Five tips for making a popular (and maybe profitable) Facebook app

The rush is on to make killer applications -- but is there more hype than money in the endeavor?

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Steve Polsky, president and chief operating officer of Flixster, is bullishly optimistic -- he believes his site can build a profitable business on top of its Facebook application. He scoffs at the question of whether the frenzy to make money off of Facebook applications is simply hype.

"We see Facebook as a very strategic platform for Flixster," he says. "For Flixster in particular, the movies vertical is one where studios spend significant advertising dollars promoting their films and are continuing to look for ways to advertise more directly to their audiences. Flixster is already in the process of building a large business through our Facebook application, enabling studios to directly target their movie fans."

Other developers feel it's too early to gauge whether there is serious money to be made from Facebook applications. "I'm trying to remain cautiously optimistic," says Blake Commagere, who has helped to create several Facebook applications. "I'm not as bold as some of the people that will claim 'Application XYZ is worth $10 million.' I won't dispute that there is value in a lot of these apps. But $10 million is a lot of money."

Price says he doubts that his My Room application would have become popular had he and its co-creator devised it from the beginning to make money. "We do not believe that if it was ad-based and focused on generating revenue we would have achieved the growth we have. We have considered ways to generate revenue, but currently we are consumed with the effort to make our users happy," he says.

His advice to others interested in making a Facebook application? Build something for the love of it. "In the end, receiving e-mails from users who share your same love for what you built is very satisfying," he says.

Third-party developers offer the following tips on how to make a popular application for Facebook:

1. Target the friends list

One of the biggest draws of developing an application for Facebook is the unprecedented access to the social networking site's massive user base -- its so-called "social graph." Developers can reach a broad audience with very little effort.

"Typically, software developers struggle to get anyone to use their products, regardless of how useful," says Haroon Mokhtarzada, CEO of Freewebs, which created the medieval fantasy game Warbook (requires Facebook registration to view) for Facebook.

Warbook invites you to
 
Warbook invites you to "Control a kingdom, build an army and conquer your friends!" (Click image to see larger view.)

So the developers of the most successful applications say to exploit the social "interconnectedness" of the Facebook user base. It can be used to target the demographic you want to "sell" your application to.

"Facebook doesn't give you all the different social graphs of data that it has," Commagere explains. "The friends list is the most readily accessible one, but many others can be calculated. I could construct a query against Facebook servers that determines 'friends that love movies.' I can do things with the results of that query, like encourage [the user] to interact with these friends through an app that features movie-related stuff, like 'Send a movie quiz to these three friends because they love movies like you!' What you can typically query is always a subset of the friends list."

2. Make it sticky

Create an application that encourages people to interact with it frequently -- something that is useful, fun or addictive by design. Applications that are "set and forget" (such as one in which the user simply puts together a list of favorite friends, movies, music or other items) can quickly fall into disuse.

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