How Facebook Kept Its Users Coming Back

Facebook is by far one of the most fascinating web phenomena of the past few years. It came in with a service that fulfilled the exact same purpose as Friendster and MySpace were already offering millions of users. And not everybody could use it for the first few years!

So how did the site go from obscurity to being one of the top used web services? Aside from a clean, user-friendly design, and an isolated network system, there are two distinct trends that seem to be very successful.

Gradual rollouts. What seems like an odd business choice is one that has proved successful for many web sites. By making the service available to a select group, it creates hype and a feeling of unattainability. By making Facebook only available to college students, it created a sense of exclusivity, which really gave it the reputation of “the place to be.”

By the time they opened registrations to high school students and eventually everyone, its userbase had grown immensely and people were already locked in to the social network.

I can think of one other web site whose gradual rollout was immensely successful: Google’s Gmail. Its invite-only system was a twist on the idea of selective availability, but it did well to control the population and to create hype. I can still remember a point when Gmail invitations were going for $20 or $30 a piece on eBay.

Email notifications. The other less discussed key to Facebook’s success was its email notifications. What better way to keep users coming back to your site than to target the one place on the computer that users check daily?

I still can’t fathom how Facebook got away with this, but its users were trusting enough to give their addresses and willing to put up with multiple emails a day, with no way to turn them off.

Not long ago, Facebook implemented a site-wide notification system and finally allowed you to turn off email notifications, but by that time, the majority of Facebook users were checking the site at least once a day anyway.

Facebook was persistent in getting its users to come back, and it really paid off. I bring up the issue of email notifications because I see Digg has just recently implemented email notifications for its new Facebook-like profiles that are enabled by default. But at least Digg has the decency to offer disabling those notifications right off the bat.

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