"Hi, my name is MrCucumber69, I have a gray blob for a face and that's all I care to share about myself - will you be my friend?" Silly as that sounds, this is the way users of many social web applications greet each other. It's not very useful or inspiring.
Communication works better when you have a good idea who it is you're talking to. How can new online services get users to describe themselves, though?
Bellow, we discuss some of our favorite ways it's being done well. We hope you'll share your favorite strategies in comments so we can all learn about more ways to tackle this common problem.
LinkedIn = Boring but Effective
LinkedIn does it. Users are shown a progress bar and told that their profile is "X% completed." This is probably effective but some people tell us it makes them feel guilty.One of the most well known ways to get people to fill out their profiles is the way
It's much better than nothing, but let's look at some more creative and fun solutions.
What's Your Most Common Username Elsewhere?
Personal search engine Lijit does a great job of making it easy to associate your account with them with all kinds of other accounts you own around the web. It's simple: they just ask what your most common username is and then they check for public profiles with that username on a long list of different services. In just moments, with a handful of keystrokes, all kinds of info about you can be gathered together.
It's the first step new users take when they click the button to register on the site. You can exclude certain accounts, add particular usernames for accounts where you use a different one. It's incredibly elegant and a great model that others would do well to emulate.
We suspect that social media ping server Gnip will make this kind of approach all the more powerful and easy for application developers to implement soon.
Once you've got usernames from these services, why not display recent activity feeds on their profile pages? That's kind of how Jive Software's ClearSpace does it (see image on the left) and we think that looks great.
Did You Know...?
Another interesting approach is to offer users information about the activities of other people in aggregate and use this as an opportunity to prompt them to provide more information about themselves.
Social recommendation service (and, disclosure, RWW sponsor) Strands, for example, presents customers of Spanish bank BBVA with messages like the following: "Grocery spending: A married person spends 103% more on groceries than a single person. By the way, are you married or single?" That's interesting to know and would motivate me to answer the question with a click.
How else could this be done? Check out categorized Twitter directory Twellow, where Twitter user bios are categorized by interest and occupation. It's a great way to find like minded Twitter users, but imagine if Twello (or another app) said something like this to users: "We see that you are an accountant - did you know that Twitter users who are accountants tend to post more photos to Flickr than Doctors do, but fewer than people in Defense related fields do? If you'd like to tell us what your Flickr username is, we'll connect it to your Twitter account here."
Maybe it could be done more elegantly than that, but you get the idea.
Messages like the following greet users when they login to their Brighter Planet account: "You live with one other person and you use 15% green electricity. Improve your profile by telling us about the car you drive and your flights."
You Look Like George Bush
Brand spanking new social news site SocialMedian assigns a big picture of a famous (or infamous) person as each new user's avatar. My default profile was graced with a photo of Bill Gates, but other people start out with George Bush - something that must get a lot of new users to click the "change my photo" link. It's a witty idea and we wonder just how far it could be taken.
"You are 15 years old, clean up after circus animals for a living and love Britney Spears videos on TV. (unverified - not true? click here to edit your profile.)" Oh yeah, that could work.
I Heard About You On Twitter
FriendFeed, you've probably wondered why, with everything the service knows about you, there's no place to see bio info about other users on their FriendFeed user pages. Enter Hao Chen's FriendFeed Profile script for Greasemonkey. Every time you visit a the user page on FriendFeed of someone who has associated their Twitter account with their FF account (everyone) - this script grabs their bio info from Twitter and slaps it up on their FriendFeed page. It's fantastic!If you've used red hot social lifestreaming app type thing
Why not let users of your app opt-in to populate their profiles with publicly available profiles from other accounts? (I'm here on FriendFeed by the way, if you'd like me to feed you like a friend.)
Still More Ways to Do It
OpenID accounts usually have some profile info associated with them. Some apps pull that info. The OpenID community is working hard, if slow, on "attribute exchange" - a protocol that would flesh this out all the more.
MyBlogLog is a widely used social network for blog readers where you can find headshots of millions of people, their demographic info, interests and many associated accounts from other social networks. Have you tried out the BlogJuice bookmarklet to see the job titles or your blog's most recent visitors, via LinkedIn? It's SO much fun!
If you don't mind renting users from Facebook, the new Facebook Connect login and profile system looks pretty hot too. For some reason people don't appear to put as much fake info about themselves into Facebook as they do other places - it's a rich source of user profile data and comes with the added comfort of extensive privacy controls. The downside is that putting this much control in the hands of Facebook is pretty creepy.
Conclusion: It Doesn't Have to Be Hard Anymore
There's not a whole lot of excuses any more for asking users of your brand new website to fill in a whole lot of information about themselves. Nor is there for having super anemic user profiles, which leave new users totally uninspired to connect with each other. You need users connecting as quickly as possible in your apps and rich profiles really help.
What other ways have you seen apps solve this problem? We're sure there are many more creative examples and we'd love to find out about them!
The handsome devil at the top of this post is Flickr user thomas pix.