One constant through the many evolutions of Internet platforms is the fickleness of human beings, especially when asked to make quick decisions. Successful products have been driven by the combination of the “right” feature set, clarity in purpose, and most importantly, the vibrant nature of communities and how accessible they are to the user.
Indeed, social media users have gone from having options limited by the technical feasibility of what they are trying to accomplish, to having been left with a barrage of decisions to make about what, how, and with who they socialize their content. They’re running into too many choices of types and places to share their content. And, increasingly, they’re also running into one parameter that’s impossible to change – the number of hours in the day.
So, what’s starting to happen? People, especially early adopters and power users, are taking time away from the “shopping mall” social networks — Facebook and Twitter, for purposes of this discussion — where people can conceivably get anything they want, but have to do a lot of filtering and sorting and following and set up. Instead, they are starting to turn towards specialized niche social networks to get one type of content that may be most properly appealing to them.
Compare to a real-world scenario: let’s say if you’re a marathon runner, and are looking for a new pair of shoes. You may be fine going to Target, because they sell sneakers, but their selection probably isn’t aimed at you. You could try a Foot Locker, and you may have better luck, but you may be out of luck if you have flat feet, or a high arch, or need width. At the end of the day, you’re probably going to go to a store where they have people who can share their expertise with running and know how to fit you best for shoes. Now if you knew that ahead of time, wouldn’t you go to the specialty store first?
To me? The Target for your content is Facebook, the Foot Locker is Twitter, and the specialty stores? I’d wager them as Pinterest, Instagram, Foursquare and Tumblr.
I think that Facebook’s problem has become trying to be too many things to too many people and Twitter has always struggled with people who are new to the service understanding the ecosystem. As Twitter and Facebook start to move their ad products public, it is in their best interest to have users share as much content as possible because it allows them the space to insert ads into the content stream. And this is, the last holy grail of social advertising, and why these niche networks will continue to succeed – it’s an area the “shopping malls” don’t want to play in anymore. In a quantity vs quality comparison, on a per piece of content basis, quantity almost never wins.
Why are these niche networks appealing? I think it’s because the decision set has been limited, the options to act have been filtered, the context and actions are clear, and the complexity has been largely removed, and the onus is on creativity and curation. (I’d be lying if anyone ever said to me, “man, you have an amazing Facebook page”). Here are five reasons why I think niche networks are starting to win some users away:
1. There are limited explicit options about what and how to share. On Instagram, you’re sharing photographs with a quick way to customize. With Foursquare, you’re telling people where you are and who you’re with. With Pinterest, you’re telling people what you want. With Tumblr, you’re giving a very limited set of options to share your content, and encourage to keep it short and to the point. It’s a classic web design tenet – don’t make the user think too much, and they will be more likely to do something.
2. The action is both spontaneous and lasting. At point of creation or curation, the user decision set is limited, often reactionary, doesn’t take a lot of effort and all take care to make your content broadcast able to the audience that you want, and store it for easier review and curation.
3. Each action builds towards a collection of content that you can control and edit at any time. Facebook is certainly trying to do this with Timeline, but the daunting task of reviewing and curating content prior to the middle of 2011 is too much for many long time users who don’t want the stress of trying to figure out who the audience is. There is emotional and archival value in your Pinboards, or your Tumblr blog or your Instagram stream. Your Foursquare check-in history reminds you of where you where and what you did both on a global scale, and every time you check-in. If you choose to go further, all of these services have a secondary system for organizing your content via tags (Tumblr, Instagram), or through groupings (boards and tips and lists), but you are under no obligation to use them. You’re building your own unique canvas – you’re creating something to last.
4. Your collection is much likely to be about one thing, or related sets of things. I’ve seen Pinterest boards about everything from shoes, to fashion, including clothing or wallets as the one you can find online from these 13 Best Front Pocket Wallets online. Foursquare reminds you that you’re really into movie theaters, Apple stores, pizza joints or karaoke bars by awarding you leveled badges based on your activity there. Instagram photo streams capture the eye of the photographer and often revolve around the things they like to shoot.
5. There is a built-in community online built around content discovery. If you’re new to these communities, there are a host of people who can show you the way to best utilize these tools, either implicitly or explicitly, and thus make it easier to discover people with like interested. Discovery tools allow the random serendipity that makes social media great to connect people across shared content interests.
The explosive growth of Pinterest, Instagram, Foursquare and Tumblr are no longer something marketers can ignore. And remember, user choice always wins; for every Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare, there is a Friendster, Pownce and Gowalla.
So what’s a marketer to do with these new channels? Stay tuned for my talk at Social Fresh East, and a wrap-up summary soon after in case you can’t be there in person.