It's easy to identify the social media early adopters of five years ago. They're the ones with the coveted three-letter Twitter handles. Or they're people like Ze Frank or Charlie McDonnell, whose YouTube vlogs took off during YouTube's first wave, before YouTube became inundated with over 100 hours of new content posted every minute. During the initial age of social media, the first people to the game often became the people who determined the conversation.
Now, however, the early adopter path to influence has changed. Every time a new social media platform is introduced, from Google Plus to App.net, a handful of eager beavers flock to become first in line, so they can finally have a chance at leading the conversation. Unfortunately, the current social media giants are so entrenched that the conversation stays exactly where it is.
In fact, the top guarantor of a social media platform's success is not how many early adopters it captures, but how many people who already have influence decide to join its ranks. To quote Ben Brooks, on why App.net isn't a household name like Twitter or Facebook: "App.net failed to capture the “top” nerds."
In other words: the current success of social media isn't determined by how many early adopters it collects; it's whether Cory Doctorow, Wil Wheaton, Sean Gardner, Liz Strauss, and other conversational drivers cross over.
This is, of course, what happened with Tumblr, whose early adopters quickly yielded followers to the same big names that everyone was already following on Twitter and Facebook. Tumblr did allow several new voices, such as Greg Pembroke of Reasons My Son is Crying, to join the popular crowd, but the top users are still the same familiar players: the group of celebrities, nerds, and influencers who are currently leading the conversation regardless of where they post.
Because of this, people who wish to make change and drive influence via social media need to consider new strategies. The ultimate key to social media success is still to create unique, interesting content from a personal perspective, but to get that content seen, you need access to current social media influencers. As the team behind Social Reactor notes, getting your voice heard is often about "reaching out to leaders in social media—influencers with large and loyal followings in social channels like Twitter and Tumblr."
Greg Pembroke, for example, did not see his Tumblr account become one of the top-followed accounts until after Reasons My Son Is Crying got reblogged by the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Today, and other major influencer sites. Though his excellent content remained constant throughout, and his growing fan base helped propel his blog's momentum, he was not able to stand out from the hundreds of thousands of other users until his blog was promoted by a group of trusted influencers.
This path, of course, needs to be approached with caution. Being the type of social media user who continually begs celebrities for retweets and reblogs is a good way to detract from your brand, after all. You are more likely to connect with the influencers that can help you if you go back to the first rule of social media success -- create engaging, unique content -- and work to build followers and momentum that will attract a key influencer's attention.
Although becoming an early adopter in 2005 was one of the best ways to lead the social media world, we can't hop into a time machine and go back to the days where there were so few people on Twitter and YouTube that everybody's voice got heard. Now, the best way to ensure social media success is not to be first in line for every new social network that pops up, but rather to connect your unique content to the trusted influencers who can help your voice rise above the noise and give you a place in the conversation.