Social Networks vs User Acquisition – or – How I Learned To Love Email and SMS

Facebook connect is awesome. Your app gets all your user’s friends.

Right? Wrong.

Somehow a year after the change, app developers don’t understand the data they get from Facebook connect.

ride the bomb

Start with a History Lesson.

In the early Web 2.0 days of Plaxo, LinkedIn, and, contact importers were killer. Users would import their whole address books and send everyone an invite. Back then, getting an email to a new service was interesting, so the conversion rates for bulk uploads weren’t terrible.

Then starting in 2007, Facebook opened up their platform. This meant that apps could have users send requests to friends right on Facebook. The Facebook platform was a viable user acquisition channel.

You might remember this as a really shitty user experience. No I don’t want a fucking tractor in Farmville, Bob from high school — we haven’t spoken in years.

This was really, really effective to get lots of users to apps. Apps that focused on a great user experience and solid retention did especially well. The requests doubled as a re-engagement mechanism to get users back into the app, boosting acquisition and retention.

Then in 2009 Facebook decided to pull back from this. I worked at Facebook at the time, and it was a clusterfuck. The request channel no longer as permissive, no little red jewels catching your eye. Large networks like Zynga were already popular, but new apps couldn’t rely on users aggressively inviting friends through Facebook.

Meanwhile, Dropbox’s referral program was setting a good example of another way to get users. Email was the most popular channel. Dropbox built an amazing app where people wanted to tell their friends, and the referral program just made it easy and incentivized.

In 2010, Facebook launched a “Like” button. This meant liked apps could put content in a user’s newsfeed to re-engage the user. Plus syndicating when a user liked something meant friends would see it. Both are weaker forms of the request channel, but offered the same benefits to growth marketers. Most people still don’t understand like buttons and assume a like is as valuable as, say, an email on a list. It isn’t.

Then in 2011 Facebook announced a general version of like with “social graph actions”. Any app could compose a sentence like “[User] [verbed] [noun]”. This was most striking with video, as in “Ivan watched Fail Compilation on SocialCam”. That activity was syndicated to the Facebook News Feed, and apps could acquire huge volumes of users. Those users would have “Instant Connect” so they’d be signed in to a Facebook experience just by visiting the site.

Literally millions of users could be acquired in a weekend. See stories like this one.

This turned out to be like friend requests: spammy in the newsfeed. So Facebook giveth, and taketh away, and just lowered the ranking of these open graph actions in the feed. Suddenly the acquisition channel dried up. SocialCam sold early but Viddy fell from a high valuation. Apps like Pinterest still benefit greatly from open graph actions (“Mary Pinned this Cupcake Recipe”), but you don’t hear about this as a user acquisition channel much anymore.

Around the same time, Twitter had a developer platform too. Twitter is awkward for acquisition no matter the channel (see below). Twitter also didn’t know whether they wanted a developer platform or not. In the early days, devs picked up the slack on the platform. I was there, with my last startup Tipjoy in 2008, an early Twitter app that powered payments and social charity.

By 2011, they didn’t like devs anymore. Now they want them again, and are building up their platform again with Fabric.

In April 2015, the Facebook platform shifted again: users that connect to apps through Facebook wouldn’t share their friends list. It would be limited to friends who are already on the app. This is fine for connecting with friends — great for engagement. But it cuts off the acquisition channel entirely. Shockingly, most apps I talk to don’t even know this is the case yet even after a year.

LinkedIn, never a friendly platform to begin with, cut off all access to user contacts. LinkedIn’s single utility is as a professional rolodex, but they decided users couldn’t take that rolodex elsewhere.

Decisions like this should make you take pause when you hear about a new platform. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn loved when apps built better experiences on their platforms… until they didn’t. Don’t bet your company on transient platforms.

The latest news is Facebook’s Messenger Platform. It sounds like a cool way for companies to communicate with users. I wouldn’t bet on it being a way for users to invite new users. Or as a way to message potentially new users. If you’re a bot company, it might be cool, but they are moving slowly on distribution because the experience with most bots is atrocious today.

What Works Today?


Facebook is excellent for getting a social graph on your app, if all your users connect with Facebook. Posting to the Facebook feed is ok, but the ranking for your posts might be poor. Facebook app invites aren’t effective compared to a simple mobile address book contacts list. It’s doubtful Facebook Messenger will repeat the mistakes of Facebook Friend Requests.


Twitter is awkward regardless of their developer policy. What is the exact invite flow?

  • Post a tweet, but that might be buried fast. This is the best option.
  • Send a DM, but that might be seen as spammy. No one has done this effectively.
  • In a tweet you can @reply, but that is limited and also potentially spammy.


The best apps on LinkedIn today aren’t on their platform. They are asking users to export their contact list as a CSV and upload to their site. This is a pretty laborious flow for users. Posting to LinkedIn’s feed is ok, but the engagement there is very poor.

Pinterest & Instagram

These are photo based services, so it’s all about posting content. Pinterest is getting better at smarter pins. I think this will be their business model, so the platform seems more solid. Instagram is so focused on quality photos, that the best acquisition channel is (sadly) ads. That might be true for the Facebook feed too.

Email & Mobile Address Book

My favorite social network is also permissionless. There is no platform to lock down email contact importing and a mobile address book. There still debatable aspect — like are SMSs sent from the native composer or server side?

It’s important to recognize the biggest growth stories today, Mobile Messaging like WhatsApp, are built on this platform. This permissionless growth is why Facebook needed to pay up.

This is why we focus on these channels at YesGraph. It isn’t just about knowing which friends to invite, it’s also about having a channel where users can actually send those messages.

If you’re interested in learning more about viral growth, sign up for YesGraph here.

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