Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are making a strategic mistake trying to compete with one another, writes Greg Stevens.
I see these ridiculous social media marketing campaigns. You know the sort of thing. The hashtag #ripFacebook trending on Twitter, or info-graphics about the superiority of Google+ being ridiculously over-shared… on Google+. Is there anyone in the PR community who thinks they are fooling us into believing that these “conversations” are organic? I hope not.
Yet, too much of the time, end users do buy in to a portion of this hype. They become convinced that they have to make a choice. Which social media platform do I like best? Should I switch from Facebook to Twitter? Should I switch from Twitter to Google+? These conversations don’t happen among the technology aficionados, of course, who happily participate in as many social media platforms as they can squeeze into their day. But the conversations do happen, nonetheless, among the confused casual users who “haven’t decided yet” whether to give up Facebook now that they have joined Google+, or who don’t think they need to bother joining Twitter because they are “happy with” Facebook. This is the language used by people who feel like they are being forced to make a choice.
Framing the relationships between these various social media platforms as a competition in which the goal is to eventually settle on the “best” one is a mistake, both for end users (consumers) of social media and for the marketing people trying to build the market share of a particular platform. Instead, users should be encouraged to use the entire ecology of social media platforms.
Platforms should then be encouraged to specialise, to take advantage of their inherent strengths and capitalise on their ability to perform a particular social networking function, rather than trying to be “all social functions” in one basket. The feature creep of Facebook annoys us because Facebook is fundamentally good at one thing: communication and information sharing among friends. Games and subscriptions to celebrity feeds can be layered on top of this premise, but these are not the core competencies of the platform.
Twitter’s chief executive, Dick Costolo, should also tell his product team to calm it down. The latest web-based interface of Twitter suggests a gamut of functionality that Twitter’s core service simply does not provide. Not to mention the constant, and almost always wrongheaded, iterations of the @-mentions and user discovery functions.
The monopoly strategy–trying to be all things to all people–has already been tried: it is the story of AOL. The way that Facebook and Google+, and, to a lesser extent Twitter, are positioning themselves, it looks as though they are trying to be the re-enactment of the AOL story for the early days of the social revolution. They continue down this path at their peril.
A better approach is, as I say, specialisation. Tumblr and LinkedIn are strong and popular platforms, yet somehow they have stayed out of the fray of the marketing wars about “which is better”. Why? Because there isn’t a single person out there who would describe themselves as using LinkedIn “instead of” Facebook or Twitter for social networking. Most people who use LinkedIn also use either Twitter or Facebook or Google+ (or any combination of these), and those people who do not use these other platforms still wouldn’t use them if LinkedIn weren’t around.
People who want to share photos of each other drunk at parties may also want to do professional networking, but it’s likely that they will not want to do it in the same place, or with the same people. So there is a strong inherent natural division of labour between LinkedIn and the other platforms that are available.
Tumblr is another example of social networking specialisation. Tumblr’s innovation is in its ability to allow near-instant re-shares of multimedia content. It is similar to Twitter, in that it is primarily used for short-form content: the sort of thing you can scroll through and appreciate very quickly and without much attention.
But rather than Twitter’s text-based micro-blogging method of broadcasting short-form content, Tumblr is focused on media: photos, animations, and movies. Naturally, there are people who use it for text as well, and people who enjoy adding comments to images, and so on. But Tumblr provides an excellent and streamlined mechanism for broadcasting pictures and video. Because that is what it does well, that is what most people use it for.
As with LinkedIn, there is no perceived competition between Tumblr and the other major social media platforms. It will never compete with Facebook and Google+ because its format is too restrictive: it has inadequate means for defining relationships with people and sending personal information, and no means for sharing things with a limited audience.
It will never go head-to-head with Twitter, because the one thing it excels in is the one thing that Twitter will always be deficient at: non-text multimedia broadcast. Twitter was built as a text-based, short-form broadcast system, and although it has added features to incorporate images and video, these will always be a click away from convenience.
These examples of specialization could be used as templates for how to look at the relationship between Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ as well. There is no reason why these platforms should be trying to “compete” with one another, when they are so obviously different in their strengths and weaknesses. None of them is really suited to being the “one answer to everyone’s social media needs” that their marketing departments imagine.
Moreover, it doesn’t serve the social community for them to be vying for monopoly, either. In the end, nobody will win with a lock-out strategy. The winners will be the platforms that are able to specialize and find the niche in which they are unchallenged: to do what they do well, and not try to do more. So what niches should these platforms be striving for?
Facebook started out basing its entire network model on the two-way connection: friendship. This is what it’s good at: “narrowcasting” rather than broadcasting. Over time, of course, Facebook has been trying to gobble market share by allowing subscriptions, fan pages and so on in an effort to say “We can broadcast, too!” But let’s face it: it’s just not as good at it, because it’s not part of the original model. Where Facebook excels is in sharing things with small groups of friends.
