The social behavior incentive (how your app can be as addictive as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare)

I’m an addict. You already knew that, didn’t you? After all, I’m just about to pass my 30,000th Tweet and on Facebook I have more than 10,000 friends and on Foursquare I follow more than 3,000 people (about 1% of their user base as just reported).

I’m not the only addict, though. On Google there are 402,000 results for “social media addiction.” Someone even made a rap video about social media addiction.

In my journey through these systems, I’ve been seeing how each gives incentives to their users.

For instance, on Foursquare every time I check in it gives me points. If I check in a new place that it didn’t know about, it gives me a ton of points. It is rewarding my behavior. This “reward” turns very addictive.

Twitter, on the other hand, has its own incentive system. It puts all sorts of things in your face, like how many Tweets you’ve done, how many people you’re following, how many followers you have, and how many lists you are on.

Things that are measured become games and increase addiction. But Twitter has other games going on as well. Anytime someone uses your @name in a Tweet you see it. Remember that Dale Carnegie said in his book about how to win friends and influence people that your name is the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

Yes, we’re all narcissists and these services use that to be very addictive.

Or, look at why people hate the new Retweet Feature. I still see tweets every day about how hated that new feature is, and one of the top reasons is that they can’t see when someone has retweeted their tweets. Narcissistic behavior, yes, but understandable. We want to know when people found something we did valuable.

So, how can you make your own app addictive?

1. Serve your users’ narcissism. Make it very clear whenever someone else has done something that involves other users. This is why so many apps notify you anytime you get a new user. But look for ways to get other people to say other people’s names in your system. Make that part of the “game.”
2. Measure behavior and report it. Do you want your users to check in? Then measure it like Foursquare does and report it. What’s the home screen of Foursquare’s iPhone app show you? Everytime someone of your friends checks in they show up there. Foursquare reports how big a loser I am because there are 34 people in San Francisco area who’ve checked in more than me this week.
3. Add status for behaviors. When I visit Foursquare in huge type it tells me how many times I’ve checked in. It also shows you my badges that I’ve earned.
4. Make multiple status reports. Foursquare reports how much status I’ve earned, but if you visit, say, the Golden Gate Bridge, it also tells who is the mayor. That is two ways you can see status, and get addicted. Can you come up with other ways in your app?
5. Make undesired behavior seem lame. Why is everyone finally putting their photos into Twitter? Because if you don’t have your photo in Twitter the icon it puts there looks, well, lame. So, Twitter is putting a subtle enticement to all of its users to upload a photo. In Foursquare it reminds me that I’ve done 0 tasks. So, that’s looking pretty lame. Since Foursquare only will win if it gets engaged users, they want to make it more likely that you add a tip or complete a task. They might as well have just painted a big “L” on my forehead for “loser.”
6. Make it easy to share success with others. Foursquare has done this in spades. To the point where now I, and others, consider Foursquare messages on Twitter almost spam. You know the kinds “Robert Scoble just became Mayor of the Half Moon Bay Peets.” I turned them off, but if I ever want to taunt you with my mayorship I just need to click a slider in the iPhone app.
7. Make an API for studying behavior. Developers love to build apps to study data and report that. Don’t believe me? Look at Osnapz’ list of top Foursquare users. Or look at MustExist’s display of my Twitter lists. Or look at Favstar.fm who keeps track of my 13,000 favorite Tweets and who I’ve handed them out to.
8. Make it easy to join in other users. Facebook, for instance, makes it very easy for me to try to tag you in a photo I take of you. If you aren’t in the system it makes it easy for me to invite you to join my addiction.
9. Give people more “hooks” to addict their friends. Facebook, for instance, asks you what your relationship status is, and what your political persuasion is. Why does it ask you those? So you’ll force your friends to join!!! How many more hooks can you put in your app to addict users?

Can you think of any other ways to make your applications more addictive?

Comments

  1. This mixergy interview with Amy-Jo Kim covers the same sort of game mechanics, and how it's used for things like Amazon reviews, ebay power sellers etc to make the site more 'sticky':

    http://mixergy.com/amy-jo-kim/

    She describes allowing sharing for “braggable moments” – has some in depth ideas on how to implement them etc.

    I wonder how this can be applied to more “serious” software such as enterprise offerings.

