The Death of the 3rd Party Link on the Facebook NewsFeed

Viral Traffic from Facebook DeclinesAnyone who has been in online publishing (I just had a stint at Playbuzz.com running their owned and operated sites) has experienced first hand the decline in traffic coming from Facebook. Digiday recently cited SimpleReach showing drops of 32 percent or more since the beginning of the year.

Let’s be clear, third-party links aren’t dead – they are just de-emphasized in the typical user’s feed depending on how frequently a user visits and interacts with friends and brands (publishers). A Facebook user’s feed is customized based on the recency and frequency of their interactions with friends and brands as well as time spent looking at the content those friends and brands produce.  But third-party content – stuff created by publishers and brands that users end up sharing – definitely has been de-emphasized over the last year.  In reaction to what Facebook saw as abuse of their algorithm and a lot of click-bait driven tactics by publishers, they changed the algorithm to favor friend posts over page posts. Including all the other changes in the last year, you can paraphrase Facebook’s newsfeed strategy as follows:

  • Higher emphasis on things posted directly by users (status updates, photos shared, check ins, events, Instagram images)
  • Higher emphasis on things posted directly ON to the network by publishers (video and instant articles)
  • De-emphasize the weight of things posted 2nd-hand (the traditional links to articles on publisher web sites)

Remind anyone of the FarmVille days?

Even though I knew all that conceptually, it wasn’t until I stepped away from my newsfeed for over 24 hours that I really began to understand it.

So here’s the experiment: I (some would say insanely) did not look at my Facebook feed for over 24 hours. I then went through the first 59 posts in my feed on my mobile device. Then I switched to my desktop and reviewed the first 60 posts. There were no duplicates – Facebook knew I had seen the 59 items on my phone and did not include them when I switched over to my desktop. So nearly 120 posts later, there were some really interesting insights:

  • The majority of my first 60 posts were friends status updates, photos, videos (I classify Facebook-owned Instagram reposts as not a 3rd-party link) — only 5 in my first 59 posts were 3rd party link/video posts.
  • In fact, the first 3rd party link I came across was the 35th post in the queue – relatively low down
  • I saw four of the in-line ad blocks before coming across a single third-party link
  • Ads show up neatly every 10 posts, so we can actually look at the percentage of 3rd party links based on the set of 10 posts – and that’s pretty illuminating:

EVCinNYC posts linking to third party content are relegated to the bottom of the Facebook Newsfeed Queue

  • Clearly third-party links only begin to show up as the number of user-created posts begins to thin out. Publishers that are relying on Facebook automatically get pushed to the back of the line and then they fight amongst themselves based on the popularity of their links

As a publisher, it’s clear that the days of viral within the feed have changed dramatically as 3rd party links are de-emphasized over user-created content. You can see that ads are the only way to break through all the user-created posts at the top of the queue – a boon for Facebook, but a real jolt to publishers who don’t have a ton of direct traffic and are looking to build their audience.

For the geeks – the raw data

Listed below on each line is the type of post I saw in my feed from the top to the bottom.  Items in bold are items that I deemed as items shared as third-party link, video or photo.

ON THE MOBILE DEVICE
status
ad
status
status
photo
status
friend posted video to a group I’m in
status
status
Instagram post
ad
status
status/photo
status
photo
photos
status/photo
checkin
status
status
ad
friend posted photo
friend posted photo
status/photo
check in
“listening to” a song post
status
status/photo
friend tagged in a photo
photo
ad
photo
status
friend tagged in a photo
gothamist article shared
Cards Against Humanity link shared
friend posted photos to a group I’m in
status/photo
status
friend shared memory
ad
status/photo
image shared by xkcd.com
image
photos
photo
status
status
shared image from a FB page
ad
soundcloud link shared
friend tagged in photo
photo
photo
2 friends share a post from emilycheath.com on starbucks red cups
photo
friend tagged in photos
friend updated cover photo
ad

