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Facebook apps can be a great way of gaining extra exposure for your business and getting users to actually engage with your brand page.

The Guardian and Wall Street Journal are two obvious examples of brands that have taken advantage of the viral nature of Facebook apps to increase their social traffic.

Facebook calls this 'closing the viral loop', and sees it as an important part of its marketing platform.

Online photo service PhotoBox is hoping to emulate this success with its new app, Social Fab. It allows users to create personalised products using their Facebook photos.

To find out more about the challenges of creating a Facebook app, I spoke to PhotoBox managing director Lawrence Merritt...

What are the main hurdles you had to overcome with building a Facebook app?

The initial hurdle we had to overcome was to set realistic expectations and be open to failure; f-commerce isn’t a silver bullet. 

This is our third Facebook app which means we have failed in the past, but we are ok with this. 

I wouldn’t say we celebrate failing, but we do accept it on the basis that each failed attempt brings us closer to f-heaven. 

So our approach is akin to the ‘hackers way’. We iterate, iterate and iterate again. Given that Facebook is the world’s largest photo repository and sharing platform, we believe it’s worth it. 

This aside, our next challenge was to find a development house that we could trust to deliver on budget, on spec and on time.

The open graph platform is a living, breathing thing in perpetual change and for now at least, we prefer to rent the smarts versus trying to do it ourselves. 

But beware, not all partners are created equal.

How much technical knowledge is needed to build a Facebook app? Do you need specialist developers?

Building a Facebook app is certainly something we’d recommend using a specialist developer for, as we did with Social Fab. 

The nuances of the open graph platform means this isn’t the place for amateurs; there’s a lot that can go wrong. 

In the past for example, we had an app that crashed all the time, took an age to open and even longer to transfer images to us. This meant a really cruddy experience for customers. 

My advice is trust the experts to be expert, but pick them carefully.  

What level of investment does it require to build and maintain a Facebook app?

In terms of investment, there isn’t a significant difference between building an app in iOS versus a Facebook app. 

Both are distinct platforms albeit entirely incompatible, and the level of effort is comparable. 

The key in both instances is to not simply replicate the core functionality of the web. We’ve been there and done that, it doesn’t work. 

Find a singular user journey with a big focus on simplicity. Not only is this more likely to work, but an app designed like this will be much cheaper to build and maintain. 

And don’t forget that just because the app functions today, there is no guarantee it will function in the future given the dynamic nature of the platform.  

The most important thing is to allow budget for iterating. The chances are your first iteration won’t be the right one. 

Ensure you have plenty of flex to look at the data, capture the insights and go again.  Budget the ‘hackers way’.  

How much advice does Facebook offer to app developers?

Facebook does offer some advice to developers, particularly if it’s an app that’s of interest to them. 

When developing Social Fab, Facebook were very supportive as they were interested in our app, so the team offered to have internal beta testers test the app for us pre-launch. 

How big is the market for products featuring your friends’ Facebook images? Do you see these products as being big sellers, or is it more to help promote the brand through social media?

By embracing the open graph platform we’ve developed a two-way relationship with Facebook; we exist on their platform and Facebook exists on ours. 

Effectively this means you can access your Facebook photos wherever you are to create personalised products. You can do this on Facebook via our storefront or you can do this on PhotoBox with the click of a button. 

Our vision is any personalised product and our brand promise is all about ease and simplicity. 

We want it to be child’s play, even fun to create personalised products so removing the hassle of finding and using your Facebook photos was a no-brainer for us.

This year so far we’ve seen over 1m images transferred from Facebook to PhotoBox which helps validate the hypothesis that consumers will use their Facebook photos to create personalised products, but its early days. 

Social Fab is clearly a more overt attempt to prove the hypothesis. We know consumers create personalised products to celebrate their passions and connect with the people they really care about in a truly intimate way. 

We also believe that consumers will want some of the photos they share on Facebook to be immortalised in this way.  

PhotoBox occupies a highly valuable niche within the open graph.

How much of your traffic comes through Facebook? How have you seen it grow in the past year?

Currently social media in aggregate accounts for over 10% of our referred traffic and Facebook is obviously a large part of that. 

We are acquiring and leveraging our Facebook traffic in a number of ways including through paid ads, our fan page which is a vibrant community of almost 100k and now through our app. 

In terms of new customer acquisition, our biggest problem with Facebook traffic is conversion. By comparison to other DM and online channels, our CR here is anomalous. 

We are clearly attempting to fix that with new product innovations like Social Fab.

What about the other social channels? How important are Twitter and Pinterest to your business, and how does the traffic from each site differ in terms of conversions?

We can see that social media channels like Instagram and Pinterest are now growing at quite a substantial rate and as such they are of growing importance to PhotoBox.

How has the business changed since the acquisition of Moonpig? 

Our vision is ‘any personalised product’ and Moonpig is just another reason to believe that. 

The Moonpig brand and culture isn’t a copy and paste of our own, so beyond the operational synergies which we’re sweating behind the scenes, the biggest impact on the business has come from an influx of super talented people that don’t think like us, sound like us or even look like us. 

Moonpig has brought further diversity and made our collective gene pool that much more interesting. 

I learn things from my counterpart and colleagues there all the time and I believe this ability to hold multiple perspectives at the same time makes us more able to innovate more than our competitors. 

Interestingly, both PhotoBox and Moonpig have widened the gap between themselves and their relative peer groups, post the merger. 

This doesn’t always happen! I know this, from my days at Yahoo!   

There are a number of online photo businesses around, how do you differentiate yourselves from the competition?

The key here is innovation through product and technology.  We are a product lead company and believe product is king. 

Everything else is peripheral. By being a specialist and vertically integrated, this is our sole focus which means we are out-thinking, out-innovating, out-manoeuvring and out-executing our big fat competitors all day long.  

Social Fab by PhotoBox is just another example of this.   

Last but not least, I’d also like to extend an offer to all Econsultancy members:

  • Offer Code: SOCIALFAB
  • Expiry - Midnight Tuesday 31st July 2012
  • Note - Offer code can only be used once per order.

T&Cs

  • 50% Off Your Social Fab Purchase
  • This offer entitles you to 50% off any Social Fab Product when you enter the offer code at checkout. Go to www.socialfab.co.uk to order. Offer ends Midnight Tuesday 31st July 2012. Offer excludes postage.
  • Included Products: Profile Pic T-Shirt, Profile Pic Photo Mug and Facebook QR code T-Shirt.
  • Please note: This offer code can only be used once and cannot be combined with other offers or credits. All standard terms & conditions apply.
David Moth

Published 13 July, 2012 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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