Zurker: a Marketing Study

By Terri Wells

Social networks face an uphill struggle when competing against Facebook. Few networks know this quite as well as Zurker. Now eighteen months old, the site welcomes a growing number of members, but has faced a serious struggle simply to get the word out.

You can read my original piece on Zurker, written in February of last year. Then, the social network was less than two months old, and offered its members a unique proposition: own the network to which you belong. Every member earned a vShare – short for virtual share – for every member they referred. These shares would convert to real shares once the corps of Zurker to which the member belonged gave out one million vShares, and the site could be incorporated.

More details about vShares can be found at the link, but the point is, members would actually own the network, and therefore have a say in what it did and didn’t do. Nick Oba, who came up with the idea for Zurker and styles himself as the custodian, emphasizes that there will never be censorship on Zurker. He strongly protects his members’ privacy, allowing them to fine-tune who sees any content they add. He’s also proven fairly responsive to member ideas and requests – at time allows. He is currently Zurker’s only programmer.

Still, with many of the complaints made about certain other networks pertaining to privacy and censorship, you would think Zurker would be better known. And it has grown. In February 2012, it boasted about 10,000 members. Now, its nine separate corps hold nearly 440,000 members; 28,714 members own a total of 347,200 vShares. That’s not bad for a social network that’s been in closed beta since the beginning, and only entered open beta in March of this year.

It has, however, been very challenging. Not the least of the challenges was the interface. It was and still is a work in progress, different enough from Facebook to confuse users. “We started off with a fairly raw product,” Oba admits, but “it has been adapted to how people actually use the social network.” With the addition of Zones about a year ago, Oba made it easy for users to submit ideas and changes. He often comments on these ideas right away, and adds them not long afterwards.

When members see this kind of responsiveness, they get proactive about marketing what they think of as “their” network. So while Oba spent most of 2012 working on the interface and other features, and the press lost interest in covering Zurker, the Zurker Marketing Team (ZMT) spontaneously formed. Made up of active Zurker members, “they worked fairly hard to tell bloggers about Zurker, and were successful in getting at least one prominent blog post,” Oba recalled.

Member marketing is potentially a two-edged sword. On the one hand, what could be better than word-of-mouth marketing? On the other hand, you can’t really control the ways that your members promote you – and it might start looking like spam to some people. That’s not the only problem, alas; a Wired UK post by Lea Simpson in May 2012 skewered both Zurker and Oba, and the company is still trying to live it down.

So what about hiring a professional marketer? Public relations firms are pretty expensive for a company that is trying to be financed only by its members. You see, members can also buy vShares, but nobody can buy more than 500; they cost $1 per share. Oba has managed to code and keep the network mostly up and running for around $120,000 since he started. “We were supposed to hire a publicist…and when I informed the ZMT about that, it effectively took the wind out of that initiative (unfortunately the hire didn’t work out),” Oba explained.

Still, Zurker does have a reasonable media pack, courtesy of the ZMT. The lesson here would be to try to work with any members promoting your business, and not at cross purposes.

Some businesses run contests to encourage member activity and get new members. Zurker tried this as well, but Oba proclaimed it “a total disaster.” The contest involved getting some members to sponsor iPads and holding a drawing; members would be entered to win an iPad if they got five “Zurks,” the social site’s more friendly alternative to Facebook’s “Likes.” But according to Oba, “everyone associates ‘win an iPad’ with spam. There was no noticeable uptick in signups or activity as a result of this promo.” One can almost hear a sign of exasperation in Oba’s words as he states that “That’s the last time I ever try to bribe people to show up with shwag.”

So what about other, more conventional means of promotion? Oba notes that they tried advertising, first on a newsletter, and then on blogs on SocialSpark. While the newsletter brought a lot of clicks, Oba was not happy with the conversion rate. “People weren’t taking us seriously because they came via an ad,” Oba elaborated. SocialSpark was better, but it wasn’t worth the expense, as it is “better suited for manufacturers advertising actual consumer products the bloggers can give away to their readers.”

What is the lesson here? According to Oba, “what we learned is that advertising is not cost-effective for spreading the word about a social network. It’s very surprising that Facebook still advertise heavily on AdWords/AdSense.”

As a result of these lessons, Zurker has actually shifted away from marketing and advertising. Oba says that they’re now focused on building a better product, building a better community, and reaching out to the media. That last has been particularly tricky, as the site is old enough to not be “new” anymore in the media’s eyes, so possibly not quite so buzzworthy.

Still, Zurker has come back; a look at the numbers tells the story. While Oba admits that the majority of people sign up and disappear, when I returned to the community after a long absence, it was clearly more vibrant than before.

My impetus to return was the result of what may have been Oba’s best “marketing” yet: gently nudging old members with several emails, and then threatening to take back their vShares if they didn’t respond. He also installed a Zurker owner rating system to show activity levels. It displays publicly, to the left of the owner’s name, as a colored circle. If it’s green, it means you’ve “zurked” something at least once a day for the past seven days, and you’re in good standing. There are several other levels: yellow (subpar), amber (poor), red (critical), and grey (new owners who are pending). At the red level, owners risk having their vShares frozen, docked, or forfeited altogether.

This approach met with some ill will among some members and owners, understandably. But in coming back, some rediscovered why they’d signed up in the first place. The thing is, even with what many have called a “clunky” interface, Zurker seems to encourage interaction, and the sharing and discovery of things you won’t necessarily on a social network on which you know everyone.

Because you can click on your own list of interests to find others who’ve listed that interest as well, it’s really easy on Zurker to find people with whom you might want to connect. And thanks to Zones, which work a little like Twitter hashtags, it’s also easy to find interesting posts and photos with which to interact. Because people can reply to comments (they can be nested up to 12 layers deep), it’s easy to interact, even if you don’t know the commenter or poster in person. And because so many on Zurker don’t know other members personally, many of the members actively enjoy reaching out to others and making new online friends.

Make no mistake, though; it’s the member buy-in, on several levels, that’s really helping. When people feel like they own the network and have a say in it, they will go out of their way to help newbies find their footing. That happens a fair bit now on Zurker, and there are groups spontaneously organizing on the site to encourage it even more (by trying to maintain a presence on the Help channel, for instance).

Oba acknowledges this; he even credits it with why Zurker seems to be making a comeback even after the initial buzz wore off. “Getting initial buzz is not that hard if you have a good concept and half-decent implementation, and most start-ups do manage to get to that stage,” he notes. “Surviving the initial spike and going for a hockey stick is much harder. In our case, we came back even though the initial buzz petered out…because the members have a vested interest in the project.” Oba is certain that “that wouldn’t have happened” if they were just users. And he may be on to something here. Time will tell. One thing is certain: Zurker is still around after a year and a half, with a more vibrant community than you’d expect for a social network with one developer and $120,000 of crowd funding from its members. That’s a respectable achievement.