Cutting the Facebook Cord

Balancing Platform Distribution and Platform Diversification

When Ephraim (my co-founder) and I first went out to raise money for Circle of Moms, we had nothing but a Facebook app. It was 2009 and the investors we pitched were nervous about the idea of a business built entirely on a platform controlled by Facebook. We had great traction — millions of moms using our product within six months of going live — but our platform dependence was seen as a major liability. Facebook, the VCs said, could suddenly turn off all of their communication channels and we’d collapse.

We thought they were full of it, but they wound up being about half right. Within 18 months, Facebook would close down most of the channels we were using for growth and engagement. But thanks to a mix of foresight, paranoia, luck, and determination, we’d soon wean ourselves from Facebook and become a valuable and well-diversified site.

On Top of the Hill

In 2008 and 2009, we grabbed onto the speeding Facebook train (and its trailing Platform). We figured out that a mom’s intimate “circle” was central to her view of the world, and designed a Facebook app to allow her to invite these trusted friends into the broader Circle of Moms.

Early on, this proved to be quite viral: within a few months a million moms were using our product. Many a mom used the app to share a photo of her child’s first steps on a Circle of Moms box in her Facebook profile. Others posted updates to their Facebook feeds and used Facebook invitations to add moms to their personal circles. We were growing and prospering, and millions of moms were using our product to share their lives with people important to them.

In The Ditch

And then everything changed. Many Facebook users had lost interest in receiving virtual crops from their virtual neighbors’ virtual farms: app spam had become a real concern for Facebook. Just as important, companies like Zynga were making many millions of dollars, and Facebook realized that they could shut off some of their user acquisition channels and make money by forcing Zynga to advertise instead.

So Facebook acted rationally, optimizing for their own best interests and those of their users. They killed the notifications feature (which we used to tell someone her friend’s child was turning two). They removed boxes and tabs from profile pages (which over a million moms had added to show off their kids’ accomplishments). And they hid invitations (which moms used to tell their friends about our product).

At that time, we were almost completely dependent on Facebook’s channels to communicate with our users and find new ones. We felt like a beer maker preparing for the government banning beer sales in markets, shutting down bars, and only allowing people to drink in restaurants on Tuesdays. Not quite prohibition, but pretty darned close.

Sure enough, as Facebook removed communication channels, we took a hit. Over the course of 2010, we lost half of our traffic.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. By using three separate ladders we diversified from Facebook and slowly made our way out of the ditch. When I left Circle of Moms in early 2012, our traffic was far higher than it had ever been before; it continues to grow.

The “Standalone Site” Ladder

We knew from day one that life as a Facebook app would come with baggage both good and bad. The key advantage was social context: moms were in a place they knew, with people they knew (this also resonated with advertisers). Being an app meant moms could engage with Circle of Moms without leaving Facebook. On the other hand, we didn’t have control: we had a small canvas for our product, we didn’t completely own the advertising context, page loads were slower, and it was more difficult to own our brand.

Early on, we allowed moms to access our product at circleofmoms.com, but we didn’t make an effort to drive traffic there. All of our outbound communications — through both Facebook and email — linked to apps.facebook.com/circleofmoms. Our users identified us as a Facebook app, and they accessed us there.

In mid-2009, about nine months after launch, we started to test pushing more traffic to circleofmoms.com. Initially, we only did this through non-Facebook channels like email, running a/b tests to send some email clickers to circleofmoms.com and others to apps.facebook.com/circleofmoms. When the circleofmoms.com results looked good, we began to test pushing people coming from Facebook to circleofmoms.com.

The results were mixed. The positives: we saw quicker page loads and deeper engagement from people on circleofmoms.com. The negatives: Facebook users who were sent to the site were slightly less likely to come back than those who were sent to the app; many complained that they were surprised by where they were and couldn’t figure out how to get back to Facebook.

At Circle of Moms, the usual approach is to a/b test and then iterate on those tests. Within the group going to the site, we tested several different ways to link back to Facebook. Ultimately, we found that a “back to facebook” link in the top left gave people a clear way to navigate back to Facebook, in the process creating the best of both worlds. Our site was fast, we had control, moms were viewing more pages, and they could navigate back to Facebook.

We monitored the longitudinal effects of this change for a long time — we wanted to make sure that sending our links to circleofmoms.com didn’t have any long-term negatives for usage patterns. We made a few more tweaks along the way, and by mid-2010 — a full year after starting the test — we were sending almost all links to circleofmoms.com. After our users grew accustomed to circleofmoms.com, we were able to remove the “back to Facebook” link without any negative effect. This new experience deepened engagement, improved our ability generate ad revenue, and set us up for the two other big changes we were making.

The “Content” Ladder

When Circle of Moms was purely a Facebook app, the content was available only to Facebook users who were logged in. That meant that Google’s bots could not access the hundreds of thousands of conversations on our site, so Circle of Moms content wasn’t showing up on Google.

