The Next Big Social Network

by Ken Mueller on October 5, 2012 · 32 comments

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In my little corner of the world, we’re waiting for the next big social network. And by “my little corner” I mean those of us who work in the areas of marketing, communications, and social media. It’s what we do. We observe, we experiment, we speculate. When a new social network is announced, we check it out and weigh in on it’s importance and probability of success (or inevitability of failure).

We’re constantly on the lookout for a potential “Facebook killer” or “game changer”. We wonder which platforms will rise and which will fall. Will anyone ever topple Facebook? Will MySpace make a comeback? Is Twitter really relevant?

This week’s announcement that Facebook now boasts one-billion active users has us thinking about these things even more. But guess what:

The general public doesn’t care!

Those who aren’t marketers or digital communicators aren’t sitting around mulling over these sorts of things. In fact, if a recent study from Insites Consulting is any indication, the general public is quite happy with the way things are now, and might even dread the “next big thing”. One of the most important conclusions from Social Media around the World 2012, in my estimation, is this:

The social media landscape is rather stable: the large sites are getting larger and the small ones are getting smaller. Consumers are only prepared to create new accounts for sites which offer unique functions (such as Pinterest and Instagram).

Digging deeper, the study found that:

Awareness of social networks is very high. Facebook is close to 100%, Twitter reaches 80%, and Google + is known by 70%.

Additionally,

More than 7 out of 10 Internet users are members of at least one social network. This implies that more than 1.5-billion people use social network sites.

Clearly social media is mainstream, and remember, a billion of those have at least Facebook as one of their choices. But here is something from the study that is more telling:

Most people want to keep their digital lives as it is. No need for something new, and no intention to quit. On average, people only join 1 or 2 networks.

And yet here we are looking for the next big network, and countless others are trying to create the next big network.

We are in a settling down period. People are happy with the status quo. Clearly, Facebook is king for the moment, and for better or worse, people like it, and use it. A lot. Twitter has high recognition, but rather low adoption. Same goes for Google +, but there are varying interpretations of that platforms level of success. And then there’s LinkedIn for the professional crowd.

Many who work in this space seem to forget the most important thing about social media, something I have to constantly hammer home to my clients and students:

It’s social.

People aren’t there for the marketing. They join social networks to be…social! Yeah, it’s not rocket science. And we can only be social in so many places. People also tend to gravitate toward those things that are popular. This is why we have Top 40 radio, and why getting your book on the best seller list is the first step in keeping your book on that list. If it’s popular, people will buy it.

For all the complaining we do, most of those billion people really do like Facebook. They might not like everything about it, but there they are, day in and day out. And Twitter continues to see growth as well, albeit a bit more slowly. So at this point in time, I don’t see Facebook, Twitter, or even LinkedIn going anywhere. They are so entrenched in our culture, that those trying to topple them certainly have their work cut out for them.

But aside from being social, what are people looking for in social networks? I think there are a combination of things that draw people to these networks, and get them to stay:

Functionality

How easy is the site to use? If we’re happy with what we have, anything new has to be fairly easy to learn. People don’t want to have to work for it; they want a fast learning curve.

Features

You have to offer a variety of features that make the social aspect more enjoyable. And one feature that is a big issue for many is that of privacy. Social networks have to find ways to take user privacy seriously. Other features might include chat, games, sharing, and so on.

Form

Yes, looks matter. This is one of the things that killed MySpace in the first place. It’s also what has some folks excited about the “new and  improved” MySpace.

But perhaps more important than any of these things is another factor:

Uniqueness

It’s not enough to be social, with great features, functionality, and form. For every social network you’ve heard of, there are dozens more that come and go, trying to be the next Facebook or Twitter. But that’s the problem. They aren’t unique. They bring nothing significantly new to the table.

Right now we have several major players. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are rather firmly entrenched in the social landscape.

What makes them work is that they are unique; significantly different from one another. Yes, they might share some features, but at their core, they are different. Different features, different form, and different levels of functionality. In the end, if someone chooses to be on all three of those platforms, it can be done, and they work really well together as an integrated set.

For the sake of argument, let’s throw in Google +. In my mind, the jury is still out here for a variety of reasons, and while it has some great features (Google Hangouts), and has a different take on privacy (Circles), I think the platform still suffers from both external perception problems and an internal identity crisis. They really aren’t sure what they are, and neither is much of the general public.

