[Though virality has changed for Facebook games and apps, it is not dead. The best developers have learned to adapt. User analytics firm Kontagent's president Josh Williams outlines some of the most valuable changes leading developers have made to date.]
The social gaming industry has evolved rapidly since its birth. Whereas, quiz apps, word games, card games and other simplistic experiences led social games in the early days, today launching a leading social game is a multimillion dollar proposition and even at initial launch many social games are more complex than full-fledged traditional Casual Games.
Whereas social games once profited through myriad revenue sources-- ads, incentive offers, and direct purchases-- today the vast majority of revenue is derived from direct purchases and Facebook Credits.
Moreover, viral communication channels were essential to the early industry’s growth, and social game designs were oriented toward encouraging and enabling players to repeatedly message their friends at every opportunity. Over the last year, however, virality has been completely transformed through sweeping changes to Facebook’s platform and policies for app communications with users. As a result, social game businesses have had to keep pace, or die.
Though virality has changed for Facebook games and apps, it is not dead. The best developers have learned to adapt to the new virality ecosystem, leveraging user communication channels to drive virality in new ways. Changes to virality have also driven larger changes in the way social companies acquire users via advertising and in game design as a whole. The following are some of the most valuable changes leading developers have made to date:
1. Virality deeper in the Engagement Funnel. Developers have discovered that viral messages from faithful, long-term players are more effective than messages generated by prompting new users to broadcast to friends and invite them to join immediately upon installing a game. Apps are now encouraging messages from loyal users later in the engagement funnel, resulting in more genuine requests that are also better received. As such, though viral messages sent per user are down significantly, viral response rates have actually gone up dramatically. Volume has decreased, but quality is higher.
2. Virality as a retention tool. Previously, viral messages were employed primarily to acquire new users. As the Facebook app ecosystem, platform policies and gaming culture has progressed, however, these messages are used more and more to keep players coming back, and to re-engage dormant users. Communications from friends playing the same games encourage users to revisit, increasing retention and bolstering loyalty through viral channels. As such, viral messages between friends are now evaluated not just on how many new user installs they achieve, but also on their efficacy at driving (i) dormant users back to the game, (ii) increasing player game session length and frequency, and (iii) influencing purchasing behavior.
3. Multivariate Virality Testing and Optimization. The best developers are testing when, where, and how to prompt players to message their friends. These tests have progressed from measuring simplistic counts of overall messages sent, or messages sent per user, and are instead focusing on actual response rates from friends, optimizing for efficacy over mere volume. Developers are testing the creative content of their messages: which calls to action garner the best response rates, and which viral rewards, gifts or help requests drive the most action per user? Developers are also testing and optimizing the timing of message presentation, figuring out what activities in game should prompt a viral message. Moreover, developers are now conducting this multivariate testing and optimization around several types of viral messaging: viral acquisition channel optimization, viral engagement optimization, and viral retention channel optimization.
4. Deep Gameplay Ties for Virality. Today, leading edge Facebook applications tie virality deeply into gameplay. Whereas simple “neighbor”, “gang”, and “worker” mechanics ruled the social gaming roost early on, these thinly veiled tactics to get players to spam all their friends to join a game are both less effective and less prevalent today. Instead, games are being built around meaningful social interactions from the ground-up. Leading edge games allow players to create custom characters, and to use their friends’ deeply personalized characters to help them in combat, or in building a simulation. Games encourage meaningful trading and economics amongst players, encouraging players to not just interact with their existing real world friends, but to create new friends in-game. All of these changes are driving more effective viral gameplay, and expanding the concept of “virality” well beyond that of simple user acquisition.
5. Heavy optimization of paid user acquisitions. No discussion of the effects that changes to virality have had on social apps over the last year-plus would be complete without analyzing how it has affected advertising. Before the viral changes of the past year, many apps experienced high viral acquisition K-Factors, or ‘influence scores’ for extended periods of time, viral acquisition lift from ad campaigns were frequently 40% or higher, and the cost of acquiring new users was measured in pennies and nickels rather than dimes and dollars. Running a successful ad campaign on Facebook was relatively simple and guaranteed. Today, the picture is very different, and not nearly as easy going. Simply tracking Impressions, Clicks, CTRs, Installs and Install Conversions is no longer sufficient. Instead, businesses must adopt more analytical approaches to their user acquisition programs, performing deep cohort and segment analysis of user behavior. They must dig deep to discover which player segments experience the best retention, exhibit the best virality, and demonstrate the highest ARPU. The successful marketer and developer will ask, for each segment of users who saw a particular type and combination of ad in a given timeframe, what percentage made it through the game’s tutorial? What percentage bought in-game currency? What percentage came back the day after they installed? What percentage were back a week after install? What is the ARPU of these users per day? How many viral installs did these users drive? Savvy developers are answering these questions with unprecedented precision, in near real-time, and marketers who rely on old style viral user acquisition and broad-based, inaccurate ad campaigns are having their lunches eaten as a result.
Virality is still an essential component in the design of successful social games today. Far from abandoning the fundamental viral messaging approach, successful apps have streamlined their methods, resulting in more efficient, infrequent, targeted messages. These messages, however, are no longer conduits for mass user acquisition, but are now a means of retaining users and swaying patterns of engagement. As Facebook’s user-base has matured, social gaming and apps have been compelled to fine-tune their viral techniques.
The recent swing from viral growth to viral engagement and retention has killed off many weaker developers who were slow to adapt, but those that have survived are stronger for it. With unprecedented data optimization and user analysis, superior social gaming companies are making the most of their market.