Five tips for making a popular Facebook app

The rush is on to make killer applications -- but is there more hype than money in the endeavor?

Ever since the social networking site of Facebook opened itself up to outside development, there has been a flurry of Facebook applications created by independent programmers and companies.

Facebook Platform is an application programming interface that allows anyone to make applications that integrate with, or run within, a user's profile page.

The selection of applications that a Facebook user can download varies from the relatively simple, like slide-show viewers for displaying snapshots or complex programs including games and even a Nintendo emulator.

Since Facebook Platform launched in May, more than 5,000 applications that run on Facebook have been developed. And the number is steadily growing by the day. A big reason why this has been happening? Money -- or the hope of it, to be exact.

It seems like anybody who is curious about making a Facebook application is looking to become rich from doing so. When a venture fund claims that a Facebook application that helps to determine a user's "stripper name" is worth US$2 million, the question becomes not "How can an application on Facebook possibly generate any revenue?" but rather "Hey, what do I have to do to get a piece of that?"

Facebook doesn't permit an application to push advertising when it's run on a user profile. It does allow for developers to include advertising on their applications' "canvas pages," which are the home pages for applications on Facebook.

Thus, the simplest way of trying to make money from one's Facebook application is to put advertising links or banner ads on its canvas page. Some even sell ad space on their application's canvas page to their fellow Facebook developers. The creator of a application might want to buy ad space on the canvas page of a popular application in order to promote his new application, for example.

Money to be made?

Yet some developers doubt they can make much, if any, money from their Facebook applications. You can count Sidney Price as one who feels that way. He co-created My Room, which allows Facebook users to furnish virtual rooms and populate them with avatars. My Room has more than 80,000 users, but Price doesn't foresee becoming a dot-com 2.0 millionaire off of his popular Facebook application.

"Developing applications to make money is not effective," Price insists. "We understand the potential, but most people see through that. There are plenty of failed Facebook groups focused on branding that are proof people are not interested in advertising. With the variety of applications available, individuals would rather spend time using something that focuses on enjoyment."

On the other hand, there is Flixster Like Facebook and MySpace, Flixster is a social site, but one geared toward the movie aficionado. The site created a Facebook application, simply titled Movies, that quizzes Facebook users on their taste in movies and compares the results with those of the people on their friends list. The Movies application has more than 450,000 users, and its popularity has helped to route more visitors to Flixster's own Web site.

The Movies application starts out by testing your likes and dislikes of popular movies so you can compare your tastes to those of others.

Steve Polsky, president and chief operating officer of Flixster, is bullishly optimistic -- he believes his site can build a profitable business on top of its Facebook application. He scoffs at the question of whether the frenzy to make money off of Facebook applications is simply hype.

"We see Facebook as a very strategic platform for Flixster," he says. "For Flixster in particular, the movies vertical is one where studios spend significant advertising dollars promoting their films and are continuing to look for ways to advertise more directly to their audiences. Flixster is already in the process of building a large business through our Facebook application, enabling studios to directly target their movie fans."

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Howard Wen

Computerworld
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