How to successfully launch a social networking development platform.

January 22, 2008

I decided to jot down some observations and thoughts on launching successful social networking development platforms… like the one facebook launched at f8, Bebo’s clone of facebook’s, or the one MySpace will be launching, etc.  This is a list of some observations of what facebook (and Bebo) did well pre-, at, and post-launch.

1. Create a feeling of technological openness. Top-notch developers love to know the ins and outs early – seeing the early bugs, unfinished features, etc. Visiting and engaging the CTOs of pre-launch partner companies will create instant camaraderie between the platform development team and the developer community.

2. Treat developers equally, but leverage the best ones by letting them closer in. After launch, quickly giving the technically superior developers direct access to members of the platform team (via a special email address and IM), will allow them to report and help debug real-time performance problems, and further cement the teams’ respect for each other.

3. Plan and manage a community, and introduce a community manager early – ideally, these are pretty technical people that gain fast credibility with hard-core developers. Introduce a few colorful personalities to make developers feel welcome, pre-launch. These people should organize meet-ups, participate in chats, IRC channels, mailing lists, visit companies in person. The key impression to create is that someone from the platform team is on your side, ready to plead your case to powers that be.

4. Shift the support/documentation load onto the early developers. Smaller developer groups will naturally seek to help each other, they will gladly participate in joint-effort projects to document the platform APIs, support each other technically, etc.

5. Respond very quickly to platform issues, and take the early scaling problems seriously. The feeling of “this must be really important to them” will carry a lot of weight with the developer community in the early days. Developers will stay up day and night to build great applications if they know the platform team is doing the same to support them.

6. Emphasize the money-making nature of the platform. The larger developer groups are going to be at least somewhat skeptical of the platform, since they are already working hard and have many real challenges. Bible-thumping the “you will make money” point will help keep developers focused during the early platform days.

7. Make your campus a place that developers very much want to visit. The invitation to visit should be a prize, a chance to hang out with the platform team and meet your heroes. Organize hackathons and coding parties welcoming all, but invite the key developers to visit the platform group separately. Having an inner-circle developer group will help handle future PR crises.

8. Pre- and over-communicate policy changes and make major changes with at least the perception of open debate. Nothing takes away from the credibility of the platform like a sudden negative change. The greatest impact is venture investors’ fear of instability, reducing its value as a legitimate investment opportunity. No matter how much money you have to throw at this initiative, having a few billion dollars of venture money will make a difference.

9. Make the #1 measurable goal of your PR team the amount of coverage that successful (or just interesting) developers get. People will jump through all kinds of hoops to be in the papers. Double so if the article lists them next to a [your] big brand.

10. Hold frequent developer events and invite leading developers to speak at those. Elevating developers (especially the smaller ones) to a pseudo-celebrity status can create a great deal of good will.

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