User acquisition: writing on a notice board vs. sending a postcard

image Getting people to your website is critical (D’uh!). New people. Old people. A constant flow of sharing and content discovery is required to succeed. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about two complementary user acquisition/engagement techniques: sharing via the stream (passive) and instant messaging (active) (I don’t cover email which is another huge topic).

Which one has the biggest impact on your web site? In this post I review the typical relationships between people and drill into each of these flavors as ways to generate qualified referrals.

An example of where these could be used together is MapMyRun: when I complete a run I like to get my time etc. posted into my twitter so all my followers can see. I usually also send an instant message to my friends who run and talk about the course, time and perhaps organize a run. This drives awareness for MapMyRun and allows people to click through to see the details.

Caring about sharing is good business

User generated actions which are syndicated to other sites/services can have a big impact on user acquisition and engagement. By allowing users on one site to share their actions with another service, the reach of people who see (awareness) and take interest (acquisition) is increased.

Ego powered friending frenzies don’t encourage influence

The better you know someone, the more likely you are to do what they suggest. When it comes to sharing content/actions online with other people, the sharer is asking the recipient(s) to do something (usually click through to see the detail).

As a result, some services encourage ego powered friending frenzies. The result is very loose relationships between people you barely know, don’t really care about, and who haven’t earned your trust. If these one of these pseudo friends asks you to do something you take it with a grain of salt.

My experience is: the friends I form relationships with in many different contexts make me behave differently. For example a friend I instant message with is different to someone I’ve friended in a social network, which is different to someone who’s commented on my blog etc.

If you are a celebrity and you have a TON of followers, writing something to your stream is very powerful. If you aren’t Ashton but have a ridiculous number of friends, do they care about your entries or are they noise?


Call me anytime, I actually know you

The people who connect with my over instant messaging are generally less in number and long time friends, not just acquaintances (in most cases, not all). Allowing a person to see when I’m online/offline and giving them the ability to get my attention anytime is convenient, but more importantly it means I trust them.

As a result, the behaviors that happen over instant messaging are generally self-regulating. If I always send a message to someone and they never respond, I’m likely to stop. If I send a message to someone and they’re always engaged (click through etc.) I’m likely to do it more often. Where there is a will there is a way, abuse is something you need to deal with: don’t be afraid to ignore (like screening a call) or block if required.


Floating down the stream (passive)

Most web sites which have a desire for viral user acquisition have the ability to publish to a stream. This piece of content is then made visible to the large number of people that I’m friends with (or are following me) in other experiences on the site, or in experiences managed by other services. Writing to the stream is an untargeted shotgun style broadcast.

When something is written to a stream it allows many people to see the content in an ambient manner. For people to connect with the content, they need to be in the right place at the right time and have strong filtering skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It’s temporal. Streams constantly move, when I wake up in the morning I scroll back a few hours in my stream to see what’s happening, I don’t rewind the actions back to the last thing I viewed.

A benefit of writing something to the stream is that the content is archived. If the stream is searchable it’s easy to see trends and find historical information. If I respect someone a lot and think they share great content I can easily view the things they’ve been doing in one place.

Sharing via instant messaging (active)

When I find something interesting I think one of my friends would care about, I usually have a friend (or a small) group of people in mind. Instant gratification comes with my Generation Y’ness – I share something with the people I know is available and cared about it to discuss with me.

This type of interaction can be delivered via instant messaging.

  • Who is online right now? (presence)
  • Are they likely to respond? (my knowledge)
  • Sending them the link
  • Sending some commentary and discussing

When you receive an instant message because of the deeper relationship between the participants the natural behavior is to respond. If for some reason you don’t want to respond you can always “screen” the conversation (similar to a phone call from someone you are avoiding).




Make the discussion real-time, natural and persisted

The conversations I have in instant messenger related to content are verbose and often lead down many different paths. With the caveat of being clearly made aware of what is happening: imagine being able to capture these rich real-time discussions and store them with the original content. The content of the discussions could be searched and read by others. Friend-feed is part of the way there in terms of real-time conversations, but the interaction is somewhat unnatural for the hundreds of millions of people who have instant messaging applications on their computers.


Sharing content is a weapon in the battle for user attention. There are many different ways of sharing content, all are complementary.

  • Publishing to a stream/feed allows me to share this with many of my friends/acquaintances on another service but is untargeted and facilitates ambient discovery of content.
  • Sending content via instant messenger is very focused to people who I believe will care about the content and facilitates active discovery of content.

If you want to plug into the largest IM network in the world, check out the Windows Live Messenger Web Toolkit (interactive SDK) and watch this space for real world implementations.



Angus Logan

Senior Technical Product Manager


This was a cross post from my blog


Comments (1)

  1. Richard says:

    Bug report:

    Live Messenger will be blocked, downloading a new auto-display message when it starts. It should be done in two threads seperately. I live in Paris and this affected my experience a lot.

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