Its system is fantastic and has pushed other specialized platforms like eVite off the map. It provides a great way for people to seek out and get in touch with old friends, or “that cute person who was at that party the other night” who is a friend-of-a-friend. But when people start using Facebook to broadcast some information to the world-at-large, and other information to just a select group of friends, that is when disaster is most likely to strike.
At this point the Facebook marketers will cry foul, and say: just look at how well brands are engaging with fans on Twitter. Look how many followers this or that celebrity has! Look how many eyeballs we acquired for our latest marketing campaign. The problem is that, unless Facebook can prove itself as more than an irritatingly noisy extra venue for customer feedback, the return on investment will never be compelling.
Indeed, recent news stories have confirmed that Facebook is hopeless at selling things, which is surely the point of a brand existing on the network at all: the “Facebook High Street” feverishly imagined by social media types a few years ago has failed to materialise. With the exception of social gaming, people don’t much like spending money on Facebook.
The smart thing for Facebook to do would be to focus their development on enhancing the strength of services that they offer to help people discover, maintain, and enrich their real friendships. The smart thing for users to do would be to only use Facebook for “narrow-casting” information to their friends, and not use it as a megaphone to try to gain celebrity status among strangers.
Twitter, on the other hand, excels at short-form text broadcasting. This is the megaphone to use to gain celebrity, for those who are thus inclined. There is no fear of messing up complex privacy controls because the entire system is inherently not private. It is designed for broadcast. It has no need of complex privacy controls because if you want to say something privately, you don’t say it on Twitter: you go somewhere else.
Ancillary services have spring up trying to allow people to “tweet longer” and they have tried to integrate image and video services as well. These are fine as far as they go, but they will always be deficient because they were not baked in to the original vision of the service. They’ll always feel like clunky add-ons – particularly given deficiencies of Twitter’s in-house product team.
The smart thing for Twitter to do would be to focus their development on enhancing the ability to broadcast short-form text to as broad an array of interested strangers as possible, and allow people to find broadcasted content that interests them. The smart thing for users to do would be to use Twitter only for that purpose, and to realize that if they want to share images they can go to Tumblr, and if they want to talk to a small group of friends they can go to Facebook. Trying to shoe-horn these other functions into Twitter will simply make it less efficient and worse at doing the things that it does well.
Finally, what about Google+? Google+ is the newest entrant on the scene, and so in some ways is the least well-defined. Its popularity has not picked up very enthusiastically because many people see them as the iconic “solution with no problem”. With so many other social media platforms available, where is the niche in which Google+ can find its footing?
One of the immediate advantages of Google+ is that it provides a method of broadcast that allows longer text and better link and media integration than Twitter. Google+ could capitalize on that and carve out a niche for medium-length broadcast discussions: stuff that’s too long for twitter, but not long enough to deserve its own blog. Another angle they could use could be to push the Google+ “hangouts” concept, and really tie in the video conferencing aspect.
This would be cutting edge, as real-time video (as opposed to pre-recorded vlogging) is still very much a “new frontier” in social networking communication. Only time will tell if real-time video becomes a big deal in social network dynamics; but if Google+ plays it correctly, they could corner that emerging market using the “hangout” concept.
But, in order to succeed, Google+ cannot pitch itself as competing with Facebook or Twitter or (heaven help them) Tumblr or LinkedIn. And it will never succeed with a message of “we’re going to be the one platform that you can use for all of your social networking needs.” Google+ needs to figure out what its niche is, and be the one place that people can go for that particular need, while still acknowledging that their users will continue to go to Twitter when they want to broadcast micro-texts, will continue to go to Tumblr when they want to share pictures of cats, will continue to go to LinkedIn when they want to find out about business opportunities and will continue to go to Facebook when planning a birthday party with their friends.
Google+ needs to be secure enough in the service that it provides that it can stop these ridiculous marketing campaigns that try to position themselves as an alternative to these other platforms.
I would like to see users approach all social media platforms with the mindset that these are different tools in their social media toolbox. Nobody has to choose between Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, or anything else. That is like saying, “Which do I like best? A hammer or a screwdriver? I have to pick only one.”
For technologically-savvy users, it is also partly your responsibility to push this vision of complementary, rather than competing, social media platforms. If it would never occur to you that you might have to choose between Google+ and Facebook, then you need to become an evangelist for the more naïve users who have bought into that marketing ploy. Any time you see that conversation on Google+ (probably started by a Google employee) asking “does anybody still use Facebook anymore?” make sure you make it known: there will always be reasons to use Facebook, no matter how much you like Google+, because you should be using them for different things. They are not in competition with one another.
Users will advance the social media world by figuring out the best way to use all of the tools available. Users will discover which platform is best at providing them with a particular social media service, and use that platform in a targeted way. In that way, we will grow a complex and diverse ecology of social media services where all of these companies can act as partners with each other, and partners with the users to provide a diverse set of services, rather than as competitors.