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Why Social Features Matter Again in Mobile Games

Mobile game social sharing features

Social invites were once the cutting edge of the game industry. Zynga, Playdom and Wooga grew to hundreds of millions of players in weeks, using Facebook’s sharing features to push invites virally across the huge social network. But things changed. Facebook clamped down on sharing, causing leading games on its platform to plateau, and mobile took the lead in growth.

Nowadays, games built by some of the largest mobile developers often lack built-in social features—no invites, no friending, no chat. Developers simply have too many other higher-priority features to focus on, not least of which is making a game fun enough to retain and monetize players.

But as user acquisition costs continue to rise, there’s good reason to put more effort into social: it’s one of the few low-cost user acquisition methods left.

Wooga Diamond Dash Facebook social mobile game

Image via Wooga

K-Factor, and why it matters

Developers who track social invites usually refer to “k-factor,” a term used to describe a game’s growth rate that stems from medical epidemiology—hence the phrase “viral marketing.” K-factor is calculated as invites sent per player multiplied by the conversion rate from those invites. For example, if players send 10 invites each, and two percent of those invites convert, the K-Factor is 0.2.

Any k-factor over one is a massive win, but more realistic numbers are usually under 0.5 these days. Still, getting an additional 0.5 socially-invited players for each one you acquire through ads is still a win. When you’re paying $5 or more per user, you’re effectively saving dollars per acquisition with high social sharing.

Optimizing social for growth

The challenge is getting a k-factor greater than zero. To do that, devs should focus on making the design of invites easy and attractive for users. Not in the Facebook circa 2008 way—that involved deceptive pop-ups. Think more along the lines of more rewarded video ads, in which users feel there’s a clear benefit to sharing.

In-game, devs should offer users a clear button to click, a call to action and an incentive for completing that action. Then, once the user has selected a social app to share on, that app should load with a message written by the developers. Both the in-game buttons and the message can be optimized for clicks and conversion.

Zynga FarmVille one Facebook social game screenshot

Image via Zynga

Getting the social integrations right is also key. Users often rebel when forced to authenticate with Facebook, and otherwise authentication rates can be low. That’s a real problem if sharing is dependent solely on Facebook. The answer may be adding more options—chat apps such as WeChat, WhatsApp, Viber and Snapchat. These apps have hundreds of millions of users each.

According to Amsterdam-based GetSocial, which offers devs an SDK to make linking social apps easy, WhatsApp alone accounts for over 40 percent of all invites it sends in the West. In Asia, the best networks are WeChat for China, Kakao for South Korea, and Line elsewhere in Asia, and their conversion rates are higher than those of Western chat apps.

“We’re converting between 18 to 30 percent of the invites players send, and have seen retention go up over 20 percent as well,” says Adam Palmer, the CEO of GetSocial.

Adding other social features

Social doesn’t stop at invites. There are a variety of in-game social features devs can implement that may not help with growth, but usually make a big difference in KPIs like retention. These can include global chat as seen in MZ’s games, friending as typically seen in Asian games like Puzzle & Dragons, or guilds and groups, user-to-user communication—anything that will help players feel a sense of social involvement.

Puzzle and Dragons mobile game friend list friending

Image via GungHo

Adding these features can take time. With many other game mechanics to focus on, devs may not be able to prepare social features for launch day. Instead, Palmer recommends starting with the easiest features. One of these is adding an activity feed (think of a mini-Facebook). This allows players to post after specified actions, like a boss battle result, and also lets developers freely post updates and messages. “Players that are engaged love to share,” Palmer says. “And the developers now have the capacity to keep players in their app when they have complaints, not leaving negative reviews.”

In these days of low organic traffic and high acquisition costs, anything devs can do to bring in more free players, or keep the existing ones around, could make the difference between failure and success. So while the glory days of Facebook games may never return, it’s time to give social another look.