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Online Brands Rush to Embrace Facebook's 'Widget Platform'

  |  June 19, 2007   |  Comments

Developers and marketers clamor to build shareable applications for the social networking site.

Last month, Facebook made a splash with plans to open its platform to advertisers and developers, inviting them to create applications, sometimes called widgets, that can be shared from user to user.

The company launched its API on May 25th at the F8 event in San Francisco, and promised widget makers would keep all revenues from sales and ads generated by their applications. In the intervening three weeks, Facebook has been inundated with new applications, and some companies building for the platform have seen a massive jump in users. The company is now tracking over 300 applications, and those are just the ones with at least 1,000 users each. The company has also given away "tens of thousands of keys" to developers that want access to create applications for the social network, ranging from large companies like Amazon.com and Microsoft, to "guys in their college dorm room," according to Mike Murphy, VP of global media sales for Facebook. As of last week, the Top Ten had more than 22 million users and above 930,000 downloads, Murphy said. "The top one, as of last night, was at 4.2 million downloads," he said when reached by phone last week.

Facebook and its partners are now getting a crash course in best practices for making applications that users will actually want to share. The lessons they're learning apply as well to marketers as to media companies and developers.

Shareable applications on Facebook and elsewhere can take many forms, from music and photo sharing to news and video links. Though such apps are widely being called "widgets," Murphy objects to the use of the word. "What a widget was originally designed to do was to have real estate on someone's desktop and push data," he said. "And what our applications can do for marketers and developers is to have data go back and forth instead of it just being a receptacle for a developer or a marketer to push data to."

He noted applications on Facebook are capable of giving developers a greater amount of information about the user, including where they are, what their interests might be, and how they connect with their friends.

Ali Partovi is the CEO of iLike, a social music discovery service that launched an application as part of the F8 event. His six-month-old company, which lets people share their favorite music with friends online, until recently measured three million unique users to its standalone site. After launching its application on Facebook, iLike has seen its user base jump one million users a week, with no additional marketing. After three weeks, iLike currently has over 6.5 million total users.

Facebook chose the Memorial Day three-day weekend to launch the new platform in order to keep adoption low, and set a 100,000 download limit on any application being shared. By 10 a.m. Saturday morning iLike tripped that internal limit and requested it be extended. Facebook complied and set the limit at one million downloads, which iLike tripped again at 3 p.m.

"By five p.m. we had signed up more users on the best day ever of our own Web site on its own," he said. "Within three weeks our Facebook app has become a higher part of our business than our own Web site. Having seen its success so far, we are completely reorienting our entire company to focus on it."

Looking to lessen the strain on the iLike's network, the company tried to install 100 additional servers but was unable to purchase them on a holiday weekend. "We actually had to rent a 24-foot truck and drive around the San Francisco Bay Area and ask companies to sell us their spare machines. It was unbelievable," Parovi said.

The jump in users has also forced iLike to reassess its advertising model, which hadn't been a serious consideration for the start-up.

"We actually had not been trying to sell ad pages before, but the page views have grown so dramatically that it's a crime not to put ads on them," he said.

Branding and advertising using shareable applications shakes out into three different areas. The first consists of companies such as iLike that will orient their businesses around Facebook's shareable applications. The second is made up of companies, including PicksPal and Music Nation, that will use shareable applications to push updated information out to Facebook users and bring them back to their own Web sites. A third group will create branded applications. Red Bull, for instance, has created a branded version of rock-scissors-paper, called "Roshambull," as an advertorial for its energy drinks, while Warner Bros. Records has released the first single and video from the White Stripes's latest album in widget form.

While Facebook's Murphy said it's too early to have a set of best practices for making Facebook applications they are learning and sharing their insights with developers. To be successful, he said, it takes more than simply creating an application on Facebook. You have to make something that users will want to share.

"For a vendor to just throw their brand into an application isn't going to succeed. They need to create more utility for our users... and if the brand is part of that, great," he said. "For marketers at this point, it's [not about] developing an application just to develop an application. It's about working very hard and studying the marketplace and developing an application the users will see utility in."

Music artist development company Music Nation is an admitted latecomer to Facebook: The firm only became interested in developing an application following the launch of the platform. The company, which holds online music competitions on its site, built a widget to allow users to review new artist profiles and vote for their favorites to win recording contracts. Music Nation went the extra step, however, of including a version of "Hang Man" using its bands' names to make the application more likely to be shared, according to Neil Capel, CTO of Music Nation.

"You want to make sure that you're getting that social network advantage, which is sharing the application," Capel said. "The reason the game is in there is without it it's more of a media experience, and we wanted to have an experience that you'll push to other friends in your network."

Companies should also avoid trying to remake their business Web site as a shareable application, and instead create a greater level of interaction with users, according to Tom Jessiman, CEO of PicksPal.com, a sports and entertainment prediction competition site. PicksPal has an application on Facebook and is already looking to update it to make it more attractive for sharing.

"We build games for sports predictions, but what you see on PickPal.com [is] not what you are going to see very shortly on Facebook," said Jessiman. "[Successful companies will] have one iteration of one kind of experience on the Internet, and then create completely novel games to take advantage of Facebook."

Although Facebook isn't the only place where companies can seed and make available shareable applications and widgets, it has significantly altered the landscape for businesses seeking the widest distribution of their content through social networks.

NBC Universal is currently working with widget syndication platform Clearspring to create shareable bits of content from Access Hollywood, NBC Sports, Bravo and other NBCU titles. NBC seeds those content widgets through their own Web site properties and "third party public galleries,", and can then track where those widgets are shared. But the problem is to be assured that those widgets are only shared where appropriate, according to Sab Kanaujia, VP of digital product strategy and development for NBCU.

"The challenge is to make sure that people don't post these widgets on sites where we don't have our content affiliates. So we have a blacklist of where we don't want to have these widgets be," said Kanaujia. "That list constantly evolves."

Social networks generally don't allow any third party to put anything on their network with ads on it to avoid monetizing their traffic, he said. As such, NBCU is evaluating sharing its content through Facebook.

"Facebook has come up recently, and said they will let you monetize it, and we are looking at it," said Kanaujia. "What Facebook is doing is really interesting. Definitely they have created a lot of momentum in the developer community, and they've provided an opportunity for content owners to monetize their units."

Based on the huge reaction to Facebook's new platform, some developers are predicting that other social networks like MySpace, Bebo, and Hi5 will have to follow suit.

"I expect that other social networks, as they see how popular this is and helps Facebook, will also start to open up," said PicksPal.com's Jessiman. "Until they do, there's no point in me building out things that are going to be as powerful as what I'm building for Facebook, for some kind of walled garden."

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Matthew G. Nelson

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