It's 2012. Should My Brand Build a Social App?

Every Brand Is Not Spotify and Most Social Apps Do Not Work

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I was sitting on a panel with my friend, Clickable CEO David Kidder, at the Business Insider Social Media Analytics conference this past November, and a conversation came up about custom social apps.

Do we recommend brands use them?

I would never recommend brands do something that I don't think will work. Custom social applications generally don't work. In fact, only a rare few do succeed.

It's always important to remember that apps are not the silver bullet to cure all social media issues you may have. Apps must be incorporated within a larger social media strategy, instead of being the sole focus.

So if you're thinking about building a custom social app, here's why you may want to think again.

Custom social apps (mostly) don't work

It's easy to look at the success Spotify has had in its Facebook integration and get delusions of grandeur about the possibilities custom social apps might bring to your brand. Reports of millions of installs on social applications for publishers, while not inaccurate, do not accurately reflect the opportunities these applications possess.

When Spotify CEO Daniel Ek appeared at f8 to announce his product's integration with Facebook, Ek had a few advantages going for him that allowed Spotify to flourish where others will undoubtedly will not.

For one, the Spotify announcement came at a time when the music platform was exploding in the United States. The tremendous growth in Spotify timed perfectly with the release of Facebook's Ticker, which began displaying the music users' friends were listening to at lightning speed. For those who hadn't already heard of Spotify, it was the last push they needed to make the jump. For those who did have Spotify, the ability to show off how cool they are for listening to that undiscovered indie band (or Phish) was enough to keep Spotify open and running. Perhaps most importantly, Spotify itself is not a two-month advertising campaign, but rather a music service that plans to stay around for a long time.

So, why won't this same strategy work across other custom social apps? For one, widespread adoption of a social app doesn't come often. The leading applications will receive traction through Facebook integration, but most users aren't going to grant access to an application just because it exists. Unless there is some very real utility to users, people will most likely reject these apps, leaving them to collect dust with thousands of other "one-off" Facebook applications. Custom social apps are expensive to build, and they can also take a lot of time to build. This makes them ineffective particularly for both short-lived campaigns and the real time nature of social media. The return on investment is often miniscule.

If custom social apps don't work, how can brands start taking advantage of Facebook's new open graph functionality that expands Facebook activity outside the 'Like' button?

Utility apps work

It's not enough to present an application to Facebook users and hope that they start using it in droves. Instead, applications need to bring value to people and should be social by design.

By creating an app that makes people's lives easier or better, the chances that buzz will start forming around the app increases. But it's not enough to simply create an app that , for instance, easily organizes a person's day right from Facebook.

In addition to creating an app that brings value to people, the app needs to have built-in social functionality. The benefit to creating apps on Facebook, of course, is that users' actions show up on News Feeds, Tickers and profiles, which helps spread the word faster and more authentically than banner ads, print ads and television commercials. When users see their friends are using something that they think might be cool, they'll want to be a part of it. That's how you see widespread adoption.

Apps are not a social strategy

If you think you can build an app, push it live, and then hope for the best, you haven't just missed the boat, but instead have spent the last few years buried beneath the ocean floor.

Powering connections with your fans and customers is a social strategy. Apps are just a tool, meant to assist in the process. When Mark Zuckerberg stood on stage at f8, it was easy to look at all of the shiny new apps and partnerships and cool things people could do on Facebook and dedicate all of your resources to replicating it all.

Yet you may have missed the first part of Zuck's speech, which focused on connections and engagements. Facebook is not nearly as concerned with how many users they have, as much as how those users are interacting with the platform and each other. I wrote about this back in September, after f8.

Your social strategy should take the same approach. It's not about the number of fans you have, but instead what you offer them. Let users tell your story by publishing content (or creating utility apps) that people will share, either directly or indirectly. As I wrote in September, "It's no longer acceptable to just build a large set of connections. You need to build for them. You need to power them up."

With that in mind, here's what to look for in any social app:

  • It provides utility. How does the app make people's lives easier? What can it DO for them?
  • It presents value. Is the utility derived from the app worth any hassles associated with installation and usage? Or is usage time outweighed by the benefits derived by users?
  • It has inherent social functionality. If people use an app and nobody else sees it, was your development money completely wasted? The answer is yes. Make the app social by design to make sure users' friends are seeing app adoption and usage. Make them jealous that they aren't using the app as well.

As mentioned, these apps are part of your larger social strategy, which includes:

  • Power connections. Always remember it's not about just about how many connections you have. It's also about what they gain from connecting with you.
  • Content and experiences that people care about. Build around your customers' interests, instead of just around your business. If you publish content that becomes part of people's identities, your social strategy can actually add meaning to their lives, instead of providing an unwelcome distraction.
  • Presence everywhere. You need to be wherever people are online. That means, as large as Facebook is , you can't just focus your resources on one place, or else you'll miss out on the conversations taking place all around you. We know Facebook gives brands tons of possibilities, but other platforms require love, too, or else you'll be left for dead in other huge communities.
Michael Lazerow is CEO of Buddy Media, whose social enterprise software is used by global brands and agencies. He founded and sold it to Time Inc., and U-Wire, which was sold to CBS. Follow him on Twitter at
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