Using games and rewards to encourage site usage

Charles Forman from

  • Provide realtime feedback for actions.
  • Provide rewards.
  • Provide objectives through quests.
  • Level people up.

A good site will notify the user that new content is available.

  • Give the user a taste before the signup.
  • Facebook has a chat but it works very poorly.
  • Quests to complete objectives (LinkedIn has the level the user is at so they put in more information)
  • For forums, comments should show as 'new' in real time.
  • Allow people to easily communicate with eachother (IRC on the content page)

Problems with real time communication and data:

  • Concurrency - one problem is that if you show how many users are on a site, you'd be surprised how low it is - which makes it seem like nobody is there - a ghost town.
  • Game breakers - if the game breaks, most people will simply leave forever.  There isn't loyalty.
  • Technical scale is an issues since online interaction increases exponentially with linear growth in users.
  • Social problems include 'griefers' who just make life miserable by screwing with other people on the system.  Racists, bigots, etc...  In real time interaction, it's hard to have aggressive filters.  The ability to leverage somebody's status against them helps though.  If somebody has a status of 20, you can threaten termination for being a griefer.
  • Race conditions are problems on real time sites - this is a design issue and probably isn't a major problem for social network coordination sites.
  • Poor design that prevents easy initial use is a major problem.

Web 2.0 Keynote from Tim O'Reilly, Clay Shirkey, and others

These are notes from O'Reilly's talk.  Clay Shirkey's talk was very interesting (about privacy) but I only did the first half as it was hard to sum up in words and he didn't have a thesis per se.  Mostly, what he was saying is that we don't yet have good filtering paradigms for the type of information that has become, and is becoming, available nowadays.

Tim O'Reilly: Web meets the world: We're moving away from collaboration on the keyboard.

For instance, a college student has setup the dorm washing machines to twitter their availability.  The Quake Catcher Network allows macs to be part of a distributed earthquake sensing mechanism.  Caty London is using Asterisk to allow a hydration sensor in her plants to Twiter her when they're too dry.  Photosynth (Microsoft I believe) allows photos to be made into a melange that allow synthesized images.  Whirl (and brightkite) allows users to  collaborate based on location (from iPhone, etc...).

What makes the phone company different from Google?  They both have massive data centers, data gets better, data from customers.  In a Web 2.0 world, real time user-facing services based on that data - that's not available on the phone network.  Dell has set up 'Ideastorm' to get users.  But they actually are web 2.0 from the start.  Users would request different components and that would impact the purchasing of the company at large.  This is unlike the previous PC companies that pretty much forced a premade model to the user with little user input (except the purchase itself).

For the enterprise, going 2.0 involves letting users into the back office, turning the company inside out.  Let the users influence how the company acts.


Are we living in a bubble?  Not an investment bubble, but a reality bubble?  The 'best and brightest' are working on witty Facebook apps and beer drinking games on iPhone.  In business, 'scenario planning' is a tool used to come up with possible outcomes.  Unfortunately, it's hard to anticipate all the possible scenarios.  In order to do scenario planning, you start with boundary conditions and then come up with strategies that make sense even at either side of the presumption box.

What's important is to create more value than you capture.  This is an ethos at O'Reilly.  Our new Pascal's Wager is that we have to presume that things won't work out.  We need to presume that and strive for better, not just assume that things will be better.

InSTEDD is using collective intelligence to isolate diseases.  Ushahidi is using mobile phones to coordinate disaster response in Africa.  The Berlin Airlift moved 2.3M tons on 277K flights, one landing every 2 1/2 minutes, 24 hours a day for 15 months, planes unloaded by local residents - volunteers -10 tons in 10 minutes.  It developed the modern air traffic control system even.  Benetech is another technology company helping people.  The Omidyar Network funds profit and non-profit companies. is now in a partnership with GE on clean energy.  AMEE is trying to make an open source framework for carbon trading.  Click Diagnostics is using cell phones for medical diagnostics for the rural poor.  

