Application of viral actions drove Facebook, MySpace, Zynga growth to hundreds of millions of user accounts through oking, sheep throwing, commenting, and gifting stray cats on farms.
Distilling their keys to success, viral growth needs:
– fun experience and motivation to create events
– effective notification channels
– immediate response mechanisms
– opportunity for sustained interactions (long conversations)
Very few of the current location based services (LBS) offerings today have such viral channels. Most rely on co-visitation of a venue and check-in frequency competitions to drive interactions. To create an event requires overcoming significant friction: you have to walk, run or drive somewhere. Consequently, the potential for interaction is minimal. Counter-examples, location based games have driven explosive growth because they provide alternate modes of interaction not tied to physical presence.
To drive widespread adoption of check-in utilities, viral channels must be cultivated. Viral channels may manifest themselves as messaging, gaming, media sharing, commenting or in any other number of ways, likely including new modes.
Reflecting on this week’s rumors of Facebook’s imminent release of their check-in service, initial impressions may lead one to believe the marriage of Facebook’s massively successful viral features to a location based service will result in instant success. An installed base of 100M Facebook users is a no trivial advantage.
However, there are two strong opposing forces at play in Facebook’s rendition of location: the goal for widespread use and perceived need of user privacy.
A few months ago, I triaged my Facebook friends list from 800+ to 50 in an effort to improve the quality of my newsfeed. A drastic experiment, removing hundreds of Facebook friends reduced the value of the service. After all, Facebook has achieved the initial vision of a living address book for friends throughout different life epochs. Moral: to maximize value from Facebook, I should continue to add contacts liberally.
Location based services solicit more private data. I’m not willing to share my intraday location with loosely connected friends. For Facebook, balancing the goal for ubiquity and social graph comprehensiveness with the demands of users is a challenge. To wit, Facebook’s recent efforts to make public increasing amounts of user data is clearly at odds with the initial privacy requirements of a check in utility.
Therefore, I expect Facebook’s location effort succeed in gaming rather than a check-in utility. This type of approach would mitigate user privacy concerns and leverage the mechanisms of viral growth that have succeed already. The corollary to this thought is that new social networks developing around location must be formed elsewhere, because they must be smaller than the average Facebook social graph.