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When Sprint decided to build an application to let users invite their Facebook friends to join their cell phone plans as part of its new "Framily" campaign, the brand effectively brought on Facebook as a technical consultant.
Last month, representatives from Sprint and three engineers, a user-experience designer and a tech lead from DigitasLBi gathered at Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters for a week to work on the app under the guidance of Facebook partner engineers.
The app -- which is being supported by a Facebook ad campaign that kicked off last week -- was designed to let people share their Framily ID with Facebook friends via private messages sent to whatever subset they choose with the advice that they can all save money together. Or people who'd like to start a Framily can post messages broadly to their news feeds to see who's interested.
They can also book appointments at a local Sprint store to actually sign up for a plan. The ultimate goal is to make it possible to sign up via a mobile device, but "there are a few privacy issues we're working through," according to Davin Power, exec VP for Team Sprint at DigitasLBi.
While Facebook engineers didn't do any actual coding, they offered practical and technical advice.
"Facebook really focused on simplicity and got us to stop trying to make the uber app and to figure out what is a great social experience that people are going to love that's easy to use," said Tony Bailey, DigitasLBi's technology lead for Chicago and San Francisco.
Sprint's Framily app is an example of the "shipyard" program that Facebook has offered to select clients through its Creative Shop, a team that helps brands and agencies market more effectively on the network. "Clients" are referred through their Facebook sales reps.
Target is another brand that has tapped into Facebook's engineering expertise. It went through a shipyard to help build its Cartwheel shopping application -- which shares activity to Facebook news feeds when users add an offer to their list or redeem it in-store. Frito-Lay also did a shipyard in 2012 and then again earlier this year for its "Do Us a Flavor" application.
Disappearing Facebook apps
Notwithstanding those examples from big brands, web applications that tap Facebook Connect to create experiences using a person's social graph were much more commonplace in 2011 and 2012.
Huge's community manager Andrew Cunningham recalls that at his former job in 2011 where he worked on major film campaigns, it was a given that the team would make a Facebook app as part of the marketing roll-out. In his current role, he advises against it.
"For the amount of money and time and effort being put into it, the numbers were troublingly low," he said.
Deep Focus CEO Ian Schafer says his shop is also doing a lot less Facebook app development than in years past. (It made a splashy Facebook app for the health insurance giant WellPoint in late 2012, for example.)
"We found that having a consistent publishing strategy trumped any effect that we've seen from Facebook apps," he said.
Mr. Schafer also observed that it behooves Facebook to urge brands to focus on publishing instead of one-off apps, since a steady content flow means a steady stream of media dollars to support it.
App development is a relatively small focus for Facebook's Creative Shop. The unit's best known program is "publishing garage," which is effectively a clinic for brands and agencies to improve their content strategy for the Facebook news feed and also determine how best to amplify posts through ads and targeting.
"It's a far more effective use of resources and creative capital to express yourself through publishing, unless there's a utility need for an application," said Facebook's chief creative officer Mark D'Arcy.
In Sprint's case, Mr. D'Arcy thinks there is a clear utility: the Facebook social graph helps bring together disparate social connections, which is also the intent behind the Framily campaign.
"In this case, the tool needed to be built," he said.