Organizations have to have 'big, hairy ideas'.  We must use the web to make a better world.  We must fight greater beings - if we lose, we lose decisively but we are changed.  The allegory relates to Jacob fighting an Angel on his way back to his homeland and his brother Esau.  After that fight, he became Israel and was made anew.

Clay and filtering privacy

Clay is talking about data overload.  Everybody's been talking about it though.  Is it really the same story from the last 15 years?  Is this a surprise?  Isn't information always growing?  Gutenburg, with movable type, injected information abundance.  By the 1500s, the cost of producing a book became low enough that finally, an average citizen could own more books than could be read in a lifetime.  He also introduced the problem of publishing risk.  One had to print before selling and hope that people buy.  The solution is that the publisher had to be choosy about what gets produced.  Since then, publishers had two roles - printing a copy of something AND choosing what to print.  The Internet, for the first time, challenged that by making the cost of production extremely cheap.  Nonetheless, the overload is still a problem.  The past always looks like easy street with less data and the future looks crushingly full of data.  Facebook and other paradigmatic, structural challenges to information mobility, require new forms of filtration that don't yet exist.

Getting people to sign up from Joshua Porter at Web 2.0 Expo

Joshua Porter ( gave a great presentation this morning at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York today.

Getting people to sign up on a site or app is difficult - there's a natural 'friction' that keeps people from signing up.

Real sign-up numbers from real companies:

  • 8.0%
  • 6.76%
  • 4.7%
  • 16.0%
  • 0.003%

Usability is of course one of the main factors affecting the sign-up rate.  Gmail for instance has correct tab order, they end with "" so it's clear to the user what they're creating with a login name.  Checking availability is also possible without a full submit.  The password box tells the restrictions (6 characters) and check immediately.  Security questions can be a real burden for people who are new to sign ups.  Other questions like location also deter.  "Letters are case sensitive" means very little to the common user.  In other words, Gmail does a great job but not a perfect job. forces one to fill out virtually all fields.  They do tell you what to do right on the page but the number of unnecessary data points becomes a burden - people don't want to put in what their job is just to get the paper.  Instead of saying to the user, "We are using this info to customize the paper/ads for you", they say nothing.  Even after all that, they want the user to sign up for newsletters and then for information from advertisers.

Improving the use of forms involves

  • Reduce number of fields
  • Pre-submit username check
  • Password security right on the password input box
  • Following conventions like having 'sign-in' on top right of screen
  • Have a clear privacy policy

But ... These issues are not 'sign-up'.  Sign up is in the mind.  Apathy is what drives people to not sign up.  Are they motivated enough by what you're offering to care about filling out the form?  "If ease of use were the only requirement, we would all be riding tricycles" (couldn't read the author).

"Eager Sellers, Stony Buyers" is a great article on buying.  If you are a current user of software, you typically overvalue it by a factor of 3.  If you are software maker trying to sell software by a factor of 3.  They actually think it's 3 times better than it actually is.  This is called the 9x effect whereby somebody who is already bought-in will experience a 9x overvaluation of the product when the seller is presenting it to them.

What we're asking of the user with sign-up isn't just to fill out a form, it's also asking somebody to change their behavior, give up accepted practices, jump into the unknown, trade known quantity for an unknown, and a "shift from potential to kinetic energy".

  • Motivation trumps the ease of use of the form. 
  • We need to analyze what happens before the form.
  • Product research
  • Considering the alternative
  • Learning about the product
  • Comparison with existing products
  • The user's current situation

When you are the product creator or represent that company, you know much more about the product than the user who you're attempting to convince.  We need to design for 3 visitor types.

  • I know I want to sign up (get out of the way).
  • I want to make sure this is for me (Reiterate basic value proposition).
  • I'm skeptical (convince with more thorough information).  has a great signup by having the user put the father's name and mother's name right into the signup form (they're a geneaology site).  Immediately, this explains the purpose of the information and gets buy-in. is another site.  If you haven't been there before (no cookie), you'll get an intro right off the bat.  If you've been cookied (but not a member), you'll get more of the end information without the intro information.  Another concept is that once you've created a page, there is a sign that says, "Don't lose your page, become a member now."  That is superior to just 'Sign Up'.

