The Social Media Chicken and Egg Problem

The new social media frenzy has been making it’s way across the web, and now I have become infected—I am currently developing my very first site of this kind. Social media web applications are vastly different from traditional software and web sites in the respect that they don’t rely on a pre-defined set of content and features created and provided by the developers. The real value of these sites lie in the discussion that is generated as the users communicate. This is a new kind of business model that requires a new kind of thought process.

The traditional software model goes something like:

Develop Software » Sell Software » Write Upgrade Version » Sell Upgrade » Repeat

Then came the web. The original web model was generally:

Publish Free Content » Plaster with Advertising » Repeat

Other more application-like sites then came along and were able to charge for their content or service, like:

Develop Service » Generate Paid Subscriptions » Enhance Service (through features or content) » Repeat

These models were created for tools that have a user working with the tool within a vacuum. The user can have a great experience with the tool, but he really has no idea who else is using the tool or what they think of it. Social media web applications fill the void for users wanting something more interactive where they can tap into the collective opinions and expertise of the other users of the tool.

There seems to be a lot of information out there about how to treat your existing users well; how to keep your users; how to allow your users to best use your application; how to make money off your traffic; etc. But my burning question has been… how the heck do you get the users there in the first place?

Not all social media web applications are created equal. Just to give you an idea of what I’m dealing with, my site is a professional resource that allows users within a particular field to work together, train each other, solve problems, and communicate. So this is not a MySpace where people are just there to socialize and connect. This is also not like the social aspects of Amazon, where the discussion is essentially a layer over a database of products or other items. The approach I need to take for my site is much different than the approach other developers should take for theirs.

I have brainstormed about four different approaches to solving the problem of how to get the initial user base for your web site. Different approaches, of course, need to be taken for building on an existing user base. But as far as your first group of users, here’s what I’ve got:

1. Populate Static Data to Spark Discussion

This first option doesn’t really help me for my site, but it can help in others. For example, if you were creating a site where the discussion revolved around books, you could populate your site with a database of books (I’m not sure where you would get such a database, but perhaps it is out there). The thought here is that if it is out there to be discussed, people would be more apt to discuss it.

The problem is, you’re starting at zero here. Your very first user—make that your second user (you need to be your first user)—will come and see absolutely no discussion. So what is that user’s incentive to stay? Sure, there is a sense of “I was here first” that appeals to some, but how long is user #2 going to wait for user #3 or user #100?

2. Populate With Supplemental Content

This is an approach I’m heavily leaning towards with my site. Again, my site is a professional resource for a particular field. The supplemental content we intend to provide is a training curriculum. So, even before any discussion ensues, there is already something of value available on the site.

Since this content starts off independent of the social discussion, it won’t run the risk of sounding forced, as some early discussion could sound. The curriculum is used to spark discussion for the social aspect of the site: users following the curriculum can post problems they have encountered, tips and hints, success stories, etc. The curriculum will also be editable by a yet-to-be-determined user class with certain privileges. So, the ability to contribute to what we hope will be the premier online training resource for this field could help motivate discussion in other aspects of the site.

This approach, however, can run the risk of an identity crisis for the site. Is it all about the supplemental content (in this case, the curriculum)? You have to make connections to the social aspects of the web site to make sure users know there is more available. Another downside for this is that somebody still has to be the first user to enter the social aspect and risk talking to themselves.

3. Pay for Content

I’m not sure if this approach is used much at all, but I don’t see much of a benefit. A company could hire an outside firm to pay users to contribute to the site (for example, a pay per post incentive). What this paid-for content can give you is a base of content on which to build.

However, if these users are paid, what happens to them once the incentive (money) to take part is gone? With social media sites, the value is just as much in connecting with users as it is in reading their contributions. So, if the new users see that all of these contributors have jumped ship, how does that look to new users?

4. Invite-only Extended Beta Period

What would a Web 2.0 application be without a proud “BETA” badge on it? Seriously though, the invite-only period can be a huge help. This beta period starts off with enlisting friends and acquaintances to take part in your system. These people will generally be passionate about the site—that’s why you asked them to take part. So, in that respect, they will most resemble the type of users you are trying to attract once you go live.

Starting with users that are close to you will also mean your early adopters will be more forgiving and cognizant of the “beta” aspect of the site. But including them early will give them a strong sense of ownership to the site, which is the holy grail for user experience on a social media site. You can release more invites to your users periodically, allowing them to invite their friends and acquaintances. Word of mouth is an extremely effective advertising there is. This way, the size of the user base can grow consistently with the robustness of the infrastructure and the expansiveness of the content.

Of course, there are some downsides to this approach, as with all approaches. Taking this approach assumes that you have the contacts to get it off the ground. If you’re creating a social media site dedicated to Saint Bernards but don’t happen to know any Saint Bernard owners, you have a more difficult time (though hanging out on canine message boards and blogs is a good place to start).

You also aren’t getting a good sense of the behaviors of your potential users that weren’t part of the invite process. The beta users will be more forgiving and less apt to fade in their activity. Outside users have nothing invested in the site. Will they sign up based on the home page design you are using? You forget that your beta users probably signed up without seeing the current iteration of the site.

My Approach

For my first social media site, I plan to take a combination of #2 (supplemental content—the curriculum) and #4 (invite-only beta). The beta period should be interesting, since I’m not part of the field I’m designing the site for. But I know some people who are, and hopefully together we can identify the best ways to approach that community.

If you have any more approaches, please leave a comment.


  1. On September 5th, 2006 at 9:59 pm Jeremiah Owyang said:

    Great Analysis. Another thought (which you sort of elude to in number 2) is to harness an existing social site or network and build yours as an overlay.

    Perhaps the best approach is not to focus on ‘where’s the content’ but focus on people, users, and communities. When you look hard enough, the communities will appear and the content is just an ‘output’ from these communities –people first.

  2. On September 5th, 2006 at 10:07 pm Web Strategy by Jeremiah » Web Strategy: What comes first, Content or Community? said:

    [...] Adam has a very unique analysis and viewpoint on origins of successful social media sites The Social Media Chicken and Egg Problem.  He demonstrates how previous websites have launched products, the Software lifecycle, the late 90s ad model, lists some potential scenarios for the modern social site. [...]

  3. On September 5th, 2006 at 10:11 pm Adam Darowski said:

    Ah, yes. My site I’m developing really has to focus on the “people, users, and communities” since there isn’t an established set of content to talk about, like Amazon, for example. The curriculum isn’t just something to kickstart traffic, but also something I’m very confident the community will find valuable.
    The “overlay” approach you mention also sonds like a “mashup” approach, where you’re explicitly plugging into one or more APIs of existing social media sites. This is also a viable solution, if that’s the type of tool you are creating.

  4. On September 7th, 2006 at 1:25 pm Brian Oberkirch said:

    Adam: great list here. I’d look at a constant freemium mode, where new users can come in, try the service on for size, and add value if they are motivated. Then they can always upgrade the experience, but you are accruing data, tweaking the system and gaining trial all the while.

  5. On September 7th, 2006 at 1:59 pm Adam Darowski said:

    Thanks Brian… yes, freemium will certainly get you more contributors off the bat than a paid service. You really have to avoid charging for any contributions on a social media site… what’s the point of disallowing someone to essentially work for you for free? Their contributions make your site better.

    I think what I keep getting stuck on is how likely the very first users will be to contribute if there is hardly anything there yet. Perhaps you just need a few folks that will take pride in the fact that they are among the first of what could soon be a growing community.