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Social Media Analysis – Where The Puck Is Heading

One of the most important tools for good social media analysis is situational awareness. This means much more than simply knowing where you are – it’s knowing where you’ve been, and where you are heading. There’s a famous Wayne Gretzky quote that comes to mind. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at where the puck is going in Social Media – specifically in the areas of consolidation, mobile, and content.

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Social Media Consolidation

Big fish are eating the little ones – and it’s getting harder for a new social media site to make it in the sea. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and LinkedIn made lots of purchases in the past 10 months that point to where the social sphere is rolling. Here’s a quick recap of those networks and their purchases, with a brief description of what they do and the nature of the purchase.

Facebook

Instagram – the mobile photo editing and sharing service was famously acquired for an estimated $1bn, and was widely speculated as a competitive purchase more than a tech acquisition.
Karma – The mobile gifting service was purchased for undisclosed terms in May and provided the Tech for Facebook’s Gifts product, a new revenue stream for the company.
Glancee – A mobile social awareness and people discovery service, Glancee, also in acquired in May and again for an undisclosed sum. The service was shut down shortly after purchase.
Tagtile – Purchased in April for an undisclosed sum, Tagtile is a customer loyalty service that offers touch-based check-ins without the use of NFC. The service was continued for current retailers, but no longer offered for sale to potential vendors.
Spool – A service for saving and retrieving content for later consumption (even without internet access), Spool was bought by Facebook in July of this year for undisclosed terms. The service was discontinued upon purchase.
GoWalla – Although technically purchased in December of last year, GoWalla was a Foursquare competitor that Facebook purchased to bolster its location-based offerings. It has since been shut down.

Twitter

Clutch.io – Purchased in August, Clutch.io provided Twitter with A/B testing technology for iOS apps.
Posterous – Twitter acquired Posterous in March, a rival to the service and competitor to Tumblr. Posterous is still operating.
Dasient – purchased in January, Dasient was a malware protection developer, and placed them into their Revenue Engineering team.
Summify – a social links summarizing service, Summify would create a digest of content shared by friends for users.
Rest Engine – acquired in May by Twitter, Rest Engine is a personalized email service designed to help social applications retain users by using information about that users social graph to lure them back into the service.

Google+

Wildfire – Google purchased Wildfire, a social media marketing software vendor, in July. The service was known for its close relationship with Facebook and Twitter.

Note, these are only a few big purchases by a few big companies. There were tons of other purchases in the past year. These are just to provide some broader context, and hopefully help us pull out some new social media trends to watch for.

What we can glean from these acquisitions is largely limited to speculation. All of Facebook’s purchases have been mobile, perhaps not surprising given its growing segment of mobile users – more on that in a minute. Instagram, the standout buy, has been largely ascribed as a competitive move, but to ignore the capabilities of their engineering team in growing a community and building a great product would be shortsighted. Perhaps the most interesting purchase was Tagtile, if only for its technology and the possibilities it would open up, particularly when combined with the other location services Facebook snapped up. We already see some of the tech being applied to the service – content storage and gifts are debuting in the near future.

Twitter, already ahead of the game on mobile, focused on purchasing services that seemed to revolve around protecting and enhancing its content stream. Clutch.io, Posterous, Dasient, Summify, and Rest Engine all provide technology to enhance different portions of the Twitter experience, either by increasing conversions or retention. Dasient and Summify in particular have great implications of the lengths that Twitter is going in order to bolster the quality of the content users find in-stream and in their Discovery tab.

Google’s acquisition of Wildfire is notable because it could make Google a one-stop shop for social advertising and marketing. In addition to purchasing ads in their AdX networks, marketers could buy complimentary ads on social networks and have all of them summarized in one neat analytics package. This could be especially useful for marketers working at scale – Google’s AdWords purchasing system provides a better experience (in my opinion) than either Facebook’s Power Editor or Ads Manager tools.
Although Facebook had the strongest buying portfolio for it, mobile is by no means an issue limited to their service. Let’s take a deeper look into what they’re doing, as well as the implications increased mobile adoption has had for their competitors.

