Editor’s Note: I’m almost embarrassed to say I actually had to play Frontierville and Farmville to write this post.  These games send notifications constantly and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with all my friends knowing how my pigs were doing. Therefore, I had to go undercover and create a new FB account under my Indian alter ego: Amit Kumar :)

Zynga has experienced explosive growth since it’s inception in 2007. They’re absolutely crushing it with:

How did Zynga become such a profit generating, user acquiring, viral monster? Here’s a few strategies that worked for Zynga which you can apply to your business:

1. Build sharing as an integral part of the product

At every point Zynga prompts users to sign up for updates and send notifications (many times crossing the line) through: fan pages/likes, invites, shares, bookmarks, stream publishing, in game messaging, and email notifications. In fact they’re so darn good at notifying ”Facebook had to change their notification policies

Before you even get started playing you’re prompted to:

- Become a Fan/Like (so they can push updates through your news stream)

- Invite your friends (pro tip: make it look like it’s required)

- Share this page on your news stream

- They again remind you right at the start of the game:

Sharing is not an afterthought limited to an invite section, it’s an integral part of the experience.  In fact the more you share and interact with others, the more you are rewarded.

2. Create ways to elevate a users status/social capital

Zynga doesn’t want you to just invite your friends to play, they want to enable you to do favors for your friends.  Mark Pincus’  (Zynga’s CEO) describes his goal’s in Wired:

One way to think about social capital is we’re all in a certain bucket with each other, and the lowest bucket is maybe you’ll accept a friend request, and the highest bucket is you’ll come over and help me move, or pick me up at the airport,” Pincus told the Wired Business Conference Tuesday. “The question is, is there something we can do to help you move buckets?

While it’s cool (sort of) that I level’d up in Frontierville, I’m not gonna tell my friends about it, but… if I can share with them some of the points I’ve accumulated then that’s a lot more compelling.  It no longer feels like spam, but instead that I’m helping them:

Applying this to a web business don’t just give a discount to the user who invites 5 of her friends to the service, let her pass on the discount to her friends (that’s something you really wanna share).

3. Assume you are gonna get it wrong at first

Don’t assume that your product is “the one.”  Zynga does a great job of experimenting and making decisions based on data.  I love this video of Pincus speaking at Stanford:

Towards the end he is asked if he could go back and share a lesson with himself when he was CEO of Tribes what would it be.

If I could do it all over again, I would have made Tribe a platform to test many ideas of social networking. We tried just one. Oh my god what the hell was I thinking? Just one? At our company we have several hundred tests going on every day and in every game. I would’ve done is made Tribe a platform to test every configuration

This is echo’d by others at Zynga:

Analysis, analysis, analysis. It’s been like that. [In traditional development] It’s just like, “Oh, it’s going to be a great experience,” and this and that. We’ll spend two years down a ship cycle, and, “Oops, I was wrong!”

So now it’s like, “If we do this, I think we can measure that, and here’s how we’re going to measure and tweak it later down the road…” We are an incredibly analytical organization, so we track just about everything. It’s the secret sauce behind all that stuff. There’s a lot of mathematics that go into it

That’s the magic behind what we do. Certain things we do will work, and others won’t. You try new ones, and A, B, C, D, E, F, G testing constant. (Source)

Several hundred A, B, C, D, E, F, G tests going on daily… :-o sweet bejeezus.

4. “Ghetto” test

You don’t actually have to build it to find out if it works.

In the last 5 minutes of the video above Pincus is asked what’s the best way to do market research. His answer – “Ghetto Test”. If someone wants to build, let’s say, a hospital simulator he creates an FB ad that says, “Ever wanted to run your own hospital?” which leads to a survey (or if it’s really ghetto a 404 page).

All Zynga has to do is track CTR and compare it to previous historical rates to get a pretty good idea of demand. I’ve heard a lot of people test demand for a product idea, and A/B test marketing copy using Adwords (you don’t care about the goal, just the intent).

The guys at Aardvark (another product I love) call this Wizard of Oz testing.

5. Kill products that aren’t performing

Focusing on products that don’t work funnels attention and energy away from ones that do.  Even if you’ve made substantial investments know when it’s time to let go.

We’ve actually made investments into some innovative games that were incredibly hardcore. If you look at Guild of Heroes, for example, we did roll that out. It was a version of Diablo built in Flash, and it wasn’t successful, and we didn’t support it any longer. (Source)

6. Create unexpected moments of delight

Surprise your users through game mechanics, humorous copy, badges, and easter eggs.  If you make them smile, they’ll tell they’re much more likely to come back and tell their friends.

One of the really fun and successful features we added is what we call the ‘Lonely Cow’ feature,” said Skaggs. “You can help find it a home, then somebody claims it. You’ll get a brown cow instead of the white cow you had before. Then you milk the brown cow and you get chocolate milk! That’s a ‘moment of delight,’ totally unexpected but cool (Source).

7. Leverage your size to cross promote like crazy

The best customer for one of your new products is an existing customer.  If you liked Farmville you’ll looooooooove Frontierville.

Only by leveraging their existing user base were they able to get 100,000 users on Frontierville’s first day.

8. Maximize Trends

Pincus says the web is about repeatable formulas and once you find something that works, it doesn’t break for a long, long time.  Think of LOLcats, rickrolling and Google.  Nothing that Zynga does is new, but they’ve executed on it tremendously well. They’ve found a formula that works and are bangin’ out hits at an astouning rate.

Certainly Zynga has it’s flaws: their games are boring, repetitive, compulsive and shallow and they’ve made shady deals to generate revenue.  But it’s undeniable that they’ve experienced enormous success due to the viral nature of their products.  Anything else I’ve missed in terms of reasons for Zyngas growth?  Lemme know in the comments.

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