Category Archives: Social Media

Developers Revamp Viral Marketing Tactics to Comply with Changes to Facebook Policies

As originally posted on

While we recently attributed some of the across-the-board declines in daily active user numbers for Facebook games to seasonality, it’s becoming clearer that recent policy changes by Facebook may be contributing to these declines as well, forcing developers to completely revamp their viral activities. Here are three viral practices that have been reined in and examples of how developers are attempting to cope with the changes.

Pre-Game Gifting Interstitial Screens are Gone

The policy:”You must not prompt users to send invitations, requests, generate notifications, or use other Facebook communication channels immediately after a user allows access or returns to your application.”

How developers are coping: This was viral-marketing 101 for nearly every Facebook game: every time you went to the application, you first had to go through a “gifting” screen before you could actually play the game. Only Playfish refrained from this practice in the past. Now that it’s been taken out of the arsenal, developers like Zynga and CrowdStar are trying different ways of getting users to get back in the gifting habit. Most games have opted to add an icon on top of the game play area, specifically prompting users to send gifts, like in CrowdStar’s Happy Aquarium and Zynga’s Roller Coaster Kingdom:

Zynga’s PetVille has incorporated the gift icon into the basic navigation on the screen, with little balloons that highlight an action they want users to take:

Zynga’s Mafia Wars is more aggressively integrating prompts and banners into the page:

And still, some games still have the gift interstitial, but they are generally smaller games, like Hive7’s Youtopia, which Facebook might not have gotten to yet:

Pop-Ups to Prompt Users to Share Achievements…Revamped

The policy: “You must not display a Feed form unless a user has explicitly indicated an intention to share that content, by clicking a button or checking a box that clearly explains their content will be shared.”

How developers are coping: Instead of the standard Facebook news feed form windows popping up, each game is experimenting with different in-game prompts that users need to activate to show their intent to publish to their wall. PetVille prompts users by having a new icon show up in the bottom right, with a balloon prompting users to share:

Playfish’s Pet Society has a somewhat confusing choice between a sharing icon and a green check mark icon (used to close the in-game pop-up and NOT share), whereas Farm Town by SlashKey prompts with a simple binary choice of either sharing (green check icon) or not (red X icon):

CrowdStar’s Happy Pets uses the check-box approach – although the prompt is by default pre-checked to share so the user must un-check it before clicking on the green check mark icon:

Gating Content Based on Number of Friends…Not Enforced?

The policy: “You must not provide users with rewards or gate content from users based on their number of friends who use your application.”

How developers are coping: This common developer practice often prompted users to request perfect strangers to “Add Me” so that they could unlock levels or items in the game without having to pay for them, thus running amok of Facebook’s intent to keep your social graph strictly to your direct friends (we recently offered up an alternative). In response to the policy being enforced, Treasure Madness by zSlide no longer requires you to have a number of friends to dig under certain heavy rocks. Instead, they now make users pay for “contractors” at 150 in-game gold pieces per contractor. So a rock that would have required 10 friends to lift, now requires 1500 gold pieces:

Yet it’s still a question as to how intense Facebook plans to enforce this policy. For example, Zynga’s Roller Coaster Kingdom still appears to be gating items based on the number of friends, gating the options for booking guests, upgrading park attractions and for expanding the amusement park area:

We fully expect these policy changes to have an impact on growth and retention rates as developers adjust their viral marketing tactics to comply. But with the seasonal impact of people getting away from their computers to celebrate the holidays, plus developers quickly reacting and optimizing new tactics, it may take several weeks to fully understand just how severe the impact of these changes will be on growth and retention rates.

Mafia Wars Gets Whacked: The Woes of Revamping the Infrastructure of a Hit

Service issues, partially loaded screens and just not enough servers to manage a recently reconfigured game has caused Mafia Wars to take a nose dive in daily active users, dropping it back to levels not seen since August of this year:


One could say it’s a perfect storm of issues (there was 48 hour of Facebook platform performance issues on the 9th and 10th that didn’t help last week’s roll out), but part of it I believe is an attempt to better improve the infrastructure. Back in early November, Zynga rolled out a performance enhancement on a Friday only to be forced to roll it back by two days later due to browser settings making it difficult for everyone to play the game.

Last Tuesday, the 8th, there were already signs that a new roll out of i-frame technology and anti-hacking measures were causing unintended issues. Somehow this code change was creating a cavalcade of issues, resulting in a product manager chat with users and an emergency bulletin board note to users on Saturday (the thread since removed), summarizing the issues and how they were intending to resolve them:

  • losing mafia/stats starting today – this is because our servers are being overwhelmed. We’re trying to add machines as fast as possible. We’ve stabilized the game for now and look to add more machines this coming week. Your mafias should all be back to normal now.
  • partial page loads – this is also related to the servers being overwhelmed. In the past, the app would have white screened, now it does partial loads. This issue will also be resolved when we add the servers next week.
  • lost items/progress – This was caused when we rolled out our performance upgrade. People who had the app open while we rolled out the upgrade had their accounts screwed up. In order to fix them, we had to revert them to whatever the most recent backup point was. We gave out items to anyone that we had to rollback to make up for the lost progress.

