It's not just a web site you know

Last week I was approached by a PR firm representing a large UK brand name with some plans to build a Facebook app to promote their products. As a great fan of Facebook and the platform, I was thrilled that bigger brands were starting to embrace it – and my contact was asking me if I could build the app for them!

So you can imagine we were both lost for words thirty minutes later when we realised I’d managed to talk them out of the whole endeavour.

What went wrong? Well, I didn’t swear them off ‘social media’ completely; I’d like to think they’ll go back to the drawing board and come up with something eventually. But early in the conversation it was obvious they thought the project could be treated as just another web site commission. That won’t do: we all know that an app requires more love and attention than posting a flash site at a web address.

No developer would wish upon a ‘low-tech’ company’s IT department the maintenance headaches of running an app on a new-born platform. As Facebook changes the rules to suit the game, you need an app developer on-hand to keep up and change the code. And even without those changes, these things aren’t one-way: a thousand users will be clicking and dragging the app in a thousand different directions. You can’t just check the server logs to be sure it’s still working.

“We can host it!” cry the Facebook development shops. Sure you can, and you’d do a good job. But a good app will evolve to reflect the way that it is being used: responding to user feedback; expanding ideas that strike a cord; simplifying interactions that lead to confusion. Perhaps an exceptional development and hosting service could even promise all that (for a price). But, crucially, the app may not evolve in the direction the big brand envisaged. Worse, the user base may turn out not to be their target market.

Partnering with existing apps is of course a great solution for developers, and one that Nick’s been shouting about recently. It also suits the brand. When the demographics cease to be useful to (say) the soap-powder manufacturer who’s trying to target professional women, the brand just terminates the branding contract – which is fine because Crayola wax crayons are queuing up to market to the 12 year-olds who’ve taken their place.

At recent dev events, developers were either complaining about low returns from the advertising networks or asking the big name companies how to go about finding a brand sponsor. I didn’t see anyone find a promising answer.

There are many companies setting up banner ad networks desperate to drag users kicking and screaming out of Facebook, or landing them elsewhere within the pyramid of apps vying for attention. As the platform stabilises and more app development teams can demonstrate a reliable track record, perhaps brand partnership brokers will provide a more compelling service.