THEN TO THE DESKTOP

starbucks groupon shared
ad
wtvr.com article share
nerdist.com article share
huffpo.com article share
brooklynvegan.com article link
notrightinthehead.com – image share
friend changed profile picture
businessinsider.com article share
ad
friend tagged in photo
photos
friend interested in an event
instagram share
housebeautiful.com article share
status/youtube video share
oculus.com link share
shared mashable.com link with status
ad
friend changed profile picture
someone commenting on my post
memory
dailymail.co.uk article share
video posted in group I’m in
friend posted Nova 106.9’s video
friend going to an event
video shared by two friends
theatlantic.com article shared
share of someone’s twitter handle
ad
Missy Mwac video shared
Michael Franti & Spearhead video shared
link shared
link shared
Isha Foundation photo shared
Reddit.com article shared
Collegehumor.com video shared
ad
Paolo Tuci video shared
newyorker.com article shared
event shared
video shared
video shared
npr.org article shared
image shared
awesomethings video shared
daily graphic video shared
ad
photo
xkcd.com article shared
montagne-en-scene.com article shared
video shared
friend’s birthday
updated cover photo
mlb.com article shared
video shared (3rd party)
photo
photo
ad
youtube shared

Alternative App Acquisition Strategies

Acquiring users continues to be one of the more difficult parts of getting your app to grow.  The number of apps has tripled since 2012 and so have the costs – where you could once get installs pretty solidly at $1 you are now paying $2.50 or more.  This creates more pressure on your monetization so that you can generate a strong ROI on those acquisition dollars.

You can try to get featured by the app stores, but these are one-week lottery tickets that need to be supplemented with acquisition or solid word-of-mouth.  Here are some other ways that apps are testing to see if they can create the word-of-mouth virality to help them effectively grow.

Creating Viral Buzz

Last month,  Adam Besvinick posted about the going cost of getting a frat or sorority to latch on to your app:

The idea is following up on Tinder’s initial success,  where 1) they need a core group of users in close proximity to use the app, 2) they had a USC frat throw a party where admittance was based on people downloading the app.

Knozen tried to get users by offering up ice cream cakes
Knozen tried to get users by offering up ice cream cakes

New York-based developer Knozen has an app where people rate friends like “which one is more likely to do X” and have your friends agree or disagree.  But the difficulty was getting a group of users that knew each other to make things work.  Instead of getting a frat, they found other startups in New York and offered to give their offices a ice cream cake break if the office got six or more people to sign up.  An interesting way to get people a bit involved, but ultimately not scalable.

In each of these cases, this alternative to buying Facebook ads is driven by the need to get a very connected cohort – something that is very difficult to do now on Facebook where requests and invites to your real friends have been suppressed and seen as spam.

YouTube, Twitch and Meerkat, Oh My!

YouTube and Twitch channels were a key topic of conversation at GDC: a favorable review or stream of your app can drive a ton of downloads.  Mike Rose of tinyBuild games gave a great in-depth piece about what makes these guys tick (you can see some great writing he’s done on the “The YouTube Effect” for Gamasutra), but it almost exclusively dealt with Steam-based game development, and very few actually review or stream mobile apps.

If you can’t get the attention of the key YouTubers, how about using these tools yourself?  These channels (as well as the fledgling Meerkat) do provide you the tools to interact with your audience, get feedback and hopefully hype for your new app.  But it requires a dedication to creating content and truly engaging your audience that might be difficult for a small developer to take on.

Side note: Watching Jimmy Fallon and Jim Gaffigan experiment with Meerkat, you can see the power of being let in behind the scenes for a stolen moment with someone or some brand you are interested in. Imagine Taco Bell giving you a sneak peek into their new recipe kitchen, Marvel giving you small snippets from filming the next Avengers movie or EA giving you some insight into a play test. Where Meerkat (or Snapchat Discover) can be interesting to interact for a fleeting moment with an existing engaged fan, a game or app developer can probably get a lot more mileage by giving away free keys to their game and creating videos to share with the press.

Paying Users for Engagement

Tons of money is wasted in user acquisition via advertising - why not pay users directly for engaging and getting hooked on your app?
Tons of money is wasted in user acquisition via advertising – why not pay users directly for engaging and getting hooked on your app?

One of the more interesting ideas I saw at GDC came from a former colleague of mine, Oliver Kern.  Instead of paying companies for ad impressions, clicks or installs, his Tiny Loot company empowers developer to pay end users for time spent engaging in the game. Ultimately I’ve talked about how getting someone deep into your game is the best way to retain users long term (see how games are giving more and more “free” play in their freemium games).  And a highly-engaged user is one that is more likely to tell their friends about it and/or spend money.  If that is the behavior you really desire, then this acquisition model seems to pay for just that.