Mobile

In April of 2011, Facebook launched Facebook for Every Phone, a feature-phone version of the service fitted for over 3,600 different java-enabled devices – a product of their purchase of Snaptu in 2011. Taking things a step further, they partnered with major data carriers to provide 90 days of free data access for the app. As a side note, Facebook for Every Phone is the most popular Page on the entire Facebook ecosystem, with over 148,000,000 fans – mostly because the app suggests they like the page on initial sign-in.

For all of the criticisms of missing the boat on mobile, they seem to be pretty ahead of the curve. Beyond purchasing likely mobile competitors and making sure their service was available outside of the smartphone set, Facebook has been taking steps to refocus on their native environments in recent days. That includes rolling out a revised, faster version of their original iOS app, a Pages iOS app for Page Managers, and the now-rumored upcoming Android native app update.

Almost 20% of Facebook’s users use the service exclusively through a mobile device, while desktop usage has essentially stayed flat. Further, almost 50% of Facebook users access the site on a mobile device in addition to desktop usage. As smartphone penetration continues to increase, especially in third world countries, more and more users will be able to access social media services on the go, and even more will view them as activities reserved for their phones instead of anytime they’re online.

Twitter already has a solid lead in the mobile world. CEO Dick Costelo has said previously that Twitter’s users are primarily on mobile devices, and given the services’ origins, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. They are working to streamline and unify that experience, and in the process have decided to change their terms of access to their API. They also made it clear that certain kinds of applications built upon the Twitter API were no longer to be welcomed in the ecosystem. Twitter also took steps to further promote its Cards system, integrating more content directly in-stream than before. This, again, helps to protect its content stream by providing a richer and more engaging experience to the end user.

Google+ took steps to promote its mobile usage, as well. They released a new version of their mobile app. They also integrated Google+ profiles and Google Local profiles, all the while increasing their search prominence on mobile devices. This richer experience provides added benefits for businesses to get involved with the service.

Content

Another major trend is protection and optimization of content streams. A lot of big stories play to this strength – social media like Pinterest and Instagram coming out of nowhere and quickly rising in the ranks by providing excellent environments for consuming content. Obviously the bigger networks took notes. Facebook increased the surface area of photos in its mobile applications, as well as on the site. Twitter worked to increase the effectiveness of its discovery tab in the Twitter app, as well as implementing its Cards system with richer content experiences. Outside of the bigger networks, Reddit saw a rise to mainstream prominence, consisting entirely of content generation and consumption.

There also were moves to protect content. Twitters API restrictions are the first that come to mind, but its efforts to clean links on the site and shut down fake accounts are an important event to note. Facebook also has recently taken steps in this direction, working to shut down fake profiles on the heels of reports of click fraud and ineffective marketing. More interesting, Facebook recently adjusted its EdgeRank algorithm, drastically cutting down on the reach of some pages, and opened up new ways for both users and pages to ignore the system that it credited with growing the sites popularity. These steps will be extremely interesting in the future should Facebook make a move to become more of a search discovery engine instead of a passive discovery engine. In many ways, these moves were akin to Google’s constant changes to its search algorithm.

Where the puck is heading

Essentially, expect less breakout social networks in the future, but those networks to be stunning successes. By becoming social media that ‘do it all’, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter are trying to snatch up more market share from one another. This means the only way a new network will really break through is by being incredibly innovative, like a Pinterest or Instagram. For proof of this, look at the moves LinkedIn has been making – adding thought leader following, changing the structure of individual and company pages, and putting lots of emphasis on a feed of content when you log-in to the service. This mirrors the steps being taken by the other large networks. Chances are pretty good, too, that those that do make it will be bought up by a bigger service.

