Best of 2012: The Next Big Social Network

by Ken Mueller on December 26, 2012 · 1 comment

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300px P question.svg Best of 2012: The Next Big Social Network

This continues my look at some of the top posts here at Inkling Media over the past year. This particular post was originally published back in October. I think it did so well mostly because of the title; I think people thought I had a crystal ball and was going to name a specific social network. So in one way, I’m sure they were disappointed, but I think I still gave them something to think about.

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?

 Best of 2012: The Next Big Social Network
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