The Silver Bullet for Word of Mouth

All of these are interesting, but they don’t solve the key issue: Your app has to provide a great user experience that makes a user talk about it with friends in order to create word-of-mouth:

  • Tinder was successful because it was simple, people had great experiences and funny stories around it to share with friends.
  • Crossy Road had a unique look and simple game play that makes you laugh every time you fail.  They harnessed those great end of game “splat” moments to drive about 2/3 of it’s million shares a day.
  • Draw Something harnessed user-generated content that got people laughing and sharing images

To me it really comes down to the product.  Every so often someone will create that out-of-the-gate viral sensation (notice how all the examples above were simple to use and harnessed humor).  For the rest of the time, you have to create an engaging experience and drive the user deep into the game to get them in the habit of returning to your app.  The deeper the engagement, the more likely you can drive a higher LTV and afford acquisition.

What alternative acquisition channels are working best for you?

 

 

 

 

 

The Reality of VR: Game Devs Speak Up at GDC

One of the things I tried to get my arms around at GDC this year was what exactly is the opportunity with VR – as the mobile game industry begins to consolidate, could VR be the next big wave?

Matthew Falcus posted a nice overview in Gamastura today — Making the Most of the VR Opportunity — that provides a great overview.  I wanted to add some of my notes from GDC which I thought were interesting context as well, especially from day one of the Virtual and Augmented Reality Roundtable session.

Indie VR Developers by the Numbers

  • The room was to capacity with about 80 participants
  • 8 people had shipped a game, 60% of the participants were actively developing something
  • 2 had been working since the late 90s in Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality – seeing a lot of the same issues that people were tackling then now resurfacing today
  • 95% of the participants were male
  • About 95% were developing in Unity because it’s easy and can integrate things right away.  One or two were using proprietary code, mostly because they started a while ago and just stuck with it

You Are Going to Get Sick

A lot of folks were sharing their experiences – for example you are going to make yourself sick when you are prototyping and can’t work the rest of the day – but the bottom line was that every user is different and there is no magic bullet to solve sickness – yet.  That said here are some of the things that participants mentioned seemed to make it better for users:

  • Made the game explicitly have the character put on goggles
  • Having a focal point in front of the user helps keep their balance
  • Make steps/staircase feel like a ramp instead of bouncing up and down them
  • Team Fortress 2 developers ended up creating a “meathook” solution where it’s all about your head orientation – your feet are just dangling
  • Bring content to the user instead of user moving to the content (Oculus Rift’s Crescent Bay demo did this)
  • Teleport to locations vs. the manual walking, moving

If you are developing a game then, how do you get around if allowing a user to walk around and explore the environment makes some people sick?  It’s a different narrative and thought process.

Is the Tech There Yet?

Generally, the answer is sort of.  There were several new devices debuted that week and discussions about trying to develop to the lowest common form (John Carmack of Oculus suggested developers look at graphics like they were building for the Game Cube) because no one knows which platform will take off.

This discussion veered into issues about the lack of tactile feedback and the disconnect between not being able to use your hands or see yourself within VR.  One participant said the current state of AR/VR now is analogous to what 3D was in the 80s, “We are at a point of finding the cheats for AR and VR and then systems will do the math to help us achieve the solution.”

The biggest disconnect for many though, is that it feels like the technology is driving the discussion, where instead it should be the experience we are trying to achieve in AR/VR should be driving the technology.  As one participant reacting to the discussion about the need for haptic feedback suits noted, “how long do you expect them to wear it?  An hour is probably a LOT for mainstream users.”

The Reality: VR Might Not be About Games at All

I’ve tried both the simple (Google Cardboard) and latest  (Oculus Crescent Bay) VR headsets and the experiences are intriguing, but not something I’m yearning to go back to over and over again.  One of the most interesting debates really is what IS the experience that is going to be the defining one for VR?   As Holden Link from Turbo Button noted during the VR for Indies Panel, games might not end up being the killer app.  “The killer app for VR is probably Netflix – being in a giant theater.”

 

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