Brownstone Design in Cambridge

Log in
updated 12:25 PM BST, Jul 29, 2014
Technology and life sciences news from the Cambridge cluster

Generating a network effect – why WhatsApp is worth $19 billion

social network symbols converging over the worldAs I’ve said before, the technical side of creating a new social network is relatively easy – and nowadays with cloud computing you have fast, cost-effective access to the resources you need to scale it in line with demand.

But how do you create the demand – for your social network or any other service in today’s complex and fast-moving world? Essentially you rely on the network effect – the fact that the more people use a service, the more valuable it becomes to each user. A classic example is the telephone.

If one person is connected, it is worthless, but add more users and the positive effects increase dramatically – you actually have someone to call. It can also drive lock-in – if 80 per cent of businesses use Microsoft Officethere are compatibility issues for those that don’t, but who want to share documents with them.

Social networks are a classic example of the network effect in action – the bigger Facebook gets, the more people are on it who you know and supposedly want to communicate with. WhatsApp is another. It has built a base of 450 million users – 70 per cent of whom are active on a daily basis. And as it allows free texts to be sent between users (and doesn’t cost to join for the first year), why wouldn’t you sign up to message your friends? No wonder it is predicted to hit the billion user mark in the relatively near future.

So how do you create the network effect and catapult your startup into the $19 billion bracket? There are six things I think are necessary

1. Word of Mouth
Obviously people have to know about your network or service, but traditional PR and marketing can only take you so far. What you need is people to recommend it to their friends, so start by researching and targeting the nodes of networks (i.e. those with lots of connections). If they join then their followers will as well. Approach these people and maybe even make them brand ambassadors to get them onside.

2. It has to be different
In open markets there is no point trying to simply copy what is already out there – if people are already using a service, the alternative has to be different or substantially better, if they are going to join. What issues/problems do people have that you can solve? In the case of WhatsApp it is removing the cost of sending text messages, so there is a clear advantage of moving to the service.

3. Make it easy to use (and free)
An obvious one, but if people log on and have to navigate through a maze of functions when they join, they are going to be put off. From registration to ongoing use, make things simple for people. And you have to understand and appeal to a mainstream audience – test it out on real people, rather than early adopters and fellow geeks. An intuitive user experience and comprehensive online support, including video and how to guides are a must if you are to grow. Put it where people will use it – on their mobile devices as well as PCs. And the basic package has to be free if you want to recruit major numbers of people.

4. Make it compelling
Just getting people to join is the easy part – network effect relies on them actively using the service.LinkedIn had this problem a few years back. Everyone had joined, but no-one was logging on, unless they were actively looking for a job. It changed this by adding in compelling content that aims to drive you back to the site – from the thoughts of business leaders to seeing what your peers are doing. You need to create reasons that drive people back to your site on a daily or even more frequent basis if you are going to build a solid user base.

5. Think global from the start
When it comes to tech and the web, you need to think global. Does your proposition work in Delhi as well as Derby? The wider the target market, the bigger the potential user base, provided you make it appealing to a worldwide audience. Even if your site is initially just in English, the user experience has to be understandable by non-native speakers. As things grow you should quickly add other languages, dependent on demand.

6. Keep evolving
Nothing stands still – since its acquisition, CEO Jan Koum has announced that WhatsApp will offer voice calls on its platform, putting it in direct competition with Skype and traditional telecoms companies. You need to add new services and functions to both keep momentum going, ensure users return regularly and to recruit new ones.

The success of WhatsApp demonstrates it is less about the technology, and more about generating network effect if you want to attract a lucrative exit. Is it worth $19 billion? If it can continue its growth, introduce new paying services and bolster Facebook’s own platform it might just be.

 


This is a guest blog written by Chris Measures, founder of Cambridge-based technology PR and marketing company, Measures Consulting. It first appeared in the blog: http://measuresconsulting.wordpress.com.