The future of social media

Over on Forbes this week, Jos̩ Espinosa, discussed the life expectancy of Twitter in an article written by Andrew Cave. The article posed the question on whether or not Twitter would be around to see the Super Bowl LII in 2018, and Jos̩ gave the opinion that it would not Рit would be dead.

The same day, Mashable released an article that reported this years Super Bowl XLIX was the biggest Super Bowl on Twitter to date, so Jose’s bold statement sparked some lively debate in our office.

Wanting to understand more about how Jose had come to this conclusion, and aware it may raise questions from clients, I did some research of my own.

First I looked at a recent report by YouGov which suggests that not only is Twitter in decline but that Facebook is also suffering a similar percentage drop off, although in terms of scale, Facebook still has almost 3 times the number of users than Twitter, none of which I found surprising.

The main revelation for me is that YouTube is the second most popular channel for all users of social media. Although it has around half the number of users as Facebook, its popularity amongst the 8 – 15 year old audience, make it a contender to be a default platform of choice with this upcoming generation, who have a huge appetite to consume video, audio and imagery over textual content. It’s the most popular platform for this age group, followed by Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, and demonstrates that there are still opportunities for new social platforms to emerge and succeed in this competitive arena.

Looking back the rise and fall of social platforms is nothing new. In the 1990s the pioneers of the social landscape didn’t have the benefit of hindsight – lessons learned from others’ failures, mass uptake of consumer technology, or awareness of the value of user feedback to inform the direction in which they developed their products. So before Facebook became truly mainstream seven years ago, we had MySpace. And before MySpace, we (in the UK) had Friends Reunited.

MySpace was cool at one time, but there were several key issues they failed to recognise in order to reengineer and realign the business (mobile technology, authentic users, transparent interface, to name a few). It failed to move beyond its core proposition and once it was sold the new owners got greedy to claw back their investment quickly, and its popularity waned even with a concerted effort to reinvent it in recent times.

Monetisation was also a problem for Friends Reunited, a UK-based pioneer of social networking, started for old school pals to reconnect, which by 2001 attracted 2.1million users. It failed in getting the revenue model right. A paid subscription service became a big turn off for users especially when the owners failed to enhance the site beyond the original proposition. Users found little reason to revisit regularly and this downturn in traffic meant the advertising model also failed to deliver.

Facebook on the other hand appears to have got the model right. They worked iteratively – starting with a narrow audience and basic functionality but were astute enough to recognise that working collaboratively with their audience gave them the benefit of having hundreds, then thousands of real world users to test and feedback to develop the product further. They also recognised the need to invest heavily in order to work towards a profitable revenue model. With a site that remains true to its user centric roots it is by no means perfect, but in terms of maturity and its ability to adjust to market needs its doing pretty well so far.

And while it may be in decline with the youth market there are those that support the theory that some platforms suit people at different points in their life, as highlighted in an article from the Fool which cites that Facebook use is likely to be cyclical, as teen users who ‘left’ return as they get older and start families of their own.

As someone who prefers to look forwards rather than back, this short trip down memory lane reminded me of how I felt when some of these social networks emerged – so with Jose’s comments about the future demise of Twitter in mind, I decided to reconsider how I feel about its future.

As someone who started using Twitter in its early days I have a sentimental fondness for its quirky character limit that forces you to be succinct, for its popularising the concept of the hashtag, and for it being a facilitator of mass event participation (the BBC Question Time series is an unlikely beneficiary of this phenomenon).

But as I look back at some of that fun stuff that was going on 3 or 4 years ago, when there was mass uptake but much less corporate presence, the more I realise that perhaps this badly constructed attempt to service the corporate world is the death knell of Twitter as we know it after all, as Jose states in his article.

It’s true Twitter isn’t any longer the truly social nirvana it once was. While it is more refined now, with the ability to easily share more than just characters, I also have content pushed to me that I haven’t requested, and while I can control that to a degree, it can be slightly intrusive. It is also full of empty and fake profiles – so many that can no longer be trusted.

If Twitter doesn’t get their business model right soon there’s a chance they will damage the critical mass of users who I’m sure, like me, loved the inclusive community feel of a user-generated content stream. I really hope they discover a way to monetize in a more elegant way, before those users who benefit massively from having a free mass communication tool (charities, non-profits and worthy individuals) to engage with their audience decide they can no longer be heard in the noise.

Above all, for me all of the above reinforces the idea that any social media strategy should be tools-agnostic and user-centric, putting the consumers first and using a platform that is relevant at the time – choosing a targeted approach and not employing the scatter-gun effect of being on every popular network known to man. Be agile with your strategy, maximise the channels that are relevant and you’ll find you deliver the most effective campaigns, ultimately getting the best quality results.

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