Instant engagement is the first and most important thing.  Show them what they're getting, don't describe or tell them.

Netflix is another great example.  The main page tells you everything right there.  "Sign up today and try Netflix for FREE!" with a whole bunch of other follow-up content and the form is right there.  In addtion, at the bottom, they give 4 tiles with the entire process of dealing with the company: Pick movies, get movies in mail, no late fees, drop movie in the mailbox.  This simple explanation is critical.  The copy uses words like "your" to show that this is how you deal with the system and "we" so it's clear who is responsible for what.  If none of that works, in the lower right there's a phone number and chat link for people that want more information.

Tripit also has a 3 pane design showing how it works.  They don't even ask for people to sign up off the bat.  Just have people forward the emails from Orbitz and that's how they start the sign-in process.  Movies and screencasts are also available - another great design element for this issue.

I won't go into the details about these sites that are poorly done:  In a redesign, it's even worse.  The login is right on the home page but people who don't know how to get a login or what the site does don't know what to do.  The login is best put in the top right.  Also, the copy is really miserable - "Get a free email ..."  The visual hierarchy is completely wrong., which does essentially the same thing has a much better sign up page (I think I'll have to check them out for invoicing).  

Social Influence is the final piece of the sign up process.  Basecamp does a great job with tons of testimonials from large brand publications and tastemakers and 'normal' people.  Jaiku and Twitter make it real obvious that the whole world is on this, now, using it.  Get press coverage on the web site.  

In fine, motivation is everything.

Social Network Monitoring

This is from Neil Patel - a smart, young branding guy 
What is a social networking?  Social networking is not just about Facebook but also about social news, bookmarking, etc... 

Social News - is a clear example of a site that allows users to 'create' the home page of news for specific people 

Social Bookmarks - allows users to publish and share their bookmarks. 

Niches - There are many social networks and 'zones' for users to congregate: political, environmentalist, etc...  Marketing through those niches has to be respectful of the niche otherwise nobody will follow the trail. 

  • Learn to follow the rules - This helps out with your reputation which is critical to getting other's to vote for you
  • Provide value through content - If the content doesn't apply to the end user, it won't work.  You can grease the wheels by helping the users (iPod for content), etc...
  • Be a part of the community - You must be part of the ongoing community related to your product.
The thing is that social network marketing is more about improving your PageRank (through links and community referrals).  If you get a ton of uniques from Digg, it will help get density with relation to your competitors - helping to show that your site overall (even if only one article was linked to) is a quality site.

VC Advice from Union Square Ventures

Right now I'm at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York (The summit in San Fran is too expensive even though I was able to snag an invitation).  The speakers are Charlie O'Donnell from Path 101 and Albert Wenger at Union Square Ventures.  Charlie is very much a networker, talks about having a thousand (real) connections on Linked In.  He seems like a nice fellow that believes in extreme openness (i.e. anti-stealth).  I definitely agree with his thinking on this.

Albert says to do a convertible note with no valuation for angels.  Also, do not give out more than 20% equity to angel investors otherwise it will be very difficult to raise any future money.  VCs are going to want 20% at least and VCs don't want to end up in a majority shareholder position because they don't want to actually run the business and the goal is to get the entrepenuer working hard for cheap - which only happens if they have alot of equity.

Albert also says to not presume that 'strategic' investors will actually be strategic - these relationships are usually founded on a hope of working together but then the major C-level executive who signed over the money in the first place usually has alot of other stuff on their plate.  It's great if you can get that money, but don't think too much of it.  Also, strategic investors may scare off future investors if those future investors are in competition with the initial strategic investor - that could cause problems from both sides.

