Unlocking Viral Secrets On Facebook: MIT Study

A rare randomized study on Facebook by MIT shows how different marketing strategies perform.


Brands can increase the number of people who install their Facebook apps by 400% through a combination of private and newsfeed messaging, according to a new MIT study. The effectiveness of different Facebook strategies was determined by randomly giving users of Facebook apps different experiences and observing how activity spreads throughout the network. Researchers found the winning strategy to be up to two times more effective than email, and 10 times more effective than banner ads. Here's how it all breaks down.

Passive Vs. Active

After gaining rare access to an actual business about to launch a Facebook app, Professor Sinan Aral of NYU and MIT and Dylan Walker of NYU were permitted to randomly assign two versions of the product and record user network activity. (The brand, whose name has been anonymized, created an entertainment app where users share information about movies).

In the "passive" broadcast version, the app would automatically post to a user's newsfeed as they interacted with the product, such as declaring their favorite movie or writing a scathing movie review. In this version, new user adoption jumped 246%, compared to a version in which broadcast messaging was disabled.

For the "active-personalized" version, which combined passive broadcasts with a prompt to send personalized direct messages to friends (such as, "Hey! check out my new favorite app"), overall adoption was 344% higher (or a 98% bump over the broadcast version). Thus, adding a personalized message feature substantially increases adoption (three times more effective per message), but because fewer users will bother to send the message, adding personalized messages produces less of a bump than passive alone.

Aral also tells Fast Company that passive messages are the quickist way to drive adoption (3.17 days to first adoption, compared to 4.77 days for personalized messages), but users will be 7% less active with the product. "Passive features are better for spreading a product widely and for quick adoption. Active features, on the other hand, are better for building a loyal customer base and make a product stickier," Aral says.

Email Vs. Banner Ads

Aral's viral strategies are up to 10 times more effective than banner ads in converting users and around twice as effective as email advertising. He also writes that "notifications and invites also vastly outperform the ad campaign used in our recruitment phase on Facebook," meaning that, for this particular product, there was little need for a traditional banner ad campaign to generate an existing base of users.

However, the paper cautions that for some products, especially those with small user bases, some paid ads may be necessary to shore up a group of early adopters.

Deeper Insights

Viral strategies have consequences beyond mere adoption. Active-personalized messages increased the frequency and duration of use. So, for instance, if Barack Obama or Mitt Romney are looking to secure the most amount of committed users inside of a campaign app, personalized messages might be the way to go. If, on the other hand, a movie trailer app just wants to spread awareness, broadcasting-type messages would seem more lucrative.

Trade-Offs and Experiments

Aral tells Fast Company that there's a trade-off between broadcast and personalized messages. "The cost of passive features is the annoyance factor of spammy interaction," he says.

Brands should be weary of the unmeasured impact of clogging up users' news streams with advertisements. This might not mean much for an unknown startup just trying to get attention, but a brand like Coke or Pepsi has to think long term about how they are perceived.

Facebook has since blocked some of the broadcast powers of applications to rein in the spam, but app developers such as Zynga have found workarounds).

Given that social media policies and platforms are ever-changing, Aral's study is perhaps most useful in thinking about how brands themselves could experiment with viral strategies. Randomizing versions pinpoints what works, what doesn't work, and how to improve—instead of choosing one strategy and praying it was better than all of the others.

Follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter. Also, follow Fast Company on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user eviltomthai]

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  • Invisibleinkdigital

    One wonders whether the active-personalization approach is legal in those nation states where privacy laws are protected e.g. Germany. My understanding is that whilst a user in Germany can opt in to a brands messaging, if they receive a message from a Facebook friend containing a personalized message from a brand that would be deemed a breach of privacy laws protecting the individual. Certainly food for thought for agencies and Social media managers.

  • Business Search

    In one of our franchise, the only available marketing strategy is all about
    social media and stuff. Boy, its as easy as 1,2,3!

  • Martin Fitz

    quote.."We must do away with the absolutely notion that everybody has to earn a living." unquote

    Oh really?  hmmmm,  Can you please convince my mortgage holder..or make my house payment for me....PLEASE!!

    quote.It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest.unquote

    Oh, in that case, I'm sure Bill Gates or Mark Zuckface or one of the other 1% of the population who control 60% of the worlds wealth will make the payment instead. Yahhoooooeeee!!

    ummm, except  that pesky "capable" carries no authority to MAKE THEM. So, could you please convince them instead. I'm absolutely convinced they will listen to you. After all, you seem to have some kind of intellectual big stick that will do the trick.

    quote....The true business of people should be to go back to school and think
    about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came
    along and told them they had to earn a living." unquote

    WOW !!!  Brilliant!

     OK! I'm gonna quit my job today, and sign up for my new free schooling.  Btw, could you please post your address so I can have all my bills sent to you?

    note to self....file under:

    ....."more BIG BANG OF STUPIDITY.......   ummmm, no, instead, file under...

    ..."wait...wait...don't tell me"

  • ahmet sibdial sau

    We must do away with the absolutely notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

  • Kirk Gillon

    As social media evolves, Facebook in particular, I feel most will see it's not just about socializing, but a real valid platform for marketing a company or product. Kirk Gillon.

  • Ellen O'Brien

    Interesting, though I think that there are vast differences between viral adoption when an app is B2C vs. B2B. As Facebook evolves it will be interesting to see user attitudes shift toward a more utilitarian view of it as a useful, not merely social platform.