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Facebook Haggadah: A Case Study in Viral ROI (Is This App Different From All Other Apps?)

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, April 3 2009

Sunday night, March 29, Carl Elkin posted a humorous take-off on the Passover Seder story (aka the "Haggadah"), imagining it as a series of wall postings on Facebook. Within a day his Facebook Haggadah was all over the web. It looks like David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy was the first major blogger to post about it, Monday at about 5pm, and AllFacebook's Nick O'Neill tweeted about it two hours later. Soon it was being retweeted all over Twitter, and for good reason. If you're Jewish or you've ever been to a seder, Elkin's retelling of the story is hilarious. It's also deeply in tune with a longstanding Jewish tradition of modifying and updating the Haggadah to grapple with modern times and norms (see Arthur Waskow's 1960s "Freedom Seder" for more on this history). I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the viral spread and impact of Elkin's spoof, especially as it turns out that he had a serious goal in posting his parody, which is to get people involved in fighting global warming and in particular to draw users to a Facebook app he spent months writing called "" The app is designed to help people find and share popular energy-saving ideas, and reports that its users have collectively so far made "186 pledges to save $6243.27 and 22735 kilograms of CO2 per year." As Elkin told religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas News on Wednesday:
I'm a computational chemist working in the Boston area at a pharmaceutical company, married with two young kids. Several years ago, while in graduate school, I wrote "A Graduate Student Haggadah," released it to the world a few weeks before Passover via email, and was surprised that when it got back to me a few days later. Ever since then, each year a few weeks before Passover, I've thought about the Haggadahs I would write if I weren't so lazy. I joined Facebook about six months ago about the same many friends my age (mid 30s did), and was impressed by its power to spread software. I am very interested in Global Warming, and particularly the steps that individuals can take to ameliorate it, so (each night for months after the kids were in bed) I wrote a Facebook Application called Yes We Conserve ( to try to make energy conservation social-- something that would not only tell you what you could do, but how, and also which of your friends were doing it, and how it worked out for them. When it was mostly done, I crossed my fingers, hoped for the best and released it into the world. It has not been a smashing success. I've gotten a lot of favorable comments, but overall participation has been well below my hopes. So I figured I ought to learn a bit more about what sorts of things work on Facebook and what don't, and the best way to learn that was to experiment.a bit. So I decided that this year I would actually write a Haggadah; naturally it would be a Facebook one. I released it Sunday night (not quite finished due to deadline pressure, but half-baked seemed appropriate) by posting it on Facebook and emailing around half of my Jewish friends, and 48 hours later it has received over 40,000 visits. To put it mildly, this has been something of a surprise. I'm still trying to figure out how I can harness this energy to jump-start Yes We Conserve-- or at least promote some equivalent form of personal energy conservation-- but that may have to wait for a day or two.
As of last night, the Facebook Haggadah had gotten about 165,000 visits, Elkin told me by email. Tuesday and Wednesday had about 70,000 each, he said, and traffic has been declining since then. But what about click-throughs to "YesWeConserve," which is referenced several times in the text of his Haggadah? Elkin reports that his Facebook app Yes We Conserve has gotten about 5,500 visits as a result, but only 233 people have installed it. He notes that people can use a lot of the app's functionality without installing it, "which is what most people do." But he's disappointed in his conversion rate. Why is This App Different From All Other Apps? Should he be? It seems to me that Elkin did pretty well in gross terms, considering that his conservation app isn't much related to a satirical retelling of the Passover story, and in essence is functioning more like an interstitial ad than anything else. Getting nearly 4% of the people who looked at the Haggadah to click through to YesWeConserve, and then getting about 4% of that group to adopt the app seems like a decent conversion rate for something that cost him nothing to promote. But on the other hand, four percent of four percent of something is only about one-sixth of one percent. And there's a deeper issue, which is how one uses the Facebook Platform for social change and whether the whole apps environment on Facebook is oversaturated and thus a relatively unproductive environment for someone like Elkin with a good idea. I asked a couple of social media mavens for their take... Deborah Elizabeth Finn responded: "I love the Facebook Haggadah, and passed it along to about a million other folks. (I know from my Hootsuite numbers exactly how many people clicked on the link to it that I embedded in a Twitter post.) However, I got to tell you that the "Yes We Conserve" message and link went right past me. I was totally oblivious. He had a great concept, but he didn't provide the right triggers to get people to notice the cause that he was tying to a wonderful comic piece. I'd say that this is an extremely instructive near miss. With a little tweaking, he can still make it work. He's got a week before Pesach begins!" Allan Benamer, who said he doesn't consider himself a "social media maven" wrote:
I do note that there are few social media wins for nonprofits. And if you limit analysis to Facebook itself, the issues are this: * Quick adoption and then a slow and agonizing drop in activity. * Apps need constant watering in terms of traffic and are better off being event- and news-driven The best case I've seen is Justgiving's app. You can see their traffic at Notice that with two years of data, you can see that they have established a cyclical approach based on London marathon campaign. Apps seem to require a lot of constant marketing and it helps if they're tied to offline activities (at least for nonprofits). It's no longer a case of "if you build it, they will come", but more a constant re-working of the app as it ties to your special events programming. To summarize, it's clear that apps can still be very useful in a fundraising approach but it has to be tied to something outside of it in order to generate a maximal return on investment.
Amy Sample Ward, NetSquared's global community builder, wrote:
I think that social media has created an outlet for individuals to cause-align in a way that replaces the brands of clothes you wear to be judged at school, with the issues you are passionate about to be judged online. I'm not the only one seeing this trend, though, and that's why there are SO many Facebook apps to get people connecting their individual online space with social actions they care about. What I'm sensing is that many people are overwhelmed with apps—ones their friends keep inviting them to use, ones they accidentally click on, ones they want to use but none of their friends are using, and so on. The way to unmuck the water could be to focus in on apps that let users broadcast an array of issues and opportunities from one little box, instead of installing and managing lots of little boxes. I think 4% is great for the YesWeConserve application! I'd certainly be proud! But, given what I just said, I'd also think about how that application could create a more user-drive, dynamic space within that 400x400 box to reassure users that adding it to their profile isn't a wasted five minutes.
Tom Watson, PdF contributing blogger and author of Causewired, wrote:
The app and its cause wasn't related to the (hilarious) viral story, so I agree that the response rate was actually pretty high. It says more about the environmental concerns about Seder attendees with a sense of the ironic than it does about an intentional social media campaign for a social cause. And clearly the response was a surprise, so I'd say Elkin did pretty well - it came to the early attention of this Irish Catholic! Facebook's new plumbing really plays down the developer community it said it would always support less than a year ago, and frankly puts a lid over online social activism. Causes still gets a front-row seat, and celebrities have fan pages, but it's hard to see a cause-driven FB app getting a good response these days.
Beth Kanter chimed in:
"If you could create an application that was fun, engaging, and struck an emotional and spiritual chord, I bet the results would be less disappointing. Take a look at Lil Green Patch's success. I don't think you can judge the success of failure of his effort in isolation -- one number in and out of itself won't necessarily tell you anything unless you have something to compare it to. Are there benchmarks yet for social action apps? That's what I'd look at. How would that compare if he, say, used an email campaign to drive people to the site? And, now that those people have taken that pledge, what is the life-time value of those folks? True, the environment on Facebook is getting cluttered - and yes there is app fatigue and now cause fatigue and advertising ADD, etc. But that's happening everywhere ... maybe we need to adjust what we think is a good response?"
UPDATE: Here's the 2010 version.
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