It’s been just over a week since Facebook announced their roadmap for the Platform for the next few months. Some of the larger developers, while not enthusiastic about the changes, have expressed hope that they will bring about better engagement in the long run. Many have been heads-down working towards the changes, and we’re starting to see some of the results of that experimentation in their applications (such as a growth in the use of “fan boxes”, as well as new feed story experiments from Zynga). But how are the smaller developers reacting to the changes?
One of the best places to measure opinion is one of the more active threads on the Facebook Developer Forum, whose title gives away some developers’ feelings right from the start: “Would Facebook Really Kill All Viral Channels for Developers?” Interestingly, the concerns mainly cover the soon to be implemented roadmap announcements, rather than the arguably more disruptive recent re-introduction of the algorithmic News Feed, which already appears to be affecting some applications’ traffic.
The loss of both user-to-user notifications and application-to-user notifications are seen as the biggest changes. User-to-user notifications are often used as a way to spread an application virally. These messages are often phrased along the lines of “X did Y to you using the Z application,” and are triggered when users somehow interact with friends within an application. These notifications reinforce the network effects of applications with a large user base, although they can also be used (or sometimes misused) to help spread an application to new users.
There is some confusion as to why notifications are being removed. A longstanding forum member writes, “The biggest blow for apps will be the removal of notifications. Facebook claims they want to reduce spam – but almost all complaints about spam have to do with the news feed, the notifications are unintrusive and they fade over time.” As another says: “It’s so easy to block notifications from an application.”
Keeping users informed
User-to-user notifications will be somewhat replaced by the announced “Counter” system (shown on the right), although as-yet there is no final design for this. Counters will show a user that they have activities to perform within an application, but only for users who have bookmarked an application. The concerns around the Counter mainly center on dormant users and how to get enough users to bookmark the app in the first place.
Keeping dormant users engaged
The other type of notifications, application-to-user, has proven useful in reengaging users of applications that they have not visited lately. Once an application has been authorized by a user, it has the right to send that user one of these notifications per day. It can be used for anything from simple, “Hey, the app’s still here, come and do something,” messages to more intelligent CRM-style promotions aimed at re-engaging dormant users.
However, the common belief is that “most people don’t even know how to bookmark” apps, and so they won’t remember to return to applications they would otherwise enjoy. Whether Facebook’s release of a set of in-app bookmarking tools and a more prominent placement of application bookmarks improves this situation is yet to be seen. It’s regarded as unlikely that these measures will be able to directly replace the traffic that can be kept alive by application-to-user notifications.
Collecting user emails
Facebook’s other announcement that will partially replace application-to-user notifications is the creation of a new API that will allow developers to ask for user email addresses directly. Here the forum members seem to be largely in agreement: most have no wish to manage email communication with their users, and also have little expectation of users either providing their addresses in the first place or paying attention to messages from applications when they receive them. The biggest concern is that, as with many of the viral channels, it will only take a few large-scale cases of abuse to turn users off of the medium altogether: “As soon as some devs start throwing torrents of spam, people will tell each other not to give any email to any app.”
It’s interesting to note that although having a user’s email is often a highly prized piece of information in Internet marketing, as it can be the best way to engage with users over the longer term, small developers in general seem to have less of a desire to have to maintain this communication channel. Facebook itself is possibly expecting that shutting down the applications themselves will be a sufficient penalty if any legal issues arise.
Many application developers see the need for changes on the platform, even if it’s at the expense of viral growth. There’s also recognition of the fact that the high usage of Facebook’s existing channels by applications has made some of these changes necessary. The main sticking point, however, is whether the new email communication route being proposed is an effective answer. As another long-term forum member notes: “If developers played by the rules already, then we wouldn’t need to have these constant changes in order to combat spammy apps. I certainly don’t expect them to behave by the rules in a channel which is much harder to monitor and police.”
Although it’s rare to see the bigger name developers on the forum, many developers there have applications with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of monthly active users. Their livelihoods are dependent on continued app success. It remains to be seen how Facebook’s roadmap will finally manifest itself in the user interface over the next few months of Platform changes and, more importantly, in terms of application usage patterns, and these are uncertain times for the smaller, low-budget development teams.