January 02, 2009

What FriendFeed Needs to Do To Grow and Keep New Users

That I like FriendFeed and so does Robert Scoble and so do a few thousand other Web-addicted Silicon Valley-centric people doesn't matter very much. That thousands more have signed up to the service and imported their data doesn't matter very much either. That the service has a ton of bells and whistles and some smart people behind it and manages to have some great uptime, compared to other services, also won't make it successful. Because what I'm seeing, and continue to hear, is that the site is too busy. It's too intimidating for new users, and some who have even stepped up to give it the old college try are asking for help (See: Om Malik of GigaOM).

Why? Because as great as I believe the service is, the learning curve is sharp. People aren't getting its utility right away. They aren't finding friends right away, or understanding why they should spend time to participate. Others are intimidated by the sheer volume of updates coming from people seemingly embedded in the Web, be they Robert, myself or many others.

In December, Robert wrote a piece, "10 Reasons why Twitter is for you and FriendFeed is not", where he outlined some of the top-level differences between the two services. And while he was jokingly saying Twitter's lack of features made it a better option for some people than FriendFeed, there was truth to it.

Given FriendFeed is relying largely on word of mouth from users, and press from bloggers and other tech publications to help raise awareness, and hasn't yet invested in a Marketing department or a more official outreach strategy, they can consider this abbreviated Marketing Requirements Document to be pro bono:

FriendFeed Must Have a Lite Version for New Users

New users signing up to FriendFeed, by default, see all updates from all friends who they are following, as well as updates from friends of a friend. This means that even if you start out following only a few dozen people, be they those automatically synchronized with your Facebook account, or recommended well-known Silicon Valley digerati, you can be flooded with updates from Twitter, Blogs, bookmarking sites, external commenting sites, BrightKite location notices, photos from Flickr and other sites, videos from YouTube, and even items from Amazon.com wish lists. And not only do you have to see all this from the people you know, but you'll even have to see updates from friends of those you know, if your friends have made an action on their updates.

What needs to happen is that FriendFeed must tier their offering, for "small", "medium" and "large" consumption. The Lite version would probably start out with blog postings, Flickr photos, and native FriendFeed entries. The default behavior should be that you would need to "opt in" to see a service, rather than be forced to opt out or hide every single one of them as FriendFeed adds them. FriendFeed already supports more than 50 different services, but the excitement this may bring to power users is just overwhelming to new folks.

The data should still be available in a tab that says "Show Me More" or "What You're Missing", etc., but you have got to not aim the firehose at those who aren't ready.

FriendFeed Should Help You Find Your Real Friends Better

If you weren't referred to FriendFeed from an existing user, you're starting off from scratch in the friends department. FriendFeed helpfully offers you an array of popular users, based on other subscribers' activity, but it's highly unlikely you're on a first name basis with all of them, and they're probably not "really" your friends.

Assuming you register your Facebook account with FriendFeed, it will check your existing friend base and see if they are registered with FriendFeed, and automatically add them to the people you follow. You also can find your friends by importing your address book from GMail, Yahoo! Mail or Hotmail. But as many found when Google Reader assumed those you e-mailed most out of GMail were your real friends, that doesn't exactly solve it either.

FriendFeed should do a few things here. First, they should enable you to cross-reference those people you follow on Twitter (which is a noisy option). Second, you should be able to synchronize those you follow on LinkedIn as easily as you do your friends on Facebook. If you're linked on LinkedIn, maybe you should have the option to follow them on FriendFeed, getting you connected with colleagues. Third, and most importantly, FriendFeed should have content-based intelligence. You should be able to list your interests, much as Facebook does, and get recommendations for who discusses those topics. Fourth, you should be able to add details to a profile, including hometown, schooling background, etc, and get friend recommendations very similar to Facebook's often spot-on "People You May Know" feature.

You would also have the option to get weekly e-mails with updates on "People You May Know", much like LinkedIn shows you that new colleagues and classmates have started to use the service.

FriendFeed Must Be Doing Outreach and Communication With Inactive Users

Having always been active, I wouldn't have encountered the team's doing this, but I have seen a significant number of people who have had very little activity on the service following initial registration. They may not have had comments or "liked" anything in months. But they sure do count when it comes to total users, and their data is quietly pouring into the service!

FriendFeed should be actively courting these stale, abandoned accounts, and updating them on new features, or highlighting site usage case studies. It's practically a pastime on the Web to register for new sites, but it's not doing the FriendFeed community any good to be browsing and acting on the items of digital ghosts.

