Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Early Adopter Problem: To Techcrunch or Not to Techcrunch

Any site that has a social component has to face the early adopter problem. The early users on your site will determine the size, growth, demographics, and culture of your site. As the creator of a site with any social component, you must take this into consideration.

If I was the CEO of a company that had a social component, I'd weigh the consequences of bringing the early adopter/Techcrunch crowd into the fold before the culture of your site has been strongly established. Getting a few thousand early users fast could cost you hundreds of thousands of users later on.

Below are some examples of the effect of early adopters on social networks.

Friendster - Example 1 - Demographics
Take for example, Friendster, yesteryear's favorite social network. Most of Friendster's audience is in the Philippines. Why? Because of one early user (no.91) on Friendster named Carmen. She's a Filipino hypnotherapist living in San Francisco with a lot of Filipino friends.
So what's the problem? Friendster can't monetize Filipino users, but they take up a significant share of Friendster's resources. Obviously, this observation does not speak to Friendster's downfall which has been covered quick well elsewhere, but I find it an extremely compelling example of the unforeseen effect early users have on a social site.

Myspace - Example 2 - Culture
Myspace has always been dominated by casual acquaintances. It was voted the #1 social network to meet a random hookup. People try to accumulate the most friends in hopes to appear more popular, accepting invitations for people they never met. Reminds me of partying in LA. And surprise, surprise, Myspace gathered their earliest users by throwing parties in LA and inviting the partygoers to signup for Myspace. In this example, the entire culture of Myspace was the result of early promotional activities. Myspace did not target the early adopter crowd. In fact, early adopters generally abhorred Myspace for its poor technology and ugly layouts. As a result, Myspace's culture ended up being defined by users that more closely reflected the mass audience then the typical early adopter, and I believe that contributed greatly to its success with the mass audience.

Digg - Example 3 - Size and Growth

Digg's ultimate size is limited by its appeal to a niche audience. Okay, so this one is a prediction rather than an example. Digg's growth is going to peak soon, if it hasn't already. Why? Follow me on this. Digg users are techies (err...I mean heavily educated males/females). There's a limited supply of techies, and by now we've all heard of Digg. Kevin Rose introduced techies into the system early by debuting on The Screensavers, a TechTV program. However, this was a calculated choice as the management intended to appeal to techies, assuming that they would get better growth out of the box. Techies provided the early content which attracted more geeks. Feedback loop. Now techies dominate Digg and it would be impossible to change that without alienating them. Unfortunately for Digg, most people don't care about DVD encryption, programming languages, or Star Trek.

As a company creating a massive multiplayer online game, we've been thinking a lot about who would provide the ideal early users, the users that will define our culture. It's not an easy choice. The key is to define the audience you want to ultimately reach. In our case, we're reaching for a broad userbase, so attracting early adopters may be counter-productive. It may take us longer to grow initially, but in the long-term we'll be able to growth larger. I think it's a worthwhile compromise, especially if you're building a company for long-term growth and not just a quick flip to a larger company.

Ironically, I'm sure every single reader of this blog is an early adopter. I write a blog about startups, the games industry, and make frequent Techcrunch reference. Typical early adopter fodder. Gulp. I hope you all will forgive me for not handing out beta invites.