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The Diverging Futures of Social Platforms

Charting the development trajectory of major U.S. social media platforms and dissect what they mean for marketers

Therefore, it is no surprise that a growing number of social media users are retreating from public-facing feeds to niche, interest-based social platforms — a trend that we analyzed in the last section of our Outlook 2021 trend report. It also makes perfect sense that Facebook, the social network company with dominating market share in the U.S. and most global markets, has made a strategic pivot away from the news feeds to focus on messaging, groups, and local communities to help users make “meaningful connections.”

Up until now, monetization on most social channels has been centered around in-feed ads, be it within the main feed or interstitials between stories, also aided by a robust influencer economy atop. Yet, faced with growingly negative public opinions, most major social platforms are looking for new growth opportunities and charting out their respective future roadmaps. Upon a closer look, a diverging future of social media is starting to take shape, as different platforms pursue different strategic goals and new monetization methods, all of which will have a profound impact on how brands utilize social channels to connect with consumers in the long run.

Let’s take a high-level look at the major social media platforms in the U.S. and ponder where their current trajectory will lead them.

While this approach should be sufficient in maintaining Facebook’s relevance as a social platform for the time being, messaging has become such a table-stake among social media channels, not to mention orthogonal competitors like Apple’s Business Chat or Discord, that it won’t be enough to future-proof Facebook’s namesake service. For a better long-term prospect, Facebook has an undying dream of becoming a platform, a la Apple’s IOS or Google’s Android.

For consumer-facing brands, the growing opportunities of selling directly to consumers via social media platforms like Instagram is becoming evident. However, the question remains whether Instagram can pull off that transformation without disrupting its core user experience to the point of alienating its users and driving them off to less overtly commercial platforms. Facing increasing competition from TikTok and, to a lesser extent, Snapchat, Instagram’s quest to become the digital Mall of America may run the risk of over-staffing its app and reducing its cultural cachet. Nevertheless, brands looking to get a slice of the social commerce pie now have a go-to channel to garner engagement and drive sales.

Interestingly, over the past six months or so, Twitter has seemingly rekindled its interests in evolving its platform, rolling out a series of new features that strategically position itself as a platform where content creators can directly monetize their outputs of all formats. This series of new additions stand in stark contrast to its historical inertia, perhaps partly thanks to the push for changes from Elliott Management.

All these creator-oriented features point to a potential strategic pivot in Twitter’s business model away from advertising, the primary revenue source for all major social media platforms today. Instead, it would earn a cut from the revenues that it helps creators generate. For example, it will keep 20% of the revenues generated by the aforementioned Ticketed Spaces. While the creator infrastructure is rapidly coming together for Twitter, whether or not enough users will be willing to pay for content they have been so far enjoying for free remains up in the air.

For brand marketers, Twitter’s new pursuit does not necessarily mean it will suddenly stop being an ad-friendly social channel. Quite the contrary, by transforming itself into a multi-media creator platform, Twitter could make itself more sticky and engaging for its users, which, in turn, could grow its paltry active user base and deliver more eyeballs for brands. In addition, brands may also get to use Twitter as a content marketing tool to engage with its most loyal customers.

In the near future, AR headsets will create even more immersive experiences and unlock new brand opportunities. It is evident that, besides Apple, no other company is better prepared to take on the post-mobile paradigm shift than Snap. The company recently released a revamped set of Spectacles for creators to develop more contextual AR experiences. The main challenge for Snapchat is in the implementation — to make sure they can stay ahead of the competition and grow into the prime destination for AR experiences.

Now with over 500 content partners and 200,000 developers on board, Snapchat is on the right track to make its AR dream a reality, as it continues to push the envelope on what AR experiences could look like on mobile and beyond. In preparation, brands should work with platforms to establish a library of 3D branded assets, explore new consumer-facing use cases, and understand how consumers engage with AR in different contexts.

With greater visibility comes greater scrutiny from both the public and regulators, especially regarding its data privacy and censorship practices. The fact that it is owned by a Chinese company further complicates TikTok’s long-term prospects in the U.S. Still, TikTok’s biggest competitive asset is its increasingly entrenched position as the ground zero of digital culture and the go-to platform for democratized creativity. And as long as it stays culturally relevant, it is a platform that brands need to explore and invest in.

Although Epic Games is not usually considered as an active player in the social media arena today, its ambition in building the metaverse of the future will have a major impact on the future of social media, for online social interactions and user-generated content are things that will be subsumed by the metaverse. And out of all the companies developing “protoverses” today, Epic is best positioned to weave in the social graph for the metaverse future it is building towards, thanks to its ownership of Houseparty and the social graphs of players it owns via its game store.

In the future, as Epic continues to develop the metaverse and entice more people to socialize in its persistent virtual worlds, our relationship with social media will drastically change. Perhaps, our online interactions with each other would revert back to a more intimate, personal mode of interactions. It may trigger another cultural shift to get our information “in-person” from friends, instead of from an algorithmically tailored feed.

Not every social network has a clear roadmap for future development. To me, Reddit, Pinterest, and LinkedIn have clearly all carved out a niche for themselves respectively, but it seems less clear where each of the three would go from here.

Pinterest, popular among trend-seekers and great for making digital scrapbooks, is perhaps the least “social” platform of the bunch. Users can essentially get the most out of using Pinterest without necessarily engaging with the social features. For the past few years, Pinterest has been investing in visual search and social commerce as growth drivers, but they face strong competitions from the likes of Google, Instagram, and Snapchat on both fronts, clouding its long-term prospects. A stronger editorial curation may help it better differentiate itself from competitors, but that won’t necessarily solve the lack of social urgency of its platform.

LinkedIn’s future is undoubtedly intertwined with the future of work. With the rise of hybrid work and the creator economy, there will be a need for a recruitment platform built both for creators and freelancers as much as it is for companies and headhunters. LinkedIn has a decent shot at becoming that platform, but it is hardly doing much these days to evolve its platform while the way we work starts to fundamentally shift. Since it’s owned by Microsoft, there is also a missed opportunity of integrating with the ubiquitous Office 360 suite of applications, especially Teams.

In conclusion, most of the major U.S. social platforms are starting to diverge in their approaches to monetization and growth drivers, which means that brand marketers need to better understand the long-term goals of each social platform, and activate and test on the ones that align with your choice of marketing strategies. Different social platforms already offer different brand opportunities today, and those differences will only grow wider.

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