The second coming of social: rise of the vertical networks

For a long time, Facebook has embodied what “social” meant to the web. And with its IPO only months away, some are already calling social ‘done’, focusing their attention on finding the next big differentiators in consumer web.

But for all the pundit talk, an interesting contradictory phenomenon has been occurring in front of our eyes for the past few years: more and more successful ‘special purposes’ (or dare I say, ‘vertical’) social networks are taking off.

Examples abound: Instagram, Pinterest, Foodspotting, Foursquare, Quora, Path – just to name a few. How can these social networks find large audiences, when the undisputed king of social networks, Facebook, still controls the throne? Hypothetically, couldn’t a consumer do, directly on Facebook, what they’re doing on these other, smaller social networks?

Or… are these people living under a rock somewhere, where no one’s discovered Facebook yet? To the contrary, all of these services are well-integrated with the Facebook platform and have no problem maintaining a huge audience overlap.

Some argue that consumers are building new social graphs more relevant to their special purpose (an interest-based graph if you will) on these other social networks, causing them to thrive. The argument goes, for example, that my social graph on Instagram is drastically different from Facebook, and I have curated a ‘special friend-list’ there, peopled mostly by those who care about beautiful photos. Or, that my friends on Foursquare are more interested in location than my friends on Facebook.

I find this argument weak at best. Sure, there are some differences between friends across various networks. But, by and large, for most people, the friends they maintain across these different networks (and Facebook itself) are more similar than different. If anything, friends who are excluded on my vertical social graphs are simply those who have yet to sign up for the services; as these vertical networks grow, the friend lists on these networks converge toward, not away from, the mean – which is to say, toward the Facebook graph.

So how else we can explain this phenomenon? The real draw for consumers is, I think, the more targeted user experience that vertical networks are able to provide.

Take Instagram: you know what you’ll get when you use Instagram. Photos aren’t mixed with cat montages from YouTube and articles about education reform from The Washington Post. And your publishing action is highly targeted at photos, at uploading and maybe adding filters to them. That simple focus has turned the service into the destination for posting photos and discussing them with friends. Most Instagram users still share photos they post there on Facebook, so it’s not that they don’t find the photo suitable for their Facebook graph – people liking and commenting on Instagram are often the same as on Facebook – but rather, these users find the focus and intention of the Instagram experience more appealing than the Facebook alternative. And knowing that they could automatically share their Instragram photos on Facebook as well, these users know that by choosing Instagram over Facebook, they’re not missing out on anything. It’s a win-win situation.

Some might argue that the additional value of more focused user experience is outweighed by the effort involved in setting up and maintaining yet another social network. That would have been a fair drawback a few years ago. But today, we can simply re-create our social graph on a new property within minutes, thanks to the prevalence of new features, like those that recommend people a user might already know, when they join the new service (the result of Facebook Connect, Gmail contact importers, etc).

The most successful vertical networks succeed in making the the maintenance and expansion of a user’s social graph on their sites as simple and painless as possible. Furthermore, the fact that content published on vertical social networks can be seamlessly posted to other networks, Facebook in particular, at the click of a button, eliminates the major drawbacks of using a more specialized tool for one’s social engagement needs. In the mind of a consumer, hopping aboard the next great social experience that caters to  an important facet of life is an all-win opportunity.

Does such specialization hurt Facebook? Not in the least. As discussed, almost all the content published on vertical social networks flows into Facebook, which continues to own users’ “master” social graph. The development of vertical social networks is actually a great win for Facebook. And Facebook knows this, hence their continued investment in Open Graph and their continued support of the above mentioned vertical social networks.

An interesting parallel to this phenomenon was highlighted by Jay Jamison, of BlueRun Ventures, when he compared Facebook to broadcast networks and vertical social networks to cable channels. Even though I disagree with him on the assertion, that in his words, interest-based social networks are taking off because they allow creation of a different social graph on each network (see above), I really like his broadcast-cable analogy and feel it describes what’s going on here. Once we install a cable line in our apartments, the marginal cost of getting those special channels is further reduced, and we start to consume media from ESPN, CNN, and Comedy Central, ad infinitum.

So does this mean that we’ll end up with a large social network for every possible vertical? I believe that users will transition to the specialized social networks that cater to major facets of their lives. The obvious verticals will revolve around fun, food, love, sports, career, finance, and the like. LinkedIn has already built a successful public company focusing on just peoples’ careers. Zynga’s done the same, tackling gaming for our entertainment. There is still a huge untapped opportunity around sports. For love and romance, of course, we at Zoosk are continuing to build the romantic social network where consumers will create and share their romantic journey.

It’s important to re-iterate what conditions are necessary for such vertical social networks to take off, beyond simply creating a compelling user experience around something people care about in their lives:

  • Automation (as much as possible) of the social graph creation
  • Seamless flow of content to other networks
  • A strong mobile experience to facilitate publishing
  • No dilution of the social graph by pushing ‘people discovery’ to extremes (I think shooting for 80% overlap with other networks is a good target)

Combining the above principles with a great specialized user experience can lead to successful vertical social networks. The successful vertical networks that already exist will help usher in the next wave of successful web destinations that are yet to come, if the opportunities are seized. Social is just getting started!

