At its f8 developer conference last September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out a grand vision of a new class of lifestyle apps enabled by Facebook’s technology platform. Last week, at a subdued event that attracted far less media coverage, Facebook sketched out its progress and showed some 60 apps. Facebook’s apps ecosystem is showing positive signs of evolving, but it still lacks an effective marketplace for app promotion and monetization. Such a marketplace would reinforce a virtuous circle: It would attract more developers and help generate more money for them and for Facebook.
Signs of progress
You will recall that one of the powerful — and potentially creepy — features of Facebook’s Open Graph was “frictionless sharing,” where apps could automatically post user activity without requiring the press of a Like button. Facebook has done some fine-tuning to its privacy and auto-sharing controls, including prominent instructions on how to opt in and how to focus sharing among particular friends, even for existing apps. But Facebook still mostly relies on users’ increasing acceptance of activity broadcasts. That seems appropriate for all but the most privacy-conscious rights organizations.
Facebook also has opened its apps approval process, offering simple guidelines that appear less restrictive than, say, Apple’s App Store. Facebook claims it wants to open up the ecosystem, but it remains to be seen if it has the staffing needed to enable speedy approval for hundreds of apps.
Developers appear to be excited about Actions, a key new technology from September’s announcement. Actions expands the vocabulary of sharing beyond Liking and Sharing to shopping-oriented terms like Own and Want as well as the media-focused Listen and Read, adopted successfully by the first wave of new apps like Spotify (which has added 4 million users since f8) and Yahoo (which has enjoyed a sixfold increase in referrals). Developers like Facebook store builder Payvment think these new Actions will better suit commerce and shopping than Likes, while others like Foodspotting expect them to broaden the type of activities people use their apps for. Even if generating transactions on a social network remains a challenge, Facebook’s new tech seems to be gaining developer attention. Ticketmaster’s new app even mashes up Actions to present concert information based on listening behavior, a smart idea.
My GigaOM Pro colleague Greg Sterling wonders if Facebook is poised to challenge Apple and Google in app stores. Facebook’s app ecosystem has already produced Zynga, a bigger company than Apple’s biggest star, Rovio, but I would estimate Facebook’s yearly take from virtual goods sales is measured in the low hundreds of millions of dollars, while Apple’s apps and music sales approach $1 billion a quarter. That is partly a function of app volume, but, just as important, Facebook lacks a store or marketplace to focus app discovery and sales.
Facebook told Sterling that a marketplace “would probably make sense at some point.” OK, but pointing to apps from an About menu link is no substitute. Right now, Facebook depends on Likes and frictionless sharing by friends to drive app discovery. Facebook filters a very limited number of app activities into a user’s news feed: Users spend the plurality (27 percent) of their Facebook time there, but Facebook doesn’t want to clutter or spam their major communications stream. The company is adding features to display app activity on profile pages, where users spend 20 percent of their time. In other words, Facebook is working hard on viral app discovery among friends, but it has a weak story for a user who wants to explore related interests outside his own circle of friends.
What Facebook needs is an app store with the necessary merchandising. Facebook should copy Apple, Amazon and Best Buy. That means featured products, apps ranked by category and popularity, sortable consumer ratings and reviews, and a merchandiser’s “editorial” voice as well as algorithmic promotion, sales on virtual goods, and so on.
Facebook’s marketplace should also do something that the others don’t. It should emulate paid search listings and enable developers to buy prominent promotional positioning via auction. Sure, that entails some serious effort, but Facebook has tons of user behavioral and preference data it could use to enforce paid link relevance to eliminate scams, spam and irrelevant promotions. This would be bold app store differentiation, and perhaps Facebook is nervous about appearing to be “for sale.” But paid promotions aren’t payola if they are transparent and fair, with enforced relevance.
An effective apps marketplace would accelerate the growth of Facebook’s ecosystem and add revenues for Facebook and for developers. With its expanded Actions that crucially work outside the Facebook site, Facebook could effectively extend its marketplace web-wide and build momentum for a potential mobile network.