The Cold Start Problem in Social Media
Here is a classic cold start problem:
- "Social Tools" can only be social if there are enough people on it.
- And any social site is only as attractive as the number of friends you have on it.
- The social site is only useful if there are enough people contributing to it. (be it annotating images, links or adding reviews)
The question is how do you get enough users to adopt a tool and build sufficient traction around it such that it attracts more users? I dont have all the answers and perhaps entrepreneurs and folks in startups are more knowledgeable about this than I am. But this is a question I have been pondering about for some time. Most of these points might be fairly obvious, but here are a few thoughts I'd like to share:
- Above all, build something cool!
- Realize that in many systems, 1% users acting as contributors is all it takes! (see Clay Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody" for more on this). Ensure that the reward mechanism is automatically built into the site. These 1% of all users are not the ones that are motivated by money. They use your tools because they enjoy it or it solves some real problem they have been facing. I have seen some sites trying to "pay" users to add data to "seed" their site. For example, check out some of the high paying HITS on Mechanical Turk. In my opinion, this is like throwing money out of the window. Completely bogus way to jump start your site!
- Provide APIs: One of the key factors that contributed to the success of Twitter was that they had a neat API that developers immediately adopted and had fun building cool toys. These 3rd party tools in turn make it easy for users to contribute and engage with your site, thus breaking the cold start problem. For example, even though not developed by Twitter, the plethora of third party twitter client make it easy to easily update your Tweets.
- Try to "seed" your site with datasets curated by web crawls, APIs, external databases or using the tools yourself. For example, if you are building a site that uses geotagging, you might consider using sites like geonames.org or if your site is around movies -- use IMDB or Amazon data to seed it.
- Make sure stuff is findable and socially visible. Make it easy for your users to find the data they really care about and they will be willing to annotate. Moreover, make sure that it is easy for users to share what they annotate with their friends. The beauty of Facebook is the news feeds. People like to know what their friends are upto. On Twitter, I want to know what my friends are saying and be able to have conversations with them - without that twitter is just a chat room.
- Dont ever SPAM! Every week I have a bunch of emails coming from some random sites that a friend of mine once joined. Make sure that in your invitation email you include an option to not receive any requests from your site in the future. I am amazed when I dont see this option at all. If a user does not wish to join a network, please dont keep sending them emails requesting them to join every time one of their friends sign up! Also, I am a sucker for alpha/beta testing for any new social media/social network site. Sometimes, I try even the ones that eventually land up spamming everyone on your email/IM. As a RULE -- never spam your potential users! That is the best way to piss them off even before they join it.
- Listen and iterate rapidly. Your alpha/beta users are the most important. Listen to what they have to say. Also, if you cannot convince your friends and family to use the tool -- why would anyone else bother?
The cold start problem has been studied in computer science, particularly for recommendation systems**. A good place to start is the paper:
Methods and metrics for cold-start recommendations Schein, r.I.; Popescul, A.; Ungar, L.H.; Pennock, D.M. [Link]
I am quite interested in knowing how startups have approached this problem in real situations and particularly, if there is any analytical data available to show what worked and what did not? I guess this might be information that few would be willing to share so openly.
** on a related note: The blog "Duke Listens" is an excellent source for more on recommendation systems. Also check out the recent post on cold start problem.