Ugly Viral vs. Pretty Viral
Recently I encountered yet another app on Facebook that required me to “become a fan” and install the app before I could even see what it was, much less whether I liked it enough to become a real fan.
That’s not viral except in the meanest, ugliest sense. Like Ebola. I saw a friend of mine — a trusted source of information — who ostensibly was a fan of this app. So I clicked on it. But when I saw the app’s reputation-extortion scheme, I surfed away, and wondered a bit about my friend.
This is only the most recent smarmy way that app developers have tried to extract virality from their users. There are good ways and not so good ways to do this. Why do developers persist in using techniques that fall into the doing “every horrible thing” category? Isn’t there a better way to go about acquiring customers by social means?
You probably recall how some early social/viral apps scarfed up your entire address book and sent out invitations to your friends, whether you liked it or not, causing repeated streams of sheepish apologies from their victims. These cropped up on the web and on Facebook, but the harsh evolutionary conditions online (if people hate your product, its virality factor quickly drops to zero) self-corrected for those. The market doesn’t support ugly for long.
Then there was a variant that spammed your FB newsfeed at every turn. Those at least have been forced into being courteous: they have to ask you if you want to spam your friends before actually doing so. Still ugly, but with your permission.
There’s been a more recent strain where some games hold something you want for ransom. But not for cash, no — for friends. These games say you can’t have your barn or your house unless you go get friends to “help you build it” — meaning they have to come in the app, whether they’re interested or not, and click on your barn or house or whatever, because they’re your friends.
So what do all these methods have in common? They’re all negative, all ugly, and are all ultimately moves of desperation and even disrespect on the part of developers, not moves founded on respect for the players, their friends, or the interests and time of either group. They all, in one form or another, have you pimping your friends, encouraging them to do something that they likely have no interest in doing. Sure, a few will stick around and try out the game, but many more will roll their eyes and ignore the app — and maybe you.
This isn’t a good scenario for anyone — the game developers, the players, or their friends. These current ugly-viral techniques inevitably wear out their welcome and become their own worst enemies. In so doing they cause the players — their own customers — to burn social capital and get little in return. That’s a process people aren’t going to be willing to participate in many times.
So what’s to be done? If there’s “ugly viral” is there “pretty viral” too? You bet. And you’ve seen it many many times.
Every time you see something and say, “oh that’s hilarious” or “wow, that’s cool” or “man, that was great” very likely one of your first impulses is to tell someone else about it. That’s how customers become evangelists, as the marketing folks like to say. My wife and I have been on Disney cruises multiple times – even once for our anniversary without our kids. That causes raised eyebrows, but I’m quick to tell people about what a great time we had. I’m marketing for Disney. And not because they asked me to, or because I get anything back, or even because I’m ignorant of what corporate life in Disney can be like (I’m not) — no, just because I think they offer an incredible set of product and services that I’ll not only gladly pay for, but that I’ll happily tell my friends about.
So maybe Disney isn’t your thing – no doubt something is. All of us have passed a link onto others for some product or service, or just something quick and cool. For example, have you sent any of these on to others?
- Dramatic squirrel
- Bohemian Rhapsody (but not the original…)
- The “This Too Shall Pass” Rube Goldberg machine video
- Any of the “movies in 30 seconds, with bunnies” animations, like their great take on the classic Casablanca
- Flower Garden (click your mouse around the screen — strangely simple and fun)
(Note, I resisted the temptation to include a rickroll in that list.) If you haven’t sent those around, you’ve no doubt sent other cool, funny, poignant, impressive, meaningful or fun sites, videos, or apps on to others.
The point is, you sent these to others whom you trust because the person and the thing you were sending were valued by you. And by receiving the link, the person on the other side valued you more — not less. This is the difference between the endless chain letters and hoaxes that your in-laws send you and the jokes your friends send you that make you snort Diet Coke out of your nose or stare slack-jawed at the screen at the creativity of the people who made this thing (like the Bohemian Rhapsody video above).
This is viral — this is pretty viral. Not social-ebola that destroys relationships, but some kind of virtuous virus that makes people more valued because they passed it on.
Right now we’re in the very early days of viral (so-called social) games and other apps. As with early life on earth, strange forms that you’d never think would be viable lumber about. The market is changing fast though, and soon some of the negative, bottom-feeding techniques to trick or shame players into bringing in new customers — their friends — will fail as they have in every other industry.
So now is the time to figure out how to move on beyond ugly. What can your game (or app or service) provide that makes people say, “ooh, that’s cool“? What makes your game fun or engaging or meaningful enough to your players that they want to tell their friends about it without being pushed into it by the app’s mechanics?
If you can’t really answer that question, it may be time to go back to the drawing board until you can.