Conspicuously absent is YouTube from this mix. They seem to be migrating more to the discovery and creation side of content than the sharing side. This is evidenced by their pushes to create new original content and opening of the partnership program to encourage innovative content creators to choose YouTube as their service of choice. By making themselves the de facto video hosting service, they have a great foot in the door at any social network going forward, as well as with the current social offerings we have today. This also makes they ripe for disruption, although where that might happen is anyone’s guess.

Where will the next big success be? Almost definitely in passive mobile content consumption. This is editorializing, but if I had to guess at the long game, I would bet that the next big social media site would be one that focuses on images and GIFs, integrates seamlessly with a browsing experience, and takes a mobile-first approach. Where should your site be? Mobile-optimized, properly marked up for both OpenGraph and Cards, and optimized to convert visitors to share your site’s content. As for marketing campaigns and overall appeal, look to high-quality images and GIFs. The reason I bet on GIFs and images is because they are discrete and can be consumed quickly. Video can be embarrassing in certain situations – it’s loud, which is attention grabbing, and often the most ‘sharable’ content is shocking or potentially offensive. I would bet that Cinemagram will have a big year this year, as the iPhone 5’s increased processing power and 4g speed will greatly enhance their current user experience. A rumored Android version of the app will also do good things for their user base, as there are many 4g Android devices and many Android users out there right now.

I suspect Facebook’s increasing efforts to monetize their user base will begin to backfire over the course of the year. Despite their concern for maintaining the integrity of the newsfeed,  they’re putting ads anywhere else they can. This, unfortunately, hurts their user experience, and means they need to discover new ways to monetize their user data outside of their ecosystem in order to preserve the newsfeeds integrity. Facebook Exchange is a nice, privacy implication-free way to get a little extra cash from their users. Similarly, their e-mail listing product could be effective for brands and doesn’t directly affect the privacy of their users. But the juicy premise of hyper-targeted ads utilizing the immense amount of user data they collect. Besides outright selling that data for advertisers to sell ads against outside of Facebook’s ecosystem, the only option I can see for them going forward would be to create premium advertising accounts with special access to hidden connections between brands, users, and interests. This could provide valuable market insight for advertisers and brands alike. The downside of this is potentially inflaming privacy issues with users yet again.

Twitter appears to be putting more effort into the content discovery portion of their service, highlighting news items shared by multiple persons a user is connected to and demonstrating the connections. This is a step away from the passive discovery that they were pursuing before, which was dependent on users actively following other users and engaging with their content. They are also working to preserve that streams integrity by aggressively removing spam and ensuring quality ads. The Cards system will play into this as well, by both providing pre-screening for content users might leave the ecosystem to see and allowing simpler content like images and video to live within Twitter instead of driving a user away from the service. This increases the amount of content that users can consume.

Google+ is doing the right thing by incorporating itself into Google’s AdX network and providing an ad-free experience (currently). Hypothetically, Google+ could remain ad-free by providing user data to it’s other ad offerings to serve ads against outside the network. The ability to share GIFs on the service might play well for them if my earlier prediction pans out, but Tumblr has been at that game much longer. Unfortunately, it’s my personal opinion that the service has always lacked a USP, or unique selling proposition, to really set it apart from the rest of the social pack. Facebook was the first network to really connect us in a way that felt private enough to share but public enough to see. Twitter offered us the ability to follow celebrities, visionaries, and unique human beings without having to awkwardly ask them to follow us back. LinkedIn created a professional networking service that can provide lasting value in the business side of a users life without risking accidental over sharing  The only unique feature that Google+ had, besides being a Google product and omnipresent, was Hangouts, a feature quickly emulated by Facebook. Even then, Hangouts suffer from the same issues that online video always has – network lag creates awkward stepping-on-each-others sentences and video conferencing takes enormous time commitment from all the participants (at least relative to alternative communications). Large image sizes were a great step, but they were also quickly emulated by Facebook. They need to find a stronger differentiation – maybe by utilizing the white space they’ve left untapped to provide an even larger, more visual content consumption experience in-stream.

Where do you see the puck heading? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

http://www.lunametrics.com/blog/2012/10/16/social-media-analysis/

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