Monday, April 28, 2008

Where are the avatars on Facebook?

It doesn't appear that the Facebook audience cares much for avatars. While there are quite a few avatar applications, none have much traction. Avatar sites like (over one million unique visitors a month) have a massive and loyal following, so clearly it's not that avatars lack appeal. So why hasn't there been a breakout hit on Facebook?

Before I speculate on that, here's a list of the avatar-related applications I was able to find (from most popular to least popular):

Custom Cartoon Personality (7,063)
The most popular of all Facebook avatar apps is nothing more then a lead generation page for Zwinky, the notorious avatar software/spyware.

StyleSlam (5189)
From Ebay? Who knew that eBay was building Facebook apps, let alone avatar creation tools. To be honest, I couldn't test this because the Flash client never finished loading.

Burn Alter Ego (1504)
A very nicely done advergame from Coke. Coke has really been at the forefront of the virtual world phenomenon (Virtual Coke Studios), so it's no surprise they've created this stylish avatar application.

Meez Roomz and Games (201)
From Meez, a company that has combined casual games with 3D chat. This is purely a lead generation tool, its pushes you out to the Meez site as soon as possible.

IMVU Avatar (36) -
Another lead generation tool, this time for IMVU, the 3D chat application. I've always liked IMVU, it offers a rich 3D environment for chatting - basically a virtual world, without all the useless space.

Gaia OMG (616) -
Yet another lead generation tool, this one for Gaia Online, basically, a virtual world without the virtual(though that's changing as they have a full-blown casual MMO in the works).

Mini Me (136)
Despite myself, I liked the simple cartoony feel of this app's avatars. Evidently, not many other people did. Feels homegrown, and not just another lead-gen tool. But not very compelling.

I'm sure, I missed some, so feel free to add reviews of ones I missed in the comments.

All right, now for some speculation:

So why hasn't there been a truly successful avatar application on Facebook?

1. You're really you on Facebook. In most situations where avatars are successful, users are masking their identities. From virtual world to forums to chat rooms, users opt to hide behind pseudonyms rather then use their real names. If you're trying to remain anonymous, yet still reveal your personality, customizable avatars are an excellent mechanism. On Facebook, the vast majority of people provide their real names and use real pictures to represent themselves. Avatars are unnecessary.

Having said that, even in the absence of utility, avatars can be a fun way to express yourself, and self-expression is a key value of socnets users, so while I don't see an avatar app reaching Top Friends levels, I would expect some more traction. The following reasons address why the current crop of avatar apps haven't seen much success.

2. Avatar applications don't encourage repeat usage. I customize my avatar once and I'm done. Unless, I'm motivated to repeatedly update my avatar is some way, I will rarely return. Unlike a turn-based game, I don't need to return daily to check in on my avatar. This problem is easily solved by adding elements from the virtual pets type games. If your avatar needs to be fed and taken care of then you'll return frequently.

3. It's all lead-gen. The goal of most of the well-done avatar apps is to drive you from Facebook to another property. That's not the way to grow a Facebook app.

4. No virality. None of the existing avatar applications have any viral hooks build into them, except the common "Here's 50 coins if you add a friend" invite page. It's not surprising that they haven't gained a larger reach.

Someone will get this right eventually, there's too much money at stake, hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on avatar customization worldwide this year.