Deciphering digital – Facebook Apps

What is a Facebook Application?

It’s a website. That’s it. Facebook passes information to the app/website about the person that’s looking at the site and then pulls the page we send back into a frame within their own page, so it looks like part of Facebook. This allows for some very deep user experiences within Facebook. Your customers can participate in a promotion on a tab on your fan page, or even play games with their friends. They can do anything on a Facebook app that they can do on a website, and it’s easier because they don’t have to log in repeatedly.

So how do you decide if you should have a Facebook app?

You might be surprised to hear this from the technology guy, but this isn’t a technical question at all. Ask yourself, ‘What behaviour do I want from my customers?’ Although they’re both websites, users perceive and interact with Facebook apps quite differently from standalone websites. This is the nature of social networks.

In a Facebook application, users are generally interested in getting in and out quickly. Their friends are chatting with them, they’re playing games, they’re commenting on their friend’s check in at their ex-boyfriend’s house (oh snap!), and they’re looking at pictures of the beautiful scrambled eggs that their mother had for breakfast all at the same time. They’re not likely to be 100% focused on your message or campaign. If you want them to have a long experience with your Facebook app it needs to be a lot more compelling than, ‘Here are some products and logos for you to click on’. You want to immerse them in a gaming or storytelling experience to fully engage them.

In the context of a website, your users are expecting to engage with your brand for a bit longer. You’re not competing for their attention because they’ve come directly to you to have a discussion with your brand.

That’s why this isn’t a technical decision, it’s about marketing strategy. Who are you trying to target? What behaviour do you want from them? How are you keeping them engaged? How are you planning to sustain engagement once you get 50,000 people to like your page? The ‘Unlike’ button is just as easy to click as the ‘Like’ button.

Don’t fixate on a single platform in terms of strategy. either. Maybe you build your interaction in a website and drive traffic to it with Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, display ads and traditional media all at the same time. Maybe the best thing would be to put it all on Facebook. I can’t really say without looking at your strategy, but always remember that it’s all about the engagement you want, not the technology we use to make it happen.

So what technical considerations do I need to think about for my Facebook app?

Ok, ok. You’ve come to the geek because you want technical help. Just talking strategy falls short of the technical nitty gritty you’re after. Fair enough. There are certainly technical issues at play here.

The primary consideration with Facebook applications is support for mobile devices. Depending on the specific type of Facebook application you want to create, it might or might not be visible on mobiles. Presently, if you build a ‘Facebook app’ it is compatible with mobiles, while a ‘Facebook Page tab app’ is not. There are reasons you’d want one over the other, but just make sure you’re keeping mobiles in mind throughout the process and flagging this with your developers. Otherwise you’re excluding a massive portion of your potential audience just because they’re on their phones when they chose to engage with you.

Another thing to think about is page loading time. Users will feel that your pages are loading slower in general. This is because we’re loading more content on each page view. First Facebook loads, then an entirely separate request goes out to the application to get its contents. There are some ways to make this feel faster when navigating from page to page within the app, but the initial load time will still be longer than with a standalone website that has the same content. This might not sound like a big deal, but consider a statistic from Amazon that for every 0.1 seconds (100ms) of load time, Amazon.com lost 1% of sales. 1% doesn’t sound like much, but for a company turning over billions of dollars a year, 1% is a pretty large number. If you don’t want that cash flow, then just send me a cheque. I’ll take it off your hands for you.

Let’s consider what happens once your Facebook app goes live. Maintenance is now your concern. There are times we need to update any website to keep it working, and your app is no different. As browsers grow and change, upgrades can break features that once worked flawlessly. In a Facebook app, we also have this problem, but in addition we have changes that Facebook make to their platform that often will break the site as well.

In every Facebook application I’ve been a part of the development team on, we’ve even had changes to the platform break features mid-stream while the app was still in development. Dimensions change, causing redesigns. New Facebook features change your user flows. Facebook changes the way we do specific things in code. If you plan on having a long shelf life for your application, definitely budget to update your app as Facebook changes.

So what should I do?

Think about the behaviour and type of engagement you want from your customers. Evaluate your strategy before you worry about the tech. And finally, once you start diving into the tech, make sure you’re approaching it in a fluid and flexible way. Be open to alternative technical solutions because we’re now working within Facebook’s platform, which means working within Facebook’s rules.

 

Kevin Brown
BY Kevin Brown ON 4 October 2012
Kevin works as a technical director at Leo Burnett Sydney. Originally from the US, he now helps clients in Australia to get the most digital bang for their buck. Kevin has created accounting software, transport software, advertising campaigns, mobile applications...you name it. Twitter: @kevinbrowntech