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July 15, 2009

Everything I Know About Social Media, I Learned From Mafia Wars


Social games provide extraordinary insight into how to be successful in social media.

People use social media for a variety of reasons, but can generally be grouped according to a few broad needs.

Nonprofits should work to fulfill needs of its members while advancing their own mission.

Mafia Wars  

Last month I decided it was time to take the plunge into social gaming after receiving an invite from my brother-in-law to join "his mafia" on the 9th most popular Facebook application, Mafia Wars. Personally, I'm not much of an online gamer.  In fact, this was my first multiplayer online gaming experience - an experiment to see what makes these games tick.  An experiment, yeah, that's it.  I'm joking somewhat, but these types of games are the real deal.  Three of the top ten most popular Facebook applications are multi-player games each with well over 10 million monthly users (people actually playing the game; not just signing up and leaving).  Many of you may roll your eyes (and so did I, by the way) but these games can truly teach nonprofits a thing or two about establishing vibrant online communities.  On to the experiment...

Within a week of adding the application, I was hooked.  Clearly my character wasn't going to move through the ranks and improve himself.  And, as it turns out, I was the guy to help my character reach its mafioso potential.  In less than three weeks, "Don Bush" owned numerous "properties," had reached "Hitman" status, grown his mafia to 16 friends (my friends), could fend off most attacks and opened up the ability to expand his mafia to Cuba.  That's right, don't act like you aren't impressed.  By the end of week four, I finally arrived at a point of obsession that I determined made me a wee bit uncomfortable (Is it possible that I complained to the application developers when my properties kept getting robbed despite me "paying" for property protection?  Um, yes.).  At the beginning of week five, I removed the application.  Ironically, this experience taught me a few interesting things about social media success.

What Makes You Tick?
Everyone has that thing that makes them tick.  That's what makes us each unique, right?  Yeah, well, some things makes us tick more than others...especially within the context of a game.  In my opinion, these games succeed by tapping into a few specific common human needs very very well (There are more needs, of course, and if you are interested you can read more here; registration is required though).

Social: The more friends you have playing, the more the game allows you to do.  Together with your friends, you can take on rival mafias, earn special rewards, and generally advance through the game faster.  In addition, other players can easily see how many "properties" you own, how many fights you've lost, your rank, and on and on.  The social aspect is so important, that the game actually limits "mafias" to 501 people.  How many of you have 501 friends on Facebook period?

Accomplishment:  Whether you've robbed the Fed, "bought" a beach front property, roughed up a boss, earned a badge for "earning" your first million, or advanced from Street Thug to Associate, Mafia Wars is replete with little and big ways to make you feel like you've accomplished something.

Power:   The number of properties you own, the rank you attain, the "attack" strength you develop, and the loot you collect all come together to establish a person's relative power in the game.  For each person, their reason for acquiring power may be quite different, whether they just want to "beat up" other players or be a major force to be reckoned with in the eyes of the community.

Rank:  Wouldn't you agree that being a "Boss" is better than being a "Street Thug?"  Who wouldn't, right?  

Altruism:  What?  In Mafia Wars?  That's right.  The user forums are a great place for mafia do-gooders.  Filled with Mafia Wars expert players, they are eager to help people understand the game and give developers suggestions on how to improve it.  And then they'll rob you.

I am not a psychologist, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that each player has a slightly different mix of these needs.  For me, I clearly had some sort of need for accomplishment and increasing my rank.  Beating up random players and inviting in my friends were less important.  For the guy who is grumpy that his mafia can only get as big as 501 people, the social and power needs are probably more important...or maybe he just likes beating up strangers.  In any case, the frightening beauty of these types of games is that whatever your personal cocktail of needs are, the game provides a way to meet them in a way that keeps you coming back for more.

Making Money
Gaming applications also have a somewhat less muddled revenue path than most social media revenue generating efforts.  Zynga, the company that created Mafia Wars along with many other Facebook applications, has generated over $1 million in revenue and operates in the black.  In the context of Mafia Wars, players can upgrade their characters more quickly if they literally pay to do so (not just using the game's fake money).  And, guess what, some players will open up their wallets, because it helps them meet their needs more quickly.  In addition, they can do it in small chunks as low as $1 to $5 if they want.  This get transfered into a virtual currency (i.e., $1 = 10 credits).  So a player may upgrade his player for 2 credits (not dollars) one day, but 17 credits the next week.  Hey, it's not really money, it's credits!!

Key Take-aways:  Mafia Wars and Your Nonprofit
The obvious next step is for each nonprofit to create their own Mafia Wars spin off.  Wait, no, that's not the right next step.  The correct takeaway is to examine how your Facebook (or MySpace) application or house social network (a social network that your nonprofit runs) taps into these human needs.  Obviously not all these needs are applicable to non-profits in the same way, but nonprofits will be well served by spending the time to strategize about how to address as many of these needs as possible.  Here are a few questions that you may want to ask:

  • What activities would be better if done with friends or others?
  • What are the small/simple and big ways we can give people a sense of accomplishment?  Taking an advocacy action is a big ask, what smaller things can they do in the meantime?  (And inviting friends to join doesn't cut it, sorry.)
  • What sort of reputation system can be established to truly encourage people to attain the next rank in the community?

For non-profits wondering about what this means for raising money, it's important to keep in mind that there are, in fact, other ways to make money using Facebook.  What nonprofits should focus on in this particular example is the organic way of making money through regular activity by game participants.  Obviously all nonprofits would prefer people to make a straight forward donation, but creative organizations may begin to find ways to raise money by helping people meet their personal needs.

If you are interested in checking out a Facebook game for yourself, but are scared of Mafia Wars and/or are philosophically opposed to the premise, I recommend checking out Farm Town.  I have not tried it personally, but the way "my good friend" describes it, all the same addictive elements apply. Good luck!


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