  2. This mixergy interview with Amy-Jo Kim covers the same sort of game mechanics, and how it's used for things like Amazon reviews, ebay power sellers etc to make the site more 'sticky':

    http://mixergy.com/amy-jo-kim/

    She describes allowing sharing for “braggable moments” – has some in depth ideas on how to implement them etc.

    I wonder how this can be applied to more “serious” software such as enterprise offerings.

  3. I think the stackoverflow family of sites stand out for the sheer variety of social incentives they use to keep people active. Points which can be gained and lost, badges for special purposes, etc. stackoverflow started out as a highly specialized site for programmers, but they've created a number of topic areas now using the same codebase.

  4. I'd like to see more networks explore creative ways to enable users to easily give “props” to each other.

    System generated props (mayorships, badges) are awesome, but getting something from another human can be even more rewarding — whether it's a “like,” Buzzfeed's fantastic “reactions,” a compliment like Yelp, a tip like Mahola, a virtual gift, or a literal “e-prop” like the blogging platform of my youth, Xanga, used.

    Comments were (and still are) the original “crack” that keeps me checking a site addictively, but there's often a high barrier to writing a comment, so I look forward to seeing more ways people can explicitly and implicitly reward one another.

  5. Robert, while the idea of an attractive app is interesting in and of itself, things really get interesting when you look at applying games incentives in non-game areas.

    For some time I've been following what the people in the Oracle AppsLab have been saying about games, and how gaming ideas can potentially make enterprise applications more engaging. (Here's a sample post from Jake Kuramoto in the Oracle AppsLab blog.)

    If you haven't seen it already, I recommend a post by another of the Oracle AppsLab-ers, Paul Pedrazzi, that was written in February 2009, The post, Play with Purpose, explores this topic in detail. A sample quote from the post:

    Our historical view seems to be that the world is binary – either you work at something or you play at something and never the two shall meet. I question that assumption. I not only believe that work (and other activities) are capable of being simultaneously fun and valuable beyond the individual. I see nothing inherent in purpose or utility that precludes enjoyment to the point that it ceases to be work in the mind of the doer at all.

    My own thoughts on all of this are collected here.

  6. One more thing – someone from Oracle (not from the AppsLab, but from another part of Oracle) saw my comment (it appeared in my Facebook feed) and brought out another point – the real-time aspect. He noted that real-time presentation of results can itself be addicting. You implied this in your second point, but didn't draw it out explicitly. Perhaps you could reword your second point to read “Measure behavior and report it – NOW.”

    Foursquare, for example, immediately shows you what your friends have done in the last three hours – to see older stuff, you have to click to get to another screen. The motivator here is, in the ideal world, to do something every three hours so that you're always on the first screens of your Foursquare friends. In addition, Foursquare provides incentives for having multiple people at a location at the same time.

    Perhaps some of us take real-time for granted – in my line of work, I've been yammering about real-time automated fingerprint identification systems since 1994 – but it unquestionably continues to be a powerful motivator.

  7. I came across Amy-Jo Kim's presentation (who Dave Concannon mentions above) that explored the game mechanics of sites like YouTube and eBay. It inspired me to rethink an iPhone app I was developing, and some of the changes I made have already paid off. It's a bit of an art, but equal parts applied psychology. Robert Cialdini's Influence, while not directly related to game mechanics, is a great read that explores persuasion and the auto-pilot in all of us.

  8. Robert, if you weren't so busy trying to be the “Mayor of the Half Moon Bay Peets” maybe Rackspace would not be down so often. “Mayorship” is for children, not grown men.

  9. These all make a lot of sense, but number 9 can backfire easily. All of those forms which let you “Invite your friends to Facetwitsquareville!” by entering email addresses (and the Facebook app equivalents) have never worked for me. I can see why, because they send out canned, robotic, impersonal messages in your name. It's best to encourage people to actually tell their friends in their own words about new sites to join (and without said website's logo plastered all over the message).

  10. The most important thing to make services addicted it to make them fun. By awarding points for certain actions you can create some fun. However most of these services are intensely boring in the beginning since nobody of your existing network is using it. So it should be easy to invite others (and by inviting enough other people you'll enable network effects :)).

