Why the World Will Beat a Path to Path

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who you are, where you came from, why you are there, no friends, nothing. So it’s not just hard, it’s impossible to personalize the experience for you when you land on the first screen.”

Path has built “hundreds of iterations” of the NUX to help users understand quickly what the app is for, Morin says. “We tell the user this is a place for family first, close friends second. And we’ll help you find those people, and if they’re not here we’ll help you invite those people.” If that step fails—if the user doesn’t get connected to anyone—there’s a nearly 100 percent chance that Path will lose them. If they find only one friend, there’s an 80 percent likelihood. Not until a user has 10 friends in the system, Morin says, is there a good chance they’ll stay.

But the beauty of a mobile social app, once users are hooked, is that it’s with them almost all of the time. “The sheer volume of time that people have their phones with them is much higher than you ever had on a computer,” Morin says. That means there are many more opportunities to pull users into the experience throughout the day.

This is partly thanks to the notifications that pop up on users’ screens when friends post new items, and partly just thank to the nature of smartphones, which are great for capturing ordinary moments. About a quarter of Path’s users are like me—they open the app daily, if not more often. “Users are opening applications many, many times a day, which is pretty amazing, and spending pretty long session times each time,” Morin says.

I asked Morin whether Path would ever consider adding more Web components—for example, allowing users to view or add to their timelines from a regular Web browser, Facebook style. He was doubtful, arguing that it would change the nature of the Path community.

“If we can find a way to do that with the Web that is similar to what we’ve been able to achieve on mobile, then we might do it. Right now we don’t think that we can,” he says. “A big reason why is actually because this [phone] is not just a consumption device, it’s a creation device. Everyone’s got a camera. If you think about it, if we were to shift a big percentage of our user base over to computers, they would basically not be contributing to the network the same way.”

Path Isn’t Out to Exploit Its Users

The hullabaloo this week over the proposed revisions to Instagram’s legal terms underscores a truth that’s easy to forget: Free services have to make money somehow, and they usually do it by selling users and their attention (and sometimes their data) to advertisers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that—it’s the foundation for incredibly valuable services like Google and Facebook and, yes, Instagram. But it’s a waste of breath to feign outrage every time the curtain is pulled back on the commercial side of these arrangements. If you’re looking for an online business whose interests are fully aligned with those of its users, find one that isn’t supported by advertising—-and be willing to pull out your wallet.

“One of the core principles at the founding of Path was that we want to be in business with the customer first and principally,” Morin says. “We don’t want to say we’re in business with you but actually be in business with advertisers. We actually want to be in business with you.”

Paid photo filters on Path

Paid photo filters on Path

Path’s only business, up to now, has been selling access to a selection of five 99-cent photo filters from its camera page. Every photo app from Instagram to Flickr (and now even Twitter) includes filters, so this isn’t terribly innovative. But Morin says the company has some more interesting (and likely more expensive) services in the works.

“Spotify, Evernote, Hulu—there are a bunch of businesses that are building a premium brand in addition to their core offering,” he says. “We want to be much more on the Evernote, Dropbox, consumer premium services side of the game than we do on the advertising side.” There’s also a clear parallel to mobile gaming, where companies like PopCap and Rovio make good money by giving their games away to a huge audience, and monetizing the most hardcore players.

Morin won’t be pinned down about what a premium version of Path might look like, but he says it will be aimed at the first group of users describe above, the “premium Internet” crowd. “Those are the same kinds of users who have converted over entirely to Path as their social network,” says Morin. “They’ve got a lot of friends on Path, they’ve posted a lot of content, they’re using all of our filters. Their thirst or desire for Path-related content and services is very high.”

New features aimed at this group will arrive in 2013; the company is also in the process of … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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