Charlie says that pro rata rights (the ability for investors to increase their investments) are good, and most VC funds don't mind that for smaller initial investors.  The problem is if too many people have it, then it becomes a burden to get everybody to sign over their rights on the next round.

Albert is passionate about knowing that the team will need to be upgraded as the company grows.  Different types of people are needed for working on a small team of 3 versus a larger 15 person organization.  Founders often get forced out when they don't realize this and find a way to get people moved around as the company changes.


Who doesn't like cupcakes? 

These girls clearly love 'em. I know this blog is supposed to focus on the pressing issues of social networking applications and predictions markets, but I find their cupcake blog kind of interesting. 

First, here is the blog: - It is written by three people. This is a good number, one produces too few posts and more than 3 introduces a lack of focus. Secondly, each writer has her own blog, such as Nichelle Stephens' - This is very smart because it allows the writer to post about other topics without interfering with the thrust of the main blog. Nichelle Stephens, et al. are very smart cookies (pun intended). Third, even something as seemingly trivial as cupcakes wants press. They want to be on the food panel at SxSW - which of course is very smart. 

No one of them may become the next Martha Stewart. However, being the top of a niche, even a small niche like cupcakes, is critical to success. Regardless, cupcakes is big business. Fourth, they're advertising to tastemakers (I know thes puns are unbearable) on semi-related events like the Microsoft mixer for the Web 2.0 Expo. This is how I found them. Well anyway, I'm proud that New York has so much going for it, including a strong cupcake trio like Rachel Kramer Bussel, Allison Bojarski and Nichelle Stephens

I hope they get what they're looking for. One thing I hope for is better cupcakes north of 14th street. Crumbs and Magnolia bakery are garbage. Apparently Magnolia used to be good and they're not as bad as Crumbs but there's definitely room for more competition.

Domain Names

I ran across an article at Function Web Design that was written a few weeks ago. It discusses the conundrum of starting a new company in the Internet age. Everybody must have an online presence nowadays, particularly companies. is a domain I bought a long time ago because it was available and I knew when I noticed it that I should snap it up. 

It's based on an old family name which according to lore means 'Good Earth' in Danish. I haven't been able to confirm that although it does appear to have some Danish entries in Google and it appears to have some Indian meaning as well. Please comment if you know more about this. 

The irony is that when my great great grandfather came to the country, his last name was 'Nelson' (or some variation thereof) - and so was everybody else's. If you look in a phone book in the Minnesota/North Dakota/Montana region where my mother's family is from, you'll notice how many Nelsons (and Olsons for that matter) there are. Anyway, in an attempt to differentiate, my predecessors had to do the same thing people are doing today; they had to come up with an identity that would differentiate themselves.

Starting Up

I was reading this post today from Guy Kawasaki about five lessons for startups. I like reading what Guy Kawasaki has to say and this is no exception. Unfortunately, it's a brief posting but it gets the point across:
  1. Cash is king.  Enough said :-)
  2. Make progress.  Sometimes people (i.e. myself) stare at the computer screen for an hour wondering what to do.  Maybe they'll read the news but that's not going to help with step 1.
  3. Try different things. Unless the options are expensive, it's usually cheaper to do than to decide.
  4. Ignore naysayers. Better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all. That sounds like the logic of the formerly successful. Those who failed badly might say otherwise.
  5. Do unto others. I would modify this a little bit by saying that one must always understand what is being asked of another - even if one doesn't really want to do it. Empathy is the important part of the equation.
On a side note, on the right bar of Guy's post is a link to Sun's startup-friendly server program. This is a great idea because it gets people locked in early. Sun makes some of the best hardware on the planet next to IBM and HP. As any Sys Admin will tell you, Dell is the worst - but that's a different story. Unfortunately for Sun however, I think the age of normal people touching these machines is coming to an end. There has been talk of this future by people such as Nicolas Carr in his book The Big Switch

I've only read excerpts so far, but the main thrust is that we are moving to an age of utility computing in which compute power is managed by large providers such as Amazon and Google. The interesting point is that this has all happened before with electricity. In 'the beginning', electricity was generated in a power plant that would service a given factory. Only later, did larger power plants get built which would then service individuals and companies through the electrical grid. The same thing is happening with compute power that once happened with electrical power. Long story short, I'm using Amazon EC2 and I love it. When I need higher uptime (say 99.9%+), I will then set up another system on an independent utility. 

