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As Facebook Reins In Social Spam, Developers Forced to Innovate

I recently helped my father install the free Facebook app on his new iphone (to be honest, I am jealous he went out and got one before I did so I wanted to play around with it). Once I got it set up and scrolled through his feed, all I saw were cross promotions for Mafia Wars and FarmVille that his friends and family were posting (I’ve talked about this “social spam” in the past). He’s never played the games and insists he doesn’t have time, but he couldn’t figure out how (or more likely, couldn’t be bothered) to filter out these game promos from his feed.And to some extent, his interest in Facebook has waned as it became less and less relevant to his life.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Facebook has proposed radically modifying the way developer applications will interface with Facebook users in the very near future (InsideFacebook posted a great timeline today).

So while the changes are definitely welcome, it will be interesting to see how developers respond and adapt their current models to the new communication. To some extent it may level the playing field: every developer – from a huge Zynga to a small newbie – is going to be learning how to integrate the new APIs and optimize them at the same time.

Goodbye Notifications, Hello Email?

One of the biggest changes for game applications is going to be the loss of the notification API. Facebook’s proposed replacement is to implement an email permission API, allowing developers to collect email addresses from their users. While giving developers a direct relationship with the user, it also comes with several burdens for the developer:

  • Requiring developers to choose between sending emails from their servers (which could have significant delivery issues with ISPs possibly seeing them as spam) or paying for an email service provider that manages deliverability issues,
  • Opening up developers to more scrutiny about privacy and using personal information (would you trust a game developer with your email address vs. Facebook?) and
  • Forcing developers to become email marketing experts, understand how to set up triggered messages, and optimize content.

While a Zynga and a Playfish can hire staff to manage email programs, that’s a lot for a small developer to swallow. Thus I expect smaller developers to really focus on taking advantage of more “free” communication channels initially and only delve into direct email as revenues grow.

Wither the Pink Cow and Fish Food?

The other big change will be the modifications to the current way users get invites. This has been a critical driver of engagement for social games, where users give “gifts” in Mafia Wars or Happy Aquarium to other players. There are two major impacts here:

  1. These invites will now be pushed into the Facebook InBox through a new User-to-user Inbox API. This has the possibility of “ghettoizing” your inbox as today it’s a fairly pristine place for communication amongst your friends. Just as today someone may ignore that they have “76 Other Requests” in the upper right corner of the Facebook homepage, just below Friend Requests, will that be any better if you have 76 inbox messages?
  2. The gift invites may be much harder for users to really process. The current process makes you cycle through each request one by one, accepting each item, back and forth between the requests page and the application every time. This already is quite a burden if you have lots of gifts waiting but some applications (like Farkle) make it easy to click back and forth and go to the next one in the queue. Not sure this can be done in the inbox, creating more of a burden to collect items from friends, and thus potentially a lot less utility in this method of virally keeping users engaged. This whole process is ripe for some innovation and streamlining.

Innovate or Die

Bottom line, I think users are already responding positively to the less spammy feel with the new algorithmic News Feed and these changes will take back the Notifications section as well. It becomes even more critical now for developers to get users to become a fan of their application going forward as it will be the only way (outside of direct emails) of directly communicating with users. That will lead to efforts around optimizing the application Wall (Slashkey has still never added a Wall Post to Farm Town) to get picked up in the new default algorithmic news feed as well as looking at using “Send Update to Fans” ability to reach fans’ inboxes.

For developers, the constantly changing Facebook platform has always been a challenge. At least this time they’re getting a roadmap. And while those changes are pretty significant, they should improve the quality (if not quantity) of interaction with users. The message is clear: it’s time to innovate again and make the new tools and APIs available work to keep users engaged and to virally grow the base…in a little less “spammy” way.

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