Major platform changes where you have millions of users online engaging with your game is not easy. No matter how good your QA, it’s darn near impossible to recreate a live scenario where as soon as you roll out, millions are hitting your servers. Equally daunting is finding a good time to have your game go off-line for maintenance, especially on a platform like Facebook where there are millions around the globe hitting your game.

For all intents and purposes, the Mafia Wars platform, launched over a year ago, was probably never developed for the sheer number of users it now supports – a number that has doubled in the last six months and would never have been predicted by even the most bullish of those in the social game space at the time Mafia Wars was developed. There are similar issues with Café World, the number two game on Facebook with nearly 10 million daily active users a day that has seen its numbers drop in the last week as well:


Users continue to complain of poor load times or the sim slowing down PC performance when left in the background. Again, this game was produced with some learnings from FarmVille, but the sim is much more animated than the typical farm.

With FarmVille, Zynga took steps to lessen the load on its servers, reducing animations and smooth effects (the introduction of chicken coops and dairy barns as well as storage is also a keen way to push more of the animated items off the screen). Now as Café World creaks under the load, there are small tweaks in place to simplify the animations (sparkling animation over finished dishes seems a bit less intense, pop-ups around dishes are less animated). It’s no wonder that they have yet to launch basic achievements in the game, fearing the impact of more users on a more robust game.

And that also puts in some interesting questions around other recent games like FishVille and PetVille – after fast growth, both games have tailed off a bit. Surely Zynga can advertise and drive more users, so are they holding off in part to ensure that the games can scale?

While Mafia Wars users may fret, you have to give props to Zynga for focusing on focusing resources explicitly to improve their infrastructure. The fallout from trying to fix Mafia Wars when it already is so hug only underscores the need to build your platform in such a way to make it easily extensible and with the option to add servers quickly on the fly when your estimates of traffic are completely blown away.

Detailing How Facebook Users are Using – Or Not Using – Bookmarks

When I started looking at the recent push by developers to bookmark or become a fan of an application, I quickly realized there was no publicly available information about the number of bookmarks and what applications were being bookmarked the most. In recent discussions about platform changes, the Facebook team noted “At the moment we are not planning to make whether an application has been bookmarked query-able via our APIs.”).

Only since the beginning of this month has Facebook provided a way for developers to know how many users have bookmarked their application. Much like I looked at Fans per Monthly Active User (MAU) as a way to benchmark your ability to connect with users, a developer can now look at what percentage of MAU are bookmarked. But even this data doesn’t provide much detail as to how many of those bookmarks are actually visible in one of the current six available spots at the bottom of each Facebook page.

So how are users responding to all these requests to bookmark and what are they doing? I took a very non-scientific and not completely representative sample (42 of my friends and family) to get a very rough idea of what’s happening. The results surprised me: about half of the users had not taken the time to change the default Facebook bookmarks.

There are six visible bookmark positions on left hand corner of the Facebook footer, but five of them are pre-populated with Facebook applications by default: Photos, Groups, Events, Marketplace (new since March) and Notes. [Note: If a user uploads a video, then Videos is inserted between Photos and Groups and Notes is dropped; also if a user manages or has their own Fan Page, they will have “Ads and Pages” as the first Bookmark, pushing Photos and other defaults down a notch].

When a user bookmarks an application, the icon for that application slides into the sixth bookmark spot. After that, every new application bookmarked replaces the bookmark in the sixth spot (e.g. if you had FarmVille in that sixth spot, then are asked to bookmark Pet Society, Pet Society replaces FarmVille). And that’s exactly what over a third of respondents are doing – leveraging a single bookmark spot for a non-default application.

This split was pretty similar across gender line – but users who considered themselves frequent game players definitely were more proactive in adding more non-default applications:

  • Self-defined heavy game players had modified 3.67 of the six bookmark slots
  • Medium game players modified 2.27 of the six slots
  • Low or non game players modified 1.16 of the six slots

While some of the heavy game players had not figured out how to manipulate the bookmarks (just adding a single non-default app in the sixth spot), over half of them had modified five or six slots. Anecdotally, most game players tended to play ONLY the games that were in their bookmarks, rarely straying to play something not readily visible either through a bookmark or in their newfeed or notifications.

What applications appear to be breaking through?

Some 60 different applications were bookmarked and visible to these 42 users. The top non-default applications bookmarked (showing percentage of all users that had it in their top six):

  • FarmVille (26%)
  • Mafia Wars (21%)
  • Café World (14%)
  • Bejeweled Blitz (10%)
  • Farm Town and Cities I’ve Visited (7%)
  • And ten more apps were at 4%

For more stats and analysis, read the full post at