People say things to me like, "You'll lose control. There's no future in that setup." I reply simply that not only is it more efficient to have somebody else manage this, it's also more reliable. None of these utilities will ever hit 100% reliability but that can be managed just like the data center I used to work with managed power outages by having electricity come from two different grids. Don't get me wrong, utility computing is only the right option for new web sites/services. Internal systems, highly sensitive systems, and existing organizations don't yet benefit from this option. Anyway, to tie this all together, Sun is doing the right thing to get startups that aren't in the vanguard to use their introductory offers and then build a relationship over time. Maybe they'll find even better ways to monetize their customers in the future. and the future of social networks

Wow!  There's a ton going on over the past few months in the field of what I am going to call social networking applications.  Until recently, social networking advances were about communication to (and later in coordination with) other people.  Now, we're beginning to see social networking beginning the process of maturing:
  1. Shared authentication systems: These haven't really taken off yet but they're gaining ground.  OpenID is gaining traction - allowing users to use the same identity across platforms (including Yahoo!).  'Undercover' shared IDs are in use at Ning and other aggregative services that use the same ID for many networks on their platform.
  2. Aggregating services: is a neat service that acts as a communication hub for a user's online life.  It allows somebody to post to multiple networks simultaneously using the same interface.
When I look at recent history, a corollary exists in enterprise computer networks in the 90s.  When Windows first released Active Directory (AD), it was a great leap forward (in Microsoft's special way of co-opting existing technology).  AD is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol).  AD was a product first introduced by a smaller company under the name Banyan Vines.  The important part however is not this history but that it was the point at which unified identity and access privileges became prevalent in larger networks.  Previously, people would be given an individual username for their email perhaps, or the PC at their desk.  However, there was little else to govern people's movement within the network (like the ability to print, or access files on other computers).  Security was mostly aimed at keeping outsiders out and hoping that insiders were either trustworthy or not skilled enough to cause harm.  

The early days of social networking had similar issues where fake identities were common and it wasn't always clear who somebody was.  Amazon changed this by implementing their Real Name service so that you knew somebody was who they claimed to be. Facebook was founded on a similar emphasis on tending to 'real' users. In the end, alternate identities are not only unavoidable, they are necessary.  Credit cards and building passes offer insight into the future of social networks.  Typically, people have multiple credentials for purchasing goods through the credit card network, or accessing money through the ATM network, or getting into a building through that building's authorization list.  

This type of situation where you have a single prime mover (not to be too Cartesian, 'me'), associated credentials that identify the user on different networks, the ability for those credentials to be passed across network boundaries, and authorizations for each of those credentials on each network. We are only just barely able to manage credentials in a portable way.  Let's hope that OpenID or something similar to it really does gain acceptance.  Then, we need to hope that groups like become gatekeepers in a way that makes credentials portability possible.  Finally, when those two steps have been successful, the final step is for social networks to become neutral.  By neutral, I'm not implying that there won't be exclusivity or that networks won't have their own rules.  Rather, I'm theorizing that networks will be able to exchange the credentials of a prime mover without that prime mover having to be involved in the process.  This allows users to have relationships managed in a way that is isolated from themselves. This probably sounds esoteric, but this solution allows users to find other users in a much more user-controlled way.  Similarly, it also allows users to protect themselves without the help of the networks in which they participate.  

For example, in this landscape, a person's identity on one social network could find a person on another network with similar interests without either person knowing about the transaction nor with the social network itself mediating that interaction. Enough for today ... back to work on the project.