In the relatively short history of the social web, there has always been one major network that was the currency among teens. In the mid-2000s, it was MySpace. In the later part of that same decade, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook took over.
Lately, however, Facebook’s prominence seems to be fading as user growth starts to slow down among young people. One study goes as far as claiming that Facebook will lose up to 80% of its users by 2017. During an earnings call, Facebook acknowledged that they “…did see a decrease in daily users specifically among younger teens,” although the vague language implied that they might be understating the situation.
Teens frequently move from one network to another, but this time, no single platform is poised to take over Facebook’s dominance. While tech media has anointed Snapchat as the new flavor of the month, the app faces increasing competition and new security concerns. Shortly after Snapchat turned down Facebook’s acquisition offer, Zuckerberg’s new purchase Instagram introduced a Snapchat-like functionality. More recently, Snapchat had a massive data leak. The app might see its growth trajectory flattened as it deals with these critical challenges.
In addition to Facebook and Snapchat, teens use different apps for many different purposes: Vine for short videos; Instagram for photos, 15-second videos and personal messages; Twitter for short, written messages; Tumblr for artsier curated content and animated GIFs; and Pinterest for aspirational images.
In the fragmented social web, the main challenge for marketers is allocating time and resources. Each platform has its own language and unwritten rules of conduct, and marketers need to prioritize certain networks over others. But, it’s not all bad news. For marketers, this landscape provides big research opportunities, including the following:
Not all apps have the same appeal. Marketers need to understand the social circle with whom users communicate on each app, the need-states the app satisfies, and how those needs and usage change over time. Some teens use Twitter in lieu of texting now, while some use Instagram for more than sharing photos. Some might be using Facebook more to communicate with relatives than with close friends. Pronounced ethnic differences in the usage of each platform — Twitter and Instagram, for example, have more racially diverse user bases — are also ripe for exploration.
Promotion and Engagement
How can brands effectively engage teens on each app? Can companies advertise on these apps in a way that users will actually find valuable and not overly intrusive? On Snapchat, some brands are engaging users through snaps of new products. In the meantime, Pinterest, Tumblr and Twitter are starting to figure out how to monetize their platforms. Smart brands will use consumer insights to learn how to speak the users’ language in these platforms effectively.
The fragmentation of social media is very much driven by the diverse needs of teen consumers. One app can’t be everything to everyone. New players are trying to get into the market by figuring out the supplementary needs of consumers. For instance, Jelly, a newly-launched network that bolts on to existing apps, allows users to ask questions among their contacts on a social network, in the same way that they might Google those questions. By talking to teen consumers and engaging people in a co-creation process, marketers can help drive innovation and uncover opportunities where their brand can meaningfully add value.
Today’s social web has many different players, and the stakes are high. Teens usually drive the early growth of a network by attracting critical mass. These platforms will borrow best practices from each other, and large companies like Yahoo! and Facebook will buy them and integrate them to remain innovative, stimulate growth, and tap into the brainpower that built those platforms.
Over time, a giant tech company such as Facebook or Google might roll a bunch of these apps into one ecosystem, but for the time being, the Wild West days of the social web mean marketers need to be innovative in the way they approach research. As the landscape becomes more competitive, marketers who move away from simple, ad hoc surveys toward more longitudinal, ethnographic studies have a better shot at understanding teens and thriving in this dynamic market.