A December 8 article in Adweek chronicled the poor performance of Facebook applications developed by major brands including Nike, Ford, Microsoft, and Fedex. Nike, for example, developed an ambitious application titled Ballers Network -- including support for three languages -- intended to allow basketball players to find pick-up games and manage leagues. After six months the application had 3,400 users per month, small numbers for a major brand like Nike. I checked today and active users were down to 2,400.
Where did Nike go wrong? The Just Do It brand is all about physical activity, so an application that connects you to real basketball games is certainly on brand. As a basketball player I have to say the concept is appealing. The may have erred by making their application to complex, too ambitious. What would make the concept work? The best way to reach basketball players who would need and want league tools is through local community centers and parks departments. My small community has 150 teams of all ages fighting for court space this winter. Reaching out to influencers -- the people who set up these leagues and schedule the court space -- strikes me as a place to start gaining visibility. But that is a feet-on-the-street, face-to-face tactic, something too often ignored in social media efforts.
Perhaps Facebook is not the ideal place to connect the physical and the virtual? The most popular sports application on Facebook is Permier League, in which you build fantasy roster made up of you Facebook friends and play virtual soccer.
The AdWeek article, written by Brian Morrissey, offered two conclusions. First, that partnering with established Facebook apps was an easier way for big brands to reach Facebook users. And second, that applications that involved "simple messaging and modest expectations" seemed to do well.
Buying impressions by partnering with an already
successful application can work and may often make sense if all you want is an impression. The example
Morrissey uses, Gap partnering with the application Pieces of Flair, did
generate impressions for Gap. Those 7 million generic impression were probably pretty
inexpensive, but will a piece of flair really stimulate a purchase intent, particularly when you promote a store vs. a specific product? Probably not. With Ballers Network, Nike was aiming for a
higher-value impression -- creating a sustained relationship with a specific audience with a
higher likelihood of purchasing their product.
From my experience with Facebook the more simple an application is the more adoption you are likely to see. Another application type that works is gaming. The simple games like Word Twist (800,000 active users) and Scramble (480,000 active users) made by Zynga are popular, and they could have been made by any major brand. Hasbro's late and contentious entry into Scrabble on Facebook even has 480,000 users, solid numbers for a pretty poorly developed application.
Simplicity and modest expectations is a good starting point for major brands in Facebook. Experiment, learn from failures but don't sweat them, see what works and capitalize on success.
As interesting as it is to discuss Facebook applications, it is even more fun to watch the advertising industry try to figure Facebook out. Go to AdWeek.com and type "Facebook" into the search engine and you will find almost a reference a day going back to November 2007. The search results present a montage of awe, confusion, consternation, and dismay -- particularly dismay at the poor performance of Facebook ads -- and expose the fundamental mismatch of CPI and CTR metrics within social media.