How to design your platform for self-expression [Why would a user talk about your product?]

Why would a user talk about your product? Often, it’s because your product is really cool and helped them do something that they would never have imagined possible. But users don’t want to be talking about your product all the time. A great way to ensure users keep spreading the word around without even explicitly having to talk about your product is by having your platform enable them to market THEMSELVES.

It goes without saying that people would much rather talk about themselves than about, well, an online product. Just ensure that they’re using your service to talk about themselves. Self-expression is an innate human desire and the internet provides a global audience to the expressive. Any service that allows users to A) express their creativity and B) spread the news about it in the easiest possible manner is likely to find quick adoption among users.

Help users create and market something really cool

This psychology may seem obvious in the case of, say, Youtube, which really got big when users started creating and putting up their video and getting the word around. DrawSomething is another service that grew virally by making it easy for its users to get creative. Instagram allowed users to instantly produce cool pictures using a (thus far) crappy camera and distribute them. In all these cases, virality was baked into the value proposition of the service. There was no need to artificial incentives to be layered on top of this to promote virality.

Help users create while curating

A service may not allow a user to be creative in new ways  but may still enable her to project a certain persona.  Twitter’s continued usage, by a lot of follower-intensive tweeters, is largely driven by the tweeters’ desire to act as a multicaster for news that they would want to associate themselves with. Many curation-as-creation tools like Paper.li and Scoop.it grow on a similar model. To some extent, even Groupon’s virality is partly attributable to this model (apart from the incentives and deal tipping of course) as some users like to be aware of the best deal and like to pass it on to their friends.

As sharing increases, creation in the form of curation and resharing is vastly shifting the balance and transforming consumers into contributors on a UGC network.

When users market themselves, new opportunities open up for you

According to Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org, Change.Org’s adoption took off, largely thank to a woman sitting in an internet cafe in Cape Town, South Africa who wanted the attention of the world on something she was passionate about (link). She started a petition against “corrective rape” seeking government action. The campaign amassed 170K signatures from users in 160 countries, widespread media coverage, and an offline protest in Johannesburg which eventually led to the National Task Force investigating the issue. Not only did it garner much needed support against an unwholesome practice, a single campaign from a non-celebrity catapulted the platform to global adoption.

The Flip Side… A Social Networking story

So here’s the problem with acting as a virtual showcase for users. To allow users to create and market something, the creation process should be incredibly simple. The simpler the creation and marketing, the better potential for user-driven virality. BUT on the flip side, the easier it is for users to contribute, the more noise there is in the system. And noise, can eventually undo the platform.

One of the reasons MySpace found rapid adoption was a technical glitch that allowed users to insert HTML code into their profile page and change its look and feel. Users loved it because of the ability to express themselves. Teeny Boopers who knew nothing about coding started exchanging HTML code snippets to make their profile look cool. MySpace, thrilled by the fact that users’ need for self-expression, was being met, decided not to fix the glitch. Over time, there was too much noise as every profile page looked different, ad-strewn and unaesthetic. Navigation was a nightmare. Moreover, since most users didn’t understand HTML, there were a lot of errors and broken pages across the site.This eventually led to falling engagement on MySpace.

Bebo noted what was going on and allowed users to customize using photoshop instead of HTML, which, being a lot easier, led to fewer broken pages. Customization of profile pages gradually became a trend. While it helped in self expression, it altered the essential experience of the underlying platform itself and made navigation quite difficult. Eventually, unsurprisingly, the social network that emerged victorious was one that allowed few customizations to the basic look and feel while providing new tools for self-expression.

Designing for Self-Expression

So how does one design for self expression? A few pointers to keep in mind.

1. Enable creative actions, target one-click

What are the modes of “showcase-able” self-expression on your platform. Voting is self-expression but isn’t “showcase-able”. For every creative action, minimize the number of steps. Have at least one action which is only one-click creation. Typically, sharing is one-click. Promote such actions.

2. Does it alter the underlying look and feel and consistency of the platform?

You don’t want another MySpace. For that matter, you don’t even want all the complications of Android (developers working on different versions, handsets supporting different versions). Specify what can be modified and what can’t be touched.

3. Provide easy multi-channel distribution

Provide easy distribution not just on your own platform but also on others. Make it one-click.

4. Design one-click (swipe?) sharing for the mobile

Sharing accounts for a lot of creation on the mobile.

5. Convert consumers to creators

Quora and StackOverflow use a very simple product hack to convert consumers into creators at the point of consumption. (link)

Bottomline: If you want your users to spread the word, ask yourself “What’s in it for them?” Monetary incentives are not scalable. But playing on the innate human desire to show-off, that’s just where your service may get really, really viral.

Self-expression is at the very core of why you and I spend so much time creating stuff (tweets, status updates, photos, blog posts etc.) on the internet. Why would your users be any different?

[About the Author: Sangeet Paul Choudary writes regularly on strategies for online two-sided markets: platforms, marketplaces and communities, at "http://platformed.info/" and works closely with startups in these spaces in India, Singapore and the US. Follow him on Twitter @sanguit]