FriendFeed Should Help to Get New Users Engaged More Quickly

Long-time users have a distinct advantage over new users in terms of feeling engaged on the site. As with high school, or any other forum on the Web, you have regulars who get in a state of comfort, communicating with the same people who interact in small social circles. New users who join the site do so invisibly until they start acting on other people's items. New users who understand the service and register their feeds may see almost no activity as they are not added or even seen by other users at first, and the comparative silence on their own feeds is sometimes enough for people to feel ignored and leave.

FriendFeed could, instead, choose to have an area dedicated to new users who have joined the service over the last 1, 7 or 30 days (as they do with top items), and assuming you can fill out any identifiable data, as mentioned above, around hometowns, school, and interests, these new users could be grouped. (e.g. 25 new users within 30 miles of 94086 joined in the last 7 days)

FriendFeed Should Deliver A Desktop Application and iPhone App

The introduction of TweetDeck has changed the way many people use Twitter. It takes all the different options of Twitter and put them in a highly-customizable app, incorporating DMs, Replies, Groups, and Search. I've heard people say they won't use FriendFeed until it gets integrated into TweetDeck, and the current third-party apps for FriendFeed pale in comparison to the Web offering. The iPhone offering is good as well, but doesn't feel as polished, and lacks options one would expect in an app written for the device.

FriendFeed Needs to Better Define What It Is and How People Use It

Scoble (yes him again) recently posted a video on how you can be a power user of FriendFeed, showing 20 things it's useful for. (video link)

But it took him almost half an hour! No offense to Robert, but the service has got to become a lot more simple than 30 minutes worth of explanation to get new users engaged. All sorts of companies, from consumer to enterprise, utilize case studies and customer demo videos to explain aspects of the service and benefits, and they should be done in segments as small as 30 seconds to no longer than 5 minutes.

You can see FriendFeed's early efforts to answer questions from users on their lengthy one-page FAQ. They also have a FriendFeed Feedback room on the site, which augments the service's now largely stale Google Groups forum. But "how to" videos are either non-existent or made incredibly hard to find. The "why" to use FriendFeed and how power users or more mainstream users use FriendFeed case studies are missing altogether.

FriendFeed Must Have a Sense of Urgency

2009 does not look like it is going to be friendly to companies that are long on hope and short on revenue or momentum. The team can innovate better than any other that I have seen, per capita, but the appearance is that the service is doing so in a relaxed, jovial way. Questions about a business model seem theoretical and eventual, rather than immediate. And no clear visible activity is happening that makes me think the team is working on a more aggressive way to increase awareness and adoptability of the service - all while many curious adopters are turning away from the noise.

Lacking This, What Is Happening?

Simply put, people aren't getting it. I understand the team's Google-born mentality of "build it and they will come", and the hope that if the user experience is so good, people will gravitate to it over time, or that word of mouth will be all the marketing they ever need, but usage growth has stagnated compared to other faster-growing services, like Facebook and Twitter. (See Quantcast or Compete, who both agree on the flat to downward trend.)

As one of the more visible, more active users, I tend to have a lot of activity on my feed. It's a factor of participating, having been visible early and consistently championing the service. But even the most active items rarely approach a few dozen actions, be they comments, or likes. And this number has not grown much over the last several months. Assuming FriendFeed were growing and doubling in size consistently, I should be seeing a great article, picture or update getting hundreds of actions, as the user base grows, but they're not. Popular items get 20 to 30 likes, and top ones approach 100, about the same amount of actions as the number of comments on a single TechCrunch post, even though simply "liking" an item takes much less time.

I recently ran a third party tool that compared those people I was connected to on Twitter and FriendFeed, letting me match up my lists. I was surprised to see how many people I knew on Twitter who were also using FriendFeed, or at least had registered, but had not been active. Account after account after account had seen no activity in weeks.

While I have a core of very active users who I see every day and can expect to engage with, I see those initial quiet signups as a lost opportunity, for both them and for FriendFeed, and before the problem gets worse, I think the team should make the revitalization of these abandoned accounts a priority, along with easing the transition of new accounts, reducing the dramatic potential for noise, and starting to market themselves. There's a reason I keep getting asked by people for help on getting up to speed on FriendFeed. I get it because I've been embedded for more than a year, and it really shouldn't take so much work.