon or Digg link, or Reputations, or Medals, or global high scores) will automatically make your customer base mushroom, is guilty of either stupidity or downright dishonesty. It doesn’t work that way, because people don’t work that way.
Here’s the reality: people don’t just share things because they have the ability to do so. People share things they want others to experience. It’s about the thing, not about the sharing. I’m not sure how to make that more obvious.
You don’t succeed at social/viral marketing just because you make it a little easier to share, and nor do you succeed based on the raw, native appeal of the experience. Rather, it’s about shareability.
Shareability is the degree to which you want someone else to have the same response to a thing that you had. One company that understands this point is Apple. They don’t just make things that you want to have; they make things you want others to have too. Ditto for Nintendo, particularly with the Wii. And the real kicker is that their stuff is particularly easy for other people to experience, because it’s easier to use in the first place. So, it’s an easy decision to share it.
That’s why focusing on social features is a skewed approach; you’re targeting a possible means to an end, rather than the end itself. It’s a classic error; exactly the kind of strategy that comes from ponderous corporations, last-century thinking, and/or click-counting cynicism.
The problem is that you’re supplying the “how” for sharing, and neglecting the “why”. What you should be doing is spending all that energy (and every penny of that budget) designing an experience that doesn’t just benefit from the participation of others, nor even that requires others, but rather that your users will actually want others to enjoy. That’s the critical point. Write it down somewhere.
At this point, marketeers will talk about reducing barriers to sharing (they’ll likely use fashionable words like “friction” too), and how important that is. They’re wrong; it’s really not that important, because your customers will find a way. Seriously, do you doubt that for even a second?
Sharing doesn’t happen because you create the mechanism for it; it happens because you create the motivation. Indeed, when the users wants to share something, they will find a way to do so even if you haven’t provided one. So spend time on motivation, not mechanism. Don’t give money to people who claim to be able to “social-up” your arbitrary product; you’re doing it wrong.
If you want your customers to do your marketing, you need to be thinking about more than high-scores or ad-hoc network games or multiple user accounts. For real people, the key sharing motivator is joy; the natural human desire to share joy with people we care about. Apple has this down. Do you?
It’s not enough to be social; you need to be shareable.