Enter the newer, small social networks. What makes some rise to the top is that they are significantly different. Here I’m talking about platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Foursquare. Each brings something new to the social landscape AND integrates well within the existing dominant platforms.

In fact, the Insites report notes that awareness of Instagram and Pinterest is in the 25% range and growing. Furthermore, “users show a very high intention to use both sites more in the future.”

If the general public is happy with the one or two platforms they are already using, that makes the job of creating something new even harder. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I think developers need to think like a Pinterest and create something new, rather than trying to be “the next ____________ (insert name of successful platform).”

As for the new MySpace? Well, it sure is pretty. A far cry from the visual mess it had become when it was still king (yes, king’s can be dethroned). But to me it seems like it relies too heavily on other platforms, particularly Facebook and Pinterest. If that’s the case, what is it really bringing to the table?

Also, I’m not saying that every social platform has to be huge. There is definitely a place for niche networks, if they are well thought out and well executed. Success can be measured in a lot of different ways.

And the giants in this space also need to be careful not to rest on their laurels. They always need to be moving forward, adding functionality and features while improving their form.

But more importantly, for the big boys and the new kids on the block, they all need to focus more on that most important of words:

Social

Like any business, these platforms are about the user. They need to focus on customer experience. The moment they forget, the reason they are there in the first place, is the moment they are setting themselves up for failure.

For those of us who are marketers and communicators in the digital realm, we need to remember the same thing. It’s about our customers. It doesn’t matter how many old or new sites there are out there, or how big they are. The only sites that matter are the ones our customers are using.

What are your thoughts on this? Any ideas on what the next big social network might be?

 

 

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24 comments
AndrewDZgoda
AndrewDZgoda

wonderful, thank you very much for posting/writing this. I am actually developing a new social network + more, and this has brought some well-articulated insight on things I was unsure how to articulate before (in order to give a good sales pitch to future V. Caps.).

AusMatt
AusMatt

Not sure what the next big one will be. But just re Google Plus: I know that a lot of people are saying that it sucks and will fold eventually. I'm pretty sure that won't be the case. It's definitely here to stay -- although I doubt it will ever knock Facebook off its throne.

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

The only thing I'm shocked about is that G+'s awareness level is at 70%, since MOST of my Small Biz. clients don't know what it is..... I'm actually writing a post now cautioning focused attention on the platforms that WORK, and this certainly backs up my theories... GREAT post.

Ruud Hein
Ruud Hein

"Most people want to keep their digital lives as it is. No need for something new, and no intention to quit" -- which is what they would have said before Twitter...before Facebook...before blogs...before the Ipad and the iPhone, etc. Heck, I remember people as recent as 1997 arguing  against *the Internet*

My gut feeling is that the social <> real identity overlap is done. There has to be a place like the IRC or Usenet of the old days where people can be an avatar and a handle -- and that's it.Because regular social media overlaps real life to the extend that you need to filter it equally.

jonbuscall
jonbuscall

I think the key thing here is the reduction of noise. FB and Twitter are just so massively bloated and, well, noisy. YouTube, which is inherently social, is also buckling under the weight of engagement by the community. I can see niche social media sites taking over increasingly. Especially if channels like Twitter start to exercise more control over the network. 

If anyone hears of a Basset Hound Twitter-verse, just DM me, please.

westseattleblog
westseattleblog

Facebook's own Facebook-killing tendencies are: Not showing you every status from everyone you "like" or "friend," and then trying to charge you to fix that (first I got the ad solicitations for my business page, and now I'm getting them for my personal page - $7 so more people will find out I'm ticked off about something today? NO THANK YOU). As for "what's the next big thing?" ... it's the next LITTLE thing. Despite pervasive FB use, etc, our neighborhood-news site continues to grow, and its social features are good old fashioned ones like the discussion forum and comments, comments, comments. WITHOUT FB logos slapped all over everything (we have a tasteful ShareThis icon at the end of each story IF you really need to use it). Go find your nearest local site - not a cookie-cutter like Patch or DataSphere, but real independent local - THAT is "the next big thing." Trust me.

geoffliving
geoffliving

I do think we're in the era of fracturing networks. Meaning smaller and smaller niche networks.  App.net is starting to pique my curiosity. I may be there some day soon, but until Turkey Day! I need to survive until then.

abdallahalhakim
abdallahalhakim

Good analysis of this recent study. I liked how you broke down the features that a user is looking for in a new social network. One of the other points in the study is that large percentage of people are subscribed to at least 2 networks. This is will probably increase with ones such as foursquare, instagram and Pineterest becoming more mainstream. Other platforms such as Disqus already have a large active group could be classified as a community. The problem for the end user is A) how to efficiently follow these different networks and B) how to improve the signal to noise ratio. There are many tools on the web such as Hootsuite, social mention, Topsy and others that help manage and search the multiple networks. One of my favourite tools is Engagio because it helps unify my networks and focuses on the conversations rather than the entire 'firehose'. I am a bit biased (because I work there) but it is a great tool that is doing some unique things.