Hacking the box: how Socialbox came to be

A few months ago, Jeff (one of our rockstar engineers at Zoosk) had an idea: that our learnings from building Zoosk Messenger could be applied to chat on Facebook. After examining the capabilities and limitations of existing off-browser Facebook chat experiences, Jeff and I believed we could build a better, improved user experience. And that’s what we did. Jeff applied his magic to this new domain and, in a matter of a few weeks, he and his team debuted a new application that incorporated our original ideas. Socialbox was born.

Not knowing what to expect, we rolled out Socialbox and threw some traffic at it. Boy, did it stick. Unsurprisingly, consumers really wanted easier ways to chat with their Facebook friends. In only 6 weeks, Socialbox grew to approximately 2M MAU (see chat below courtesy of AppData).

Socialbox User Growth

Seeing this burst of interest, we took it one step further and added video chat to the product. We beat Facebook to video chat functionality on it’s own chat platform by a couple of weeks, which was really cool to achieve. It pays to be agile!:-)

Video Chat for Facebook on Socialbox

In short, Socialbox is still a side project at Zoosk — but as long as consumers show love for the product we will continue to do awesome things with it. Socialbox is an example of how we encourage our team to approach their jobs at Zoosk. We reward creative thinking and we give our people the resources and support to turn their ideas into reality. We need more people who embody this commitment to innovation.

Facebook is Hotmail on Speed

From the early days of internet, web email services such as Hotmail and Yahoo Mail have ruled the virtual highways. every transaction one way or another has been going through these services. individuals communicate with their friends and family through them; viral messages/pics/videos are distributed through these channels; businesses reach their customers through them both for promotional campaigns and for transactional information; businesses market through email by buying email lists and sending promotional material to prospective customers.

Playing this pivotal role in our internet lives has given major email providers a significant power in shaping the online universe. With a reported 250 million mailboxes each, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail have been the elite in this universe and have brought significant riches to their owners. This is exactly why Google wanted a piece of this game and introduced Gmail in 2004.

But in the past year or so an interesting shift has been happening. Many of the activities that users were performing through their emails is now shifting to social networks which provide a more “social” version of the same. Here are a few simple examples:

  • sending emails to family and friends == writing on their Facebook wall
  • email photos as attachment == uploading photos to Facebook
  • passing chain emails on == inviting friends to apps that do so on your behalf
  • taking quizzes and sharing results == filling up quizzes on social applications

This shift is not just limited to personal interactions. Relationships that businesses were establishing with individuals through emails for many years are also moving to (or being augmented by) their social network equivalent:

  • signing up with email and validating it == signing up with Facebook Connect
  • receiving transactional email == receiving notifications on Facebook
  • signing up for promotional emails == becoming a fan of the brand’s page
  • receiving promotional emails == status updates from pages on Facebook
  • viral growth through address book import == viral growth through Facebook invite

a very immediate implication of this shift is visible in what businesses go after

  • buying email lists for promotional campaigns == buying applications with access to millions of users
  • white listing business’ email with Hotmail/Yahoo == verifying business’ Application with Facebook (i am sure verification for pages will follow soon)

Obviously a lot of these activities are simply better when you add a social angel to them. Uploading photos to Facebook and tagging friends in it is a ton easier than composing an HTML email and writing captions around images and sending that to your friends. It’s a ton more fun to post that stupid quiz’s results on Facebook and see how your friends react. However, a more intriguing element in the social version of these interactions is the speed at which they happen. When you post a photo on Facebook you will receive your first comment/like/etc in a matter of minutes. Doing so through email usually gets your first reaction in half a day or so (talk about immediate gratification). The same holds true for business interactions. At Zoosk, we see this speed difference very clearly: users respond to notifications within minutes but emails usually take 12 hours or so for impact.

This speed is particularly intriguing and at times surprising. Is it because our email boxes are way more cluttered than our Facebook notification window? I find that hard to believe. There is already a considerable amount of “spam” in our Facebook notifications and feeds. So, why do consumers react to pings on Facebook so much quicker? I don’t know that answer to this question yet. Here are a few of my theories (leave your theories in comments)

  • sense of urgency: my notifications/feed stories/etc will go away. I need to do something now
  • state of mind: I am on a social network to sink time, so I am more open to triggers
  • social element: my friends will see my action and potentially participate with me so I am more inclined to do something

right now it seems like these two systems are running in parallel. I receive an email for almost every Facebook notification that I receive. But I suspect that this balance won’t last for long. Especially if the effectiveness and speed of this new medium continues to be superior to email as we push more and more interactions onto it.

[side note: This is a critical time in web email services’ life. If they are not careful, their power could diminish very quickly. Hotmail and Yahoo are both responding to this shift with “Windows Live Network” (or whatever the social element of hotmail is called) and “Yahoo Connections” both of which are trying to bring social (as in my friends and family) to their experience. I am not convinced that just capturing my social graph (which by the way they both do a horrible job of it) is going to be enough. We recently saw Google take a more ambitious approach to evolving email with their Wave project. The big three internet companies have failed to get social networking right and now they are seeing their grip on email (the other starting point for our surfing habits besides search) is eroding because the same social networks are replacing them.]