Early on, keeping that content closed off was probably the right decision for us: opening it up would have created a substantial amount of additional technical work, and distracted us from growing our community of moms.

But come 2010, diversification was important to us, and the responses to hundreds of thousands of questions would be useful to many of the moms who weren’t already using our product.

Opening up Circle of Moms to search engines was not an easy process — in addition to moving content to circleofmoms.com, we had to make sure that our users were comfortable privacy-wise. We told community administrators in advance, and gave them the ability to make their communities private. In public communities, we obfuscated users’ names so conversations would be found from topical keyword searches and not searches for people.

Ultimately, we found a strong niche with longer-tail search terms. As a relatively new company, it would be tough to compete with the BabyCenters of the world on terms like “18 weeks pregnant”, but slightly less common terms like “hiccups in the womb” would frequently show up among our many conversations.

After a slow start, we saw lots of search growth in 2010, 2011, and 2012. It’s now one of Circle of Moms’ top traffic sources, and a great way for new moms to discover the product.

The “Email” Ladder

Because we never fully trusted Facebook, we’d long asked our users for an email address immediately after they connected their Facebook accounts. Most moms gave us their email, allowing us to communicate with them independent of Facebook. Up until 2010, this was a defensive, speculative tactic, since Facebook was more effective than email as a communication channel.

(One interesting exception: users over 40 were much more likely to click on email communications than Facebook communications — the exact opposite of women in their 20s.)

As 2010 came to a close, the proverbial feces was hitting the proverbial fan, and we started to look at email as a way out of the ditch. Up until then, our users received weekly emails, each with a summary of what was going on in their communities. The exact content appearing in those digests was essentially random — we were manually removing anything grossly offensive, but otherwise just including headlines from the most recent posts by in the communities they’d joined. We were making no effort to find what was best for the recipient. In a sense, it was the worst of two worlds: neither manicured and professional like a newspaper, nor optimized and personalized like a technology company.

Our first few iterations, we a/b tested swapping out our standard content with an article we’d written in-house. The articles were clearly more professional than the “control” we’d been sending before, but the clickthrough rate wasn’t any higher.

Then just before Christmas, we figured out how we could extend our ladder and start to climb from the ditch. An email about the Top 10 Baby Names of 2010 had four times the clickthrough rate of our normal digest emails. We quickly resolved the a/b test and sent the top baby name list to all of our users. Though we knew that we couldn’t send our users top baby name lists every week, we had a case study in how to use email to re-engage our millions of moms.

Over the course of 2011, we streamlined our content-writing and emailing operations, in the process turning email into a viable re-engagement channel for millions of moms. My next post will go into detail on this operation, specifically focusing on how we were able to use scale to our advantage.

Lessons from the Ditch

One ditch, three ladders to get us out. What are the lessons I take away? There are four pieces of advice I’d give to a company looking to build on top of a single platform (Facebook, Android, iOS, Pinterest, etc.).

1)If you have a short term opportunity to quickly grow on top of a platform, take advantage of it. Early movers can have large advantages; as I believe the saying goes, the bird that over-obsesses about building out a perfect and complete user experience doesn’t get the worm. In 2008 and 2009, we were able to grow Circle of Moms on Facebook much more quickly than we could have anywhere else. For that reason, we were right to spend much (not all) of our time on viral growth rather than building out a perfect experience. Given what I know now, I probably would have been more aggressive in growing Circle of Moms’ user base when we had the opportunity: it was much easier to grow a Facebook app virally in 2009 than it is today, and a few million more registered moms would have helped a lot with the things we were trying to do later.

2) Own your relationship with your users, or at least have a plan to own it. Sounds trivial, but many Facebook apps had no good way to communicate with users when Facebook turned off notifications. A similar relationship exists for many top iOS and Android apps today. By collecting our users’ email addresses, we preserved the option to contact them without any involvement from Facebook. There’s a tradeoff — the more you ask someone for, the more likely they are to run away — so in our case we asked users for email addresses upfront but didn’t require it.

3) It’s usually overkill to build out your first technology to be multi-platform. Building for multiple platforms wastes time you could have spent optimizing for today’s most important platform — but it’s still important to design it in a way that allows you to be multi-platform in the future. In our case, our technology would ultimately allow both a Facebook app and a standalone site, and enable logins through Facebook and through email/password.

4) Build a product that allows users to form relationships, write great content, and/or contribute valuable data. My co-founder Ephraim likes to talk about building something cumulative: a product where users’ actions make the product better either for themselves or for others. We did this best with communities — moms build relationships with others like them, and contribute to a base of hundreds of thousands of conversations that other parents can learn from. That base of creates incentive for contributors to come back to add to what they’ve already create, and build on existing relationships, and it forms a set of content and community that will be useful for future users. Many of the early viral Facebook apps had millions of users, but nothing else: no relationship reason to come back to the app, and no valuable content.

In other words: drive significant distribution through one channel, but always take a couple of steps to hedge your bets. Facebook is still a key platform for Circle of Moms, but it’s no longer the only one.