The Post-Notification Era on Facebook’s Platform: Viral Marketing Isn’t Dead Yet
There was a lot of hand-wringing by developers prior to Facebook phasing out application-based Notifications on March 1st, especially among smaller developers who relied heavily on them to remind users to come back to their game or application. Making matters worse, the new features designed to replace Notifications had their own issues:
- Proxy email messaging wasn’t fixed until over a week after Notifications disappeared (see the bug) and some developers were caught off-guard that proxy emails have a restrictions on acceptable HTML and FBML tags
- The Games Dashboard and Counters have been extremely ineffective in driving traffic (one developer shared that of 150,000 referenced visits, 1202 were from the dashboard)
Illustrating the immediate impact of the changes, one developer posted this graphic of their application’s engagement metrics, highlighting the relative impact of Notifications versus the games dashboard in driving engagement:
Clearly, no one argues that end of Notifications was going to have a huge impact on traffic, and several developers were phasing out their reliance on Notifications way before the March 1st due to them being less effective as the channel was already overwhelmed with messages. Francis Pelland, developer of several relatively small Avastar applications summed up the debates on the developer boards: “I phased out Notifications in my apps about 3 weeks ago and my DAU is significantly higher than before through creative thinking and alternative viral features. People should sit and think rather than complain. This sort of thing happens every time when Facebook makes a change and consider it to be the end of the world, make threats to quit, and say it will be the end of Facebook.”
So how are the largest developers faring in the post-Notifications world? Clearly it’s not the doomsday scenario that some feared as developers are mostly relying on email or fan page posts to replace application-to-user Notifications, while user-to-user Notifications are being facilitated through creative use of Wall Posts. Here are some highlights by top developers:
In the two weeks since Notifications, Zynga’s titles are a mixed bag with PetVille and FishVille down 4-6%, Mafia Wars and Café World flat and YoVille and FarmVille up 3%. Zynga’s use of email is fairly sporadic and limited to a few titles:
- FarmVille and Café World have yet to send an email (based on my observations and discussions with other users). With such a large user base, the cost of email may be prohibitive compared to the effectiveness of fan page posts.
- YoVille has slowly increased its frequency from once a month at the end of 2009 to 3-4 per month and has primarily focused on new item releases.
- Since December, Mafia Wars has sent seven emails, primarily focused on new game features (holiday gift safe house in December, Bangkok expansion release in late January and the revamp of their store in February). Three of those emails have entitled the recipients to the Mafia Wars hard currency, reward points.
- Finally, PetVille sent it’s first email to users as part of the process to accept emails and unlock a pet for your PetVille pet.
Instead of relying heavily on email, Zynga has focused on innovating user-to-user communication via Wall Posts, re-focusing users from sending gifts to asking for gifts and collaborative tasks that require users to plead with friends to send items so they can complete the task.
The only games that haven’t had either consistent emails (YoVille) or the collaborative task mechanism (Mafia Wars, FarmVille, Café World), are the only two games that are down over the last two weeks (FishVille and PetVille).
Since Notifications were turned off two weeks ago, there is a noticeable split between what games have been impacted: Restaurant City is up 8%, Pet Society up 3% and Country Story down 7% while the latest titles (Poker Rivals and Gangster City) are down 23-28%.
The biggest of the former Playfish titles (Pet Society, Restaurant City and Country Story) also have been prolific email senders averaging a message every week and focused on touting new decorative items, recipes and the occasional new feature. Poker Rival and Gangster City have yet to send emails out (based on my observations) which in part can be tied to the fact that without a farm, home or any physical place to decorate, there are fewer new things happening in these games each week, making content a bit of a stretch.
CrowdStar’s Happy Aquarium and Happy Island have been relatively flat since the end of Notifications on March 1st. Only Happy Pets seems to have seen a marked decline (down 12%) and that may have more to do with the continual decline since rival PetVille was launched in early December.
Unlike the other developers, CrowdStar has not explicitly been collecting emails or prompting users to sign up for email Notifications. As such, the developer and has not sent any emails to date (again, based on my observations) about application updates, preferring to use fan page posts exclusively to convey new updates.
With regard to user-to-user Notifications, users in Happy Aquarium can still visit a friend’s tank and click on a button to notify that friend that their aquarium needs to be cleaned or fish need to be feed, but it appears that no notification goes out any longer and the application has not been changed to do a wall post to that friend’s wall.
Playdom was a prolific user of Notifications up until the last minute, and while Wild Ones was up 6%, the rest of their biggest titles were either flat or down since Notifications ended March 1st: Sorority Life was basically flat, Mobsters 2: Vendetta was down 5%, Tiki Farm was down 6%, and (Lil) Farm Life was down 15%.
Emails have been fairly sporadic across titles but it looks like this is a channel they’re just beginning to experiment with:
- Sorority Life had two emails in early February around collectible gifts for Valentine’s Day, but none since
- Mobsters 2: Vendetta had one email in February touting their “gang-up” feature, then two emails last week: one providing an email-subscriber only car and the other promoting their new retail card and a potential bonus for redeeming one before St. Patrick’s day
- Tiki Farm: pushed an email (the first I’ve observed) the first week of March touting new decorations
Viral Marketing (and the Facebook Platform) Isn’t Dead
While much of the data above is based on imperfect observation, it suggests that developers can still find a way to drive engagement and viral marketing by 1) leveraging email, 2) continuing to publish engaging fan page posts and 3) innovating with ways to get users to publish to their friends and their own walls (such as the collaborative tasks). Granted managing these multiple channels is a great deal more complicated than Notifications, but it doesn’t mean Facebook as a platform is dead.
Less clear is whether the Games Dashboard can be turned into an effective application-to-user and user-to-user forum. Zynga and Playdom are experimenting with counters, but few others are seriously using the tool because it hasn’t been overly effective at driving traffic. The bottom line is that users can’t find it and/or don’t use it: Facebook didn’t heavily publicize the games dashboard during the rollout of the new homepage in early February, and developers were desperate enough to publish fan page stories in an attempt to educate their users:
Based on developer feedback that the new bookmarks in the left navigation under the Game Dashboard link are static, Facebook’s platform team updated the developer roadmap so that users will at least be able to move bookmarks around in the near future, but this doesn’t solve the fundamental design issue. I firmly believe the games dashboard is a huge opportunity, providing the potential to discover new games and find your existing ones. But further education cannot overcome the fundamental design decision to not have “games” as a persistent part of the site navigation, visible from every page in the top nav, and made useful for user and developer alike with its own notification flag.
Eric von Coelln is a casual games and MMO marketing veteran who focuses on emerging metrics in social games. He is currently a New York based freelance consultant to games and social media companies. You can find his blog here.