What does it take to build a successful social media network? Amidst an ever-growing sea of challengers, why does Facebook stay afloat while MySpace sinks? This is a question many challengers have asked, and almost as many have failed to answer, and yet, despite this, we continue to see new challengers rise, labeled as 'the next big thing', 'the Facebook killer', 'the anti-Facebook'. This week, another challenger has joined the discussion, this time in the form of open-source network Minds. Minds is very similar to Facebook, but it puts major emphasis on user privacy and platform transparency. People are disillusioned with Facebook's questionable privacy ethics, right? People want a more transparent, open social network, one where they're in full control. Right? If that's the case, then Minds is in a good spot, but whether the distinction of privacy is enough to win over a significant enough audience to sustain it remains to be seen.
Snapping at Their Heels
Remember when Ello was the network everyone needed to be on for about three weeks? Remember when Tsu offered to pay you for your social media content? Every few months we see another new challenger, a new and potentially major player in the social media landscape that's come along to shake things up and rattle the cages of the big networks. But they almost never do. Why? Because all too often they're focused on the wrong elements. Yes, people don't like Facebook's ever-encroaching moves on user privacy, people are opposed to the blatant monetization of the platform and annoyed by reductions in organic reach. But people still like Facebook.
Because everyone's on it - Facebook has achieved a critical mass, an audience that's too great to ignore. It's done so by creating functionality that users have embedded into their interactive process, by providing an almost irreplaceable utility in people's lives. Sure, more young kids these days are switching to Snapchat and Instagram, but they're still also using Facebook. By listening to users and giving them a platform dedicated to their needs, Facebook has built the biggest army of active users ever assembled. Amidst those ranks there are those who'll criticize, but that's always going to happen when you amass an audience equivalent to 20% of the population of the entire planet.
Of course, that doesn't mean Facebook is unassailable, that they can rest easy knowing that they lead the way. No, Facebook still faces significant foes, challengers who are out to steal their audience wherever they can. This was most evident when they offered $3 billion for Snapchat - Facebook clearly saw the potential Snapchat has to spirit some of their precious attention away, and as such, they sought to eliminate the threat. And they were right - Snapchat now has more than 100 million users watching 2 billion mobile videos on the platform every day. Evan Spiegel's upstart, vanishing image platform has been on a sharp rise, and there are no signs of it falling away anytime soon. Snapchat is a reminder that new players can, and will, take audience share from the big players, but it's also a perfect case-study in what it takes to do so, on what it takes for a challenging social network to succeed.
(Not) More the Same
Let's look at a couple of the more well-known former title-holders and challengers over recent times:
- Friendster - failed because MySpace and Facebook provided more focus on social sharing and connecting
- MySpace - failed because Facebook innovated faster and delivered a better user experience
- Google+ - failed because it tried to be Facebook, and we already had one of those
- Ello - failed because it offered nothing new
Do you see a pattern here? The basis on which social media challengers succeed or fail depends on their ability to differentiate themselves from the competition and provide functionality that users simply cannot get anywhere else. MySpace died out because Facebook was better - it provided more social interactivity, better layout, less focus on advertising. Facebook succeeded by differentiating itself, being something more than what already existed.
In the case of Google+ this was even more pronounced - Google+ is a good platform, and there are some great features on the network, features that many users swear by. But the user experience isn't really much different from what users already have on Facebook and other networks. Without a significant differentiating factor to compel users to come across, they haven't - there's nothing wrong with Google+, it's just not different enough to draw a crowd.
The Challenge and the Challenger
This is the measure against which all new players and challengers should be judged - do they provide a unique enough user experience to draw an audience away from the existing players? Offering more privacy won't be enough, offering a more transparent algorithm won't be enough - what does this platform offer that will make users want to log-in and check out what's happening there, every day? Snapchat brought fun, an element of creativity and excitement to the social media landscape. People saw the photos with hand-drawn backgrounds and additions and they wanted to try it out, and that effect cascades through. Because of user experience. It certainly wasn't Snapchat's philosophical approach that won over the masses.
While there's always room for more social networks that cater to niche audiences - and such platforms should be encouraged, social is all about facilitating opportunities for inclusion - when we're considering whether a new player is going to be the next big thing, it's user experience, and differentiation from existing offerings, that should be considered the measuring pegs for future success.
Does this platform offer a unique or improved user experience? Does it cater to an evident demand in the market? If it doesn't get a 'yes' on both those fronts, then you're probably not looking at the next 'Facebook killer'.
Main image via Quka / Shutterstock