KStadden
KStadden

Great big-picture observations, Ken. Google Plus has been ill-defined, I agree. I reluctantly try to post there because of its influence on social signals. Dharmesh Shah, co-founder of HubSpot, recently said this in Boston:  "You can't ignore Google+ because of the characters before the plus." He said search rankings once were based primarily on incoming links but now are increasingly affected by reinforcement from social media.

katskrieger
katskrieger

Really had to chuckle at the general public doesn't care bit. This revealed itself quite nicely for me on a recent vacation. I spent a lot of time with friends and family very much NOT in the industry and it really reminded me how insular the marketing/media/advertising world can be. It also revealed how much time I spend thinking about all of this stuff each day; it was pretty obvious just how much my weltanschauung has changed in the last 3 years of doing this. 

I think I will keep waiting for a Facebook killer though. I don't think Twitter and LinkedIn are going anywhere. Although @ShellyKramer's post about the new LinkedIn Klout-like recommendations made me think a bit. Not sure where that will go. 

I have yet to see the new MySpace...just no reason to. Niche networks excite me most. I finally started embracing Foursquare. Another one worth talking about is Soundcloud. We're having them on the podcast soon. I think they have over 10MM users now. Of course, compared to 1B, that's nothing. 

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@jonbuscall For me, the thing about FB and Twitter is that the user CAN control the noise if they want to. I do a lot of that with lists on both platforms, as well as who I choose to hide or engage with. Additionally, some of those lists become my niche networks. Facebook is actually great for creating your own niche network. You could do that with Basset Hound lovers!

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@westseattleblog I haven't gotten any pitches to buy ads for my personal profile, and never would purchase. Most people won't. As for Edgerank and what people see, it really comes down to best practices. The clients of mine who are seeing great success are doing so without ads, but with good, consistent content.  

As for local sites, I'm not convinced that's the thing. I don't know if people want local. I think they want to stretch beyond their physical boundaries.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@geoffliving I have been playing around with App.net, and so far I'm seeing too much redundancy. And I think for the general public, it's a bit too much work. I also don't think it's something people will pay for, at least not as much as they are charging now. Again, there's a big difference between those of us who work in this field, and the large majority of users who don't seem to care as much as we do.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@abdallahalhakim There are definitely a lot of useful tools, but again, I think the ones who the use the tools are marketers and those of us who work in this space. Most of the general public just go right to the networks, and on mobile, use the native apps.

It will be very interesting to see how some of these smaller, niche networks develop, grow, and take hold.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@KStadden Thanks for stopping by! I think the search thing is why G+ is important, but almost unfairly so. We use it because it helps, but other than that, we don't know why or how to use it.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@katskrieger Look at you whipping out the German! I think the real Facebook killer might end up being Facebook itself, but we have so much invested in it as users, it will take a lot for them to fall. I have a lot of musician friends, including one current student, who are big on Soundcloud. It's been quietly growing at a steady pace, and within that community, it's doing well.

abdallahalhakim
abdallahalhakim

but even the public is having hard time keeping up with their relationship across the social media network. There are many applications computing in the social CRM space but very few working in the personal relationship management area. One of those working in the personal relationship management is Engagio which is why I recommended it in the previous comment. I have successfully used it to manage my conversations and to build 1:1 relationship. In fact, I got my job with them through relationship that I built through the use of Engagio :)

katskrieger
katskrieger

@KenMueller @katskrieger Ha Ha! I couldn't even stop myself. Before you know it I'll reveal how Shadenfroh I can be - wait..you already know that! :-)

Right on with Facebook being its own worst enemy, but you are also right. We all have so much invested personally in the platform. The photos etc. Personally, I know there are photos of my kiddos that only exist there. Especially the ones of our older one that were taken pre-smartphone. 

For the podcast, Soundcloud has given me a slow but steady additional audience. They are smart to integrate with every other platform too and not keep it exclusive to that website. 

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