Creating the pull factor needed for a successful social network

TechCrunch just put out an article by Alex Rampell titled “the power of pull”. In the article Alex makes the case that really valuable web applications pull you unconsciously toward them. You don’t have to remember to check them, when you sit down in front of a browser and start typing, those are the URLs that come out.

What creates the pull is a problem that I’ve pondered over for a long time. When BuddyPress functionality was being added to UBC Blogs I knew that it would fail to pull students in, but am still not able to articulate exactly why. It may have had to do with the “silent launch”, but I think the biggest problem was the lack of some key features, those features that provide the pull. Now that Google+ has launched (and I’m really enjoying using it), I’m wondering if it will be able to make the dent that will pull all of the people that I want to interact with into it.

Here are the factors that Alex listed in his article.

Alex’s Factors:

In the article he lists 4 ways to create pull:

  • Plan around events: People will be going to events, so build something that makes them check in with you first before those events.
  • Do something that has an offline analogy: Before Google, people would use phonebooks.
  • Answer Recurring questions: Questions like “where am I going” (Google Maps) and how much did I spend (Mint) answer some of life’s recurring questions.
  • Build brand and familiarity: People shop at Amazon.com because not only do they know it’s big enough to be trusted, it offers a familiar interface.

While I agree mostly with his list, it got me thinking about the sites that pull me and what it is about those sites that create the pull. I came up with my own list.

Here is my list:

Make not visiting your site something that will cause social harm: 

I check my Gmail and Facebook often because people may have left me messages and if I don’t respond to them I will disappoint or anger them. I will respond to Doodle’s for the same reason. Humans love to be liked, so if by not going to the web service a person will be liked less, they will go to it.

Provide Curated entertainment:

I get pulled to YouTube and TED.com whenever I want to watch an interesting videos, I get pulled to GrooveShark when I want music that everyone in the room will and I get pulled to Flixter and Apple Trailers whenever I want to see what movies are coming out. Although making a service that relies purely on content only works for a lucky few, any successful service needs to have something interesting to show their visitors.

Provide more than one engaging activity:

This is a piece that I have taken from my game design research. All popular recurring networks need more than one pull. This not only provides multiple incentives for any given individual, but also ensures that it provides incentives for a wider segment of the population. Facebook is an obvious example, but so is an LMS like Blackboard. There are discussion boards, course content and grades to check. One’s own blog dashboard is another, there are posts to write, stats to check and comments to moderate. I understand the problems of features creep and the danger of adding “just one more pull”, but I think there definitely is threshold of the number of pulls that one needs and the application should cross that threshold.

Create something that easily fits into a daily workflow:

Facebook’s big statistic is that 50% of its users check in once a day. An essential social app has to have something new to come back to daily. If you can somehow embed a utility in your app (Google Calendar, Dropbox, Basecamp are all examples of this) then users have to come back into your application. One needs to find a way to be on a user’s mind after they have left your application.

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Sure, this list mixes up traditional applications with social networking applications, but I think that is a useful exercise. Just having profiles that others can view is not enough (witness Google Profiles before Google+), I truly believe that there have to be some other pulls. As to what those pulls should be… well that’s the hard part.

[note title=”Bonus Thought: Does Google+ have enough pulls?” align=”center” width=”716″] My hunch is yes. It certainly provides utility with the chat, hangout and photos features. If you add the sharing it had quite a few pulls. The notification icons on top of any Google product also make the daily workflow piece super simple. The sharing and sparks (with a bit of improvement) will lend that curated content. [/note]