As for businesses, this shift/battle means that they need to perfect both mediums until (or if) a clear winner emerges. You still need to whitelist your email servers and also get your Facebook application verified. Yes, this means more work, but you have more opportunities to stay connected to your users. The trick now is to make sure your communication strategy takes the special characteristics of each medium into account and uses them appropriately.

Social Media Needs to Kick its Scam Addiction

Yes, I said it. Everybody involved knows it. It’s the dirty little secret of social media ecosystem. Log onto Facebook, MySpace, or any social application on these platforms or anywhere else. The majority of the ad units you see are for scam related offers. The infamous “crush ads” are everywhere. The whole purpose of these ad units is to get the consumer to enter their cell phone number and usually without realizing it subscribe to a monthly subscription on their mobile phone.

These ads are so profitable that they usually outbid any other advertisers on any network. If Google was not fiercely combating them, the would take over the overall online advertising universe. The actually come in a very few formats that I am sure you have noticed them

  • Crush Ads: Someone has a crush on you!
  • IQ ads: What is your IQ?
  • Age Ads: How old are you really?
  • and a few more “creative” ones

Continue reading

Facebook Apps, Another Perspective

If you are following social media development, then you probably have seen or heard of the O’Reilly Research analysis published here and analyzed here (among many other places). Ben Lorica’s post on Radar provides a very interesting glimpse into the Facebook ecosystem and highlights some industries that are doing well through an in-house categorization of applications and comparing the corresponding number of active users.

Facebook Apps by Category, O\'Reilly Research

As this chart from the research highlights, the biggest category on Facebook is applications that are ‘just for fun’. Obviously the assessment that the most successful applications on Facebook are those that have marginal value and are time wasters resulted in extensive coverage of the report in the blogosphere and ended in headlines such as: On Facebook, Girls And Boys Just Want To Have Fun.

I think the categorization of the applications by the research team has a lot to do with this assessment. I have been looking at the same question from a different angle for a while which might be useful in structuring a discussion around the topic.

Facebook was a social network way before it became a platform. It had millions of users that were active on the site way before any of these applications existed. When the platform was introduced last year, from a user’s perspective, all of a sudden new functionalities became available. Some of the functionalities were improved versions of the existing features (think SuperWall) and some opened completely new opportunities (such as iLike for music).

So what happens if you look at the Facebook universe in terms of activities that were facilitated before and after the platform launch. Below i have tried to summarize the main activities of a typical Facebook user (please comment if I have missed major areas). I have also included (a very subjective) assessment of how Facebook was doing in facilitating each category before the platform launched by using different font sizes.

Facebook Activities and Platform Affect
In the right most column I have included some of the applications that have emerged to improve the user experience for each activity plus the total daily active users of all such applications in the top 20 facebook applications (in terms of daily actives). Please note that the active numbers are based on back-of-envelope calculation on a random day and only for top 20 applications. In the O’Reilly report, they summed all applications up which takes the tail into account as well.
I think this perspective highlights a couple of trends/questions

  • What’s up with Photo Sharing? Is Facebook Photo application so perfect that nobody can provide value beyond it? This seems like an excellent opportunity for a brand new application to come out of no where and take over.
  • Improving existing functionality/purpose has the least barrier to user adoption. This is especially true in case of sub-perfect existing experiences. Facebook wall was boring and text only when FunWall and SuperWall exploded in popularity. People discovery still sucks on Facebook which is a great opportunity for Zoosk and others innovating in this area.
  • Media consumption has always been a part of most successful social networks except for Facebook. To this day I don’t understand why Facebook is so bad when it comes to media discovry and sharing. But this was a known winner and iLike and Flixter capitalized on the opportunity very well.
  • Social gaming seems to be the only truly new activity category when it comes to successful applications. It was basically ignored by (or unknown to) social networks until Scrabulous and Friends for Sale came into the picture on Facebook. This category now is rightly so getting plenty of attention from the venture community and entrepreneurs.

What does this mean for applications not in these categories? Is this the extent of utility that application developers can provide on social networks? I don’t think so. Social gaming didn’t really realize it’s potential until early February this year, full 9 months after the platform opened up. What is the next big emerging activity category? That being said, I believe it is much more natural to grow on social networks if you are enhancing or extending existing user bahaviors.

I should also highlight that this analysis is only looking at very large applications. If your application does not benefit from network effects then you don’t need to be huge in order to be able to provide utility. One more thing to keep in mind is that monetization potential is completely left out of this discussion. Even though having a large active user base helps with monetization opportunities, it does not guarantee the way to profit.

Is this trend going to hold up on other social networks that are opening up? It’s too early to tell. But the initial indications suggest it might hold true on MySpace and Bebo as well.

PS: Obviously a large contributor to the success of applications is the viral engineering of applications. For each of the successful applications in these categories there are hundreds of tiny copies. Just because you pick a hot category does not mean you will have a huge user base. It might just make it a little bit easier to do so. Follow Dave or Andrew‘s blog if you want some viral wisdom.