    Also services should be simple, Twitter is simple, Foursquare is simple, Blippy is simple. Just one way of working, straight forward and not a steep learning curve.

  11. The most important thing to make services addicted it to make them fun. By awarding points for certain actions you can create some fun. However most of these services are intensely boring in the beginning since nobody of your existing network is using it. So it should be easy to invite others (and by inviting enough other people you'll enable network effects :)).

    Also services should be simple, Twitter is simple, Foursquare is simple, Blippy is simple. Just one way of working, straight forward and not a steep learning curve.

  12. All good advice, when it works, if it works. But in reality, you can do all this and it will still fall flat, so then why do things catch on? You can't ever know such, human behavior is irrational, absurd and wholly unquantifiable. And any “system” that predicts that it can read markets, is at best, suggestive sorcery and at worst (and most often the norm) pure fraud. VCs know this, doing Pascal's Wager in the extreme, betting on many tables, simple odds running, betting on 20 horses, is better than betting on 2. No genius in that.

    And even if things DO catch on, they don't STAY caught on, and they miss major market segments. Hot now, not then. People get burnt-out rather quickly, human nature at work.

    Unintended consequences are omnipresent. Narcissism can become too narcissistic, measuring behavior can easily become spywareish, status reports and updates can be privacy nightmares, “undesired behavior” can have varying interpretations, and can douse creativity if iron-curtains to readily enforced, APIs for behavior “studying” can result in third-party mayhem, easy to join and new user “hooks” can easily become spam city. Simple can work, or it cannot. Sometimes complex feature heavy is simpler, than one choice quick and easy. People adapt rather quickly to smartphones, over generic ones.

    Everything works, and nothing works.

  13. Great post. To me the most fun part of life is figuring out how to direct our most human qualities including ego, impatience, fallibility, etc. into something great and beneficial. And you're completely right that the most powerful word isn't “free” or “new” or “sex.” It's our own names.

  14. I hate to say it, but “make the data as public as your users will possibly allow” is another key to success right now.

  15. In the United States, pay people cash to retweet your posts.

    In other countries, make people pay to allow them to voice their opinions (or at least make them sign up for something like GMail accounts so you can sell use of their profile data to advertisers — either way, they’ll think it’s worth more if they have to sacrifice something for what appears to be freedom of speech).
    :P nmw

  16. In addition to freerobby's comment: Create an infrastructure that allows other developers to create something useful while making your platform grow. Just think of all those beautiful Twitter clients around.

  17. Dave:

    If you think about all this carefully enough you will figure out how to run a totally automated steel mill, or space station, by doing one of the most human activities in the world: playing games.

    I suppose.

    suppositio.us

  18. Yes and no to this. Your specific examples are good, and your example of word of mouth (thing Idea Virus sneezers a la Godin) is exactly right – build sustainable, long term readers/clients/1000 true fans etc etc. However, I think the idea of #9 is good, it's just the examples you've given are (from where you stand), poorly implemented.

    A simple way, for example, to email your friends a WordPress article is a great example, but, as for addicting, well that comes down to utility and content, I think.

    Perhaps for some things there ought to be a little friction, or else we (I) end up in the situation where I get loads of event spam on Facebook.

  19. facebook ,i believe is the most successful in using these strategies..and they have proof for its effectiveness…350 million users is the number

  20. No-one mentioned Farmville so far, with 27 million daily users… and grew to 1 million users in 4 days after it started. Among other things, FM has great game mechanics, e.g. harvest, combined with many viral features that actually improve game experience, e.g. add friends to unlock features, and ability to improve social relations between players, e.g. fertilizer or gifting. It's the combo of all of these that get people to return again and again.

  21. Some interesting observations in there… even though they seem quite historical. All the incentives you're describing have been used in the mid 90ies on popular discussion boards back then. It's not that new :-)

  22. Its comments like these that kicks up Scoble to do blog posts regularly. Without the feature to do comments on a blog post I doubt Scoble or the million other bloggers would be as interested. This is an example of “give people more hooks” to make you app addictive.

  23. Excellent point, Misiek, although I'm a Farm Town proponent rather than a Farmville proponent. But once you hook people into either program, then they're more receptive to paying cash for additional cash-only features to further improve the game experience (special crops or whatever). And that obviously has an effect on the bottom line.

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