App.net's push for renewals starts with free accounts

The experimental social service eagerly hopes to attract a larger audience before early backers are asked to renew their subscriptions.

Dalton Caldwell tells a standing room-only audience in San Francisco that App.net was created because the "platform risk building on Facebook was not acceptable."
Dalton Caldwell tells a standing room-only audience in San Francisco that App.net was created because the "platform risk building on Facebook was not acceptable." Declan McCullagh/CNET

App.net, a for-pay social service, today introduced a free tier in a proactive move to ramp up on members before current subscribers are forced to renew.

The membership level, modeled after Dropbox, grants people invited by current App.net members the ability to use the social site for as long as they'd like, but with limitations on how many people they can follow and how many files they can upload.

The point of a freemium offering, said creator Dalton Caldwell, is to make App.net open and accessible and to get people excited to pay for additional features.

App.net's social network and developer-friendly platform launched six months ago in Kickstarter-style with the financial support of around 10,000 backers . The service borrows from Twitter in style and function but asks people to pay for their freedom from advertisers. Developers, who are also asked to pay, are incentivized with the promise that, unlike Facebook or Twitter, App.net will never cripple their applications. In fact, developers are encouraged to build applications that replicate and expand on the basic App.net offering.

Originally, it was to be these developers and their creative social network machinations that would bring in consumers and make the App.net business model sustainable. Now, the onus also falls on the shoulders of members who want to see the service thrive.

Today, App.net has roughly 32,000 users with just 10 percent using the social platform on a daily basis. There is an active developer community, which has given rise to a generous collection of clients and third-party apps that port or enrich the App.net service to web, mobile, and desktop environments. Tapbots, a popular iOS application developer that has been thwarted by Twitter's restrictions, makes an App.net client called Netbot. An app called Patter has constructed an IRC-like, group and private chat experience on top of App.net.

But the developer crowd has yet to introduce a purpose grand enough to attract the masses, and many of us who originally believed in the righteous cause have left our accounts dormant. This could present a major problem to App.net's subscription fee-sustaining model when the first batch of accounts come up for renewal in six months time.

Enter the free account. Once invited by an App.net member with a yearly account, a person can sign up to use App.net for free, no credit card required. The free account comes with 500 MB of file storage -- paid accounts have 10 GB -- and allows a person to follow up to 40 other users. Existing members will get 100 MB of extra storage when an invited friend signs on and follows five people and authorizes a third-party app.

"The most challenging part of App.net has been the chicken and egg problem," Caldwell said, explaining that users need a reason, a.k.a. great apps, to try App.net, and developers want a large number of users to build apps for.

Caldwell sees the free tier as the solution to the problem. "I'm pretty optimistic this is going to increase the virtuous cycle."

The virtuous cycle is a fancy expression for a feedback loop that attracts more people and, in turn, gets developers more amped about building phenomenal experiences, which works to draw in more members. Rinse. Repeat.

The cycle could be jump-started by free accounts, sure, but App.net's real problem seems tangled in demonstrating actual value. What, other than the promise of ad protection and content safety, is the point? This reporter, App.net user number 35, is struggling to figure that out. I believe in and support the social idealism behind the service, but I can't find one solid reason to keep my account active. If App.net can't convince me to renew, then what chance does it have at making a good case for mass renewals or new paid signups?

"We're trying to build something as compelling as possible ... and get people to renew," Caldwell said, though he continues to refer to App.net as an experiment. "This is still a radically weird business model ... we're attempting to define something new, but we're not sure what it is yet."

 

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