Media coverage of Twitter's last earnings call focused on two key points: the company's impressive advertising revenue growth and the slow rate of user growth. The latter was worrying for investors, especially against the solid user growth of networks like LinkedIn and Pinterest, and seemed to suggest that social networks that offer a more contextualized or targeted experience have identified a more sustainable model for social networking.
This conclusion has been echoed by Twitter's own actions of late. The company's two new features - 'While You Were Away' and 'Instant Timeline', both add critical context and curation elements to their offering, and highlight the company's growing awareness that if they want to add users and keep their existing ones engaged, they will need to start enabling social interactions that have enough context to make them meaningful - and therefore sustainable.
Interestingly, at Spot.IM we ran into exactly the same problem, and arrived at the same conclusion. We created a technology to help publishers create their own social networks and we found that without giving users enough context to frame their conversations, they would never develop the necessary brand relationship to keep readers coming back to interact.
Social networking is evolving. While Facebook certainly isn't going anywhere, today's users are looking for and responding to certain types of experiences that are forming the basis of new kinds of social interactions and networks. These experiences are characterized by being targeted or valuable, highly-contextual, personalized and curated. Understanding the nature of these experiences can not only provide insights on how we can grow our own communities, but also shed light on what social networks we will be spending time on in the future.
It's become a cliché to say we live in a content-saturated world, but that doesn't change the fact that helping users navigate to the content they will enjoy or find valuable is answering a critical pain point. Twitter cornered the market on real-time conversations, but if ignoring your Twitter feed for 10 minutes means you've lost track of the conversation - it presents a significant dilemma (hence the While You Were Away feature). There can be too much of a good thing. Too much 'real-time' and too many content options tend to overwhelm users pushing them to tap out. The key is to find a way to give them what they want before they have to ask for it.
This brings us to personalization. Users today have less patience for spam and mass market messaging than ever before, which goes hand in hand with content-saturation. The more content there is, the more important it is that social networks tailor their offering more minutely to a user's preferences. Personalization is also the key to strengthening the relationship with your target audience. It's not only that you become better at being the source of relevant or valuable content for a user, but that they feel that you are spending time and effort in getting to know them. It's as simple as showing someone that you care, and it's at the core of good customer service, a real relationship, and strong brand loyalty.
Obviously, every social network serves a purpose or addresses some kind of need, otherwise it wouldn't succeed. But social experiences that serve some other function beyond just connecting two people (or a group of people) see much higher growth, engagement and retention than others. This is why social networks like LinkedIn and Pinterest have done so well, since they connect people over a specific topic or function. It may be impressive to connect with hundreds of thousands of followers, but if you don't have a real reason to interact with them on a regular basis, engagement (and retention) decrease rapidly.
While curation is the key to making content consumable, context is the key to making it meaningful, and this is particularly true when it comes to engagement. Social media users don't just want to converse with each other online, they want to converse about something specific. Just look at the rise of interest-based networks, with Pinterest as its poster-child. Creating spaces where users can consume or interact with specialized content has proven to be very effective in keeping users engaged. The same principle is behind Twitter's Instant Timeline feature, and works to make Facebook the biggest driver of social traffic to other sites.
Whether it be Twitter's example or our own personal experience, we've seen that curated, contextual, purposeful and personalized social experiences drive the kind of retention that leads to a sustainable social network. Social networking is evolving, and the smarter, more sustainable social networks will be those that provide users a more targeted and context-rich experience.