Ello's success may be the playbook app developers should follow

Shane Schick

Like thousands of others over the past two weeks, I submitted my e-mail address to request an invite. I'm still waiting. I periodically wonder when, and if, I will be accepted. When, and if, I finally do, I know I'll probably immediately log in and spend considerable time exploring everything about it. 

Even before I'm actually a user, Ello has managed to engage me more strongly than any other social media service--or any mobile app for that matter--has for quite some time. 

Ello is one of those rare examples of a platform becoming more viral than any of the content that has been shared on it. Perhaps this is to be expected from an invitation-only social network that seems deliberately designed to look exclusive and against the grain. All the media attention the service has received so far has been puzzling over its sudden popularity. Is it the simple but instantly memorable logo? The fact that there are no ads on it? Is it just because it feels new? 

Of course, it is none of those things, because almost any social network could have those elements. It is clearly its philosophy toward consumers, which are best summed up in its manifesto and seems directly aimed at the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat: 

"Your social network is owned by advertisers," the three-month old Ello Manifesto reads. "Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that's bought and sold."

What struck me most about Ello's position is how removed it seems from the advice given to so many app developers. Whether they are making social apps and games or not, the path most developers are pointed toward are those of profitable entrepreneurs who might not call their customers "products" outright but would not blush at recognizing the value their data holds. 

The app space is (slightly) less mature than that of social networking, but you can see how it could follow a similar trajectory. As mobile app analytics continues to mature and become more sophisticated, and as more user information is fed into systems that contextualize mobile ad and in-app purchasing offers, it might generate the kind of repulsion that gave birth to Ello. In fact, if Ello's success is sustainable, it may influence the degree to which consumers are willing to share information with apps in the future. 

On the other hand, what if more developers acted in such a way that the app equivalent of Ello never had reason to be born? I'm thinking of developers who ensure users never feel like a product because they take pains to respect their privacy, and are transparent about how their data is used. Or apps and games that don't flood their users with ads and IAPs but limit them in a more opt-in fashion. Imagine if more developers followed Ello's approach of leaving everything free but accepting donations for special features (which would still provide greater monetization than what many of them earn today). For the moment, at least, it feels like Ello is onto something. Maybe app developers should get onto it, too.--Shane