Facebook’s many flops are key to its success

Tony Wagner Dec 8, 2015

Remember Facebook Rooms?

The anonymous chat app was supposed to be Facebook’s answer to Whisper or YikYak, a throwback to the AOL chatrooms of yesteryear. After a bit of media attention it peaked at 81 on Apple’s app store charts before quickly tanking. It’s closing down for good this month, along with the part of the company that created it, Facebook Creative Labs.

“It’s not like these apps are completely a waste of time for Facebook,” said Debra Williamson, an analyst with EMarketer. “But I think as standalone experiences they’ve been rather underwhelming.”

Facebook produced not one, but two Snapchat competitors. A rush job called Poke back in 2012 and Slingshot, a photo messenger that went through several iterations before getting pulled from the app store earlier this year. The Instagram-like Facebook Camera and video app called Riff also flopped. Yet another photo sharing app, Moments, has fared better, holding steady near the top of the iOS photo charts since late summer. 

“It just tells you how scattershot their app strategy has been,” Williamson said. “They’re launching these things and throwing them against the wall and so far not much has stuck.”

A few years ago the company tried to remake its own News Feed into a cleaner, newsier freestanding app called Paper, but it hasn’t taken off. Just four months after launch ComScore clocked it at 119,000 monthly active users — the company disputed that number — several orders of magnitude less than Facebook. Several more features, like Groups, Page Manager, Ad Manager and others have been uncoupled from the main Facebook app, with varied success.

The company says it’s not going to stop making free-standing apps, just not under the Creative Labs brand. So why couldn’t a company with more than a billion users — and tons of their data — make an app that takes off? That’s not always the point, Williamson said.

“Every experiment that they’ve done, every app they’ve launched, even if they pulled it, they found some way to learn from it, and some aspect of that app is probably lurking around in some other feature,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any downside to Facebook doing this kind of experimenting, I think it’s good and it’s healthy.”

Take Paper, for example. The app’s team and ideas were ported directly into an important new feature: Instant Articles. The Facebook-integrated news stories are provided by partners like Buzzfeed and the New York Times. They’re made more immersive, fast and user-friendly by code directly descended from Paper, and the effects are rippling through digital publishing. Not bad for an app that hardly anyone used, and far from unusual.

Traces of Creative Lab apps have appeared in ways large and small on Facebook itself — from tiny animations to full-blown functionality.

“[SlingShot] was launched as the company was doing a lot with messaging, says Ross Rubin, senior director of industry analysis at the app store research firm AppAnnie.  “Aquiring Instagram, acquiring WhatsPpp and obviously having Snapchat on its radar. Even though that app has not enjoyed the level success those app has have, it provides an opportunity to try some new things, perhaps reach out to a new demographic, try some new user interface conceptualization and study user behavior.”

So there’s a benefit to honing new features with a very small audience, especially as social media users report apps are becoming too bloated and complicated. You can see some DNA from the standalone apps in Messenger. With over 700 million active users, it’s really the only unqualified success Facebook has had.

The company pushed all those users to Messenger by disabling messaging on its core app. Then it gave Messenger a bunch of new features centered around photos, video, e-commerce and more. Suddenly, Facebook has an app that can compete directly with Microsoft’s Skype and Google’s Hangouts. That can be important in China, Rubin said, which doesn’t have a large dedicated Android app store like Google Play.

Acquiring WhatsApp last year gave Facebook an advantage accross Africa. Wired reported Tuesday that WhatsApp accounts for about 11 percent of web traffic there, double that of Facebook itself.

Facebook is turning Messenger into a platform of its own, making it resemble the China’s WeChat and other popular overseas messaging apps. These apps haven’t taken off in quite the same way in the U.S., but abroad they’re huge. Facebook has already built some spin-off apps on that work with Messenger, and it’s testing a virtual assistant that lives inside it. 

“WeChat is kind of the gold standard for functionality and utility in an app. You can do everything from hail a taxi to pay your electric bill using WeChat, which sounds really strange,” Williamson said. “I think the idea is to learn from the kinds of functionality and WeChat offers and see what can be built or bolted onto Messenger or WhatsApp.”

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