Repeating Campbell's Soup artwork, by Andy Warhol
Marketing Social Media

In the Future of Social Media, Will Every Platform Look the Same?

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Facebook is stealing features from Snapchat. So is Instagram. And Snapchat is trying to steal things from Facebook. Meanwhile, everyone has already stolen Twitter’s hashtags. And Twitter? They’re toying with longer message limits that will look more like Facebook updates than the platform’s iconic tweets.

For consumers, this behavior sometimes seems crazy. While smaller features like hashtags have become pervasive in the online user experience, other aspects of these social platforms seem so integral to their popularity that changing or stealing them doesn’t make any sense. It’s easy to envision a future of social media in which every platform is more or less the same, just with different logos and user names.

Marketers also struggle to make sense of these innovations and copycat behaviors across social networks. Social media marketing often feels like chasing a moving target: Even as you’re investigating the merits of live video streaming on Facebook, other social networks are offering a similar service and pleading their own case. And Snapchat’s story-centric content has been mimicked by Instagram and, later, Facebook. With the marketing options constantly changing, it’s hard to know which option is the best—or, for that matter, if there’s even such a thing as “best.”

It may sound like a stretch, but it’s a worthwhile consideration: If the major social networks keep up their pace of borrowing features, their experiences will one day be hard to separate from one another. Is this the culminating moment for the future of social media marketing: a world in which every social network is the same, and their marketing offerings are essentially identical?

Social media has always been a fast-changing landscape, for both consumers and marketers. But while so many digital startups are laser-focused on finding a way to stand out from their competition, social networks seem to be caught by a gravitational pull toward the middle. In reality, this is only partly true: The changes taking place on the surface are masking critical differences that these social networks are desperate to defend.

Why Businesses Can’t Help but Copy Their Competition

The nature of doing business is that, when you’re successful, everyone will want to copy you. If McDonald’s came out with a salmon burger that became a bestseller for the brand, you can bet Burger King would put a similar item on its menu as soon as possible. It’s the same in the sports world: If your team wins the Super Bowl, your competitors will spend all off-season trying to find things they can borrow and put into their own playbook.

No social network can ignore the opportunity to build a better experience and generate more revenue. They wouldn’t be able to survive without this mindset. That’s why Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter all offer live-streaming video. It’s also why Twitter is experimenting with longer tweets, considering a change to its most iconic feature: The company needs to better compete with the longer-form content of its rival platforms, and doubling the length of its tweets might offer a solution.

Meanwhile, as social media evolves, these brands face the ongoing challenge of building and maintaining their user base. They also want to attract more users from the most coveted demographics. According to Adweek, Facebook has been fighting to turn back a trend of teens and tweens ignoring its platform in favors of visual alternatives like Snapchat and Instagram. The company’s overall growth in its active user base has been undercut by a growing disinterest among younger users. In fact, Snapchat is projected to overtake Facebook in its share of U.S. teen users by the end of 2017.

Millennials and teens prefer Snapchat and Instagram to Facebook

Image attribution: Eaters Collective

What’s Facebook to do about this? It could try to reinvent itself and develop a new feature that might draw back younger users. That’s always a possibility, but it’s also a costly, time-consuming, and risky process. Especially when there’s a much easier alternative: The company could just mimic some of Snapchat’s features, combining parts of the Snapchat experience with its Facebook platform, in hopes of winning back some of those teen users.

That’s exactly what Facebook is doing. And it’s the same strategy used by every other social network, for that matter. These changes may upset purists who want each social network to stay true to its signature experience, but the companies behind these social networks are operating in service of something much more important: the almighty dollar.

For Advertisers, the Differences Are Clear

The value of an experience only goes so far, especially when you’re trying to turn that experience into a revenue machine. Just ask Twitter: Even though it has a killer user experience and an active user base of hundreds of millions of accounts, the company still can’t harness that engagement to generate solid revenues for the company.

But imagine if Twitter adopted Facebook’s features and experience overnight. On a surface level, you’d have a vastly improved product with numerous lucrative revenue streams. If Facebook’s own financial success is any indication, Twitter could be churning out hundreds of millions in revenue in no time at all.

There’s only one thing missing from this scenario: Twitter could steal the Facebook user experience, but it still wouldn’t have the ad technology and data stockpile needed to power its marketing experience. Facebook’s revenues are certainly influenced by the types of profitable advertising that can be featured on the site, but it also has a much deeper pool of data and information than Twitter has access to. Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has been compiling user data from what is now more than one billion users. That proprietary data is an advantage Facebook holds over all of its competitors, and it will never be shared or copied by its competitors.

The user experience is distinctive for each social network’s brand, but the advertising platform underneath is what those businesses depend on to keep the lights on. As technology evolves and consumer behaviors shift, the features and experiences of these social networks will change. But as the face of the company changes, the data will be retained. It will continue to grow, and it can be applied to any kind of marketing solution, including for features that haven’t even been invented yet.

Although it looks like these companies are starting to all look like each other, the assets that set them apart aren’t going anywhere. LinkedIn, for example, has perhaps the most unique position in terms of what it can offer advertisers. While it doesn’t have the depth of consumer data that Facebook can offer, its business-focused data points are different from what every other platform can offer. This does limit its market to a slight degree, since LinkedIn tends to draw B2B advertising more than content from B2C brands, but even so it has a sizable market to draw revenue from, and no other social network can come close to rivaling its B2B data.

So Ad Age is correct that LinkedIn is working hard to build an experience similar to what Facebook offers; the company is trying to replicate the engagement and user satisfaction that Facebook has been generating for years. But these changes are all designed to get better value for the company’s unique data and advertising options. Even if LinkedIn were to blatantly copy Facebook’s UX, it wouldn’t mean the company made itself redundant. Far from it: As long as it understands the value of its internal data, the difference between LinkedIn and Facebook would be stark to advertisers.

In the future, will all social media networks look the same?

Image attribution: Bence Boros

For users, the superficial changes to homogenize the social landscape seem like silly business moves that threaten each platform’s distinctive experience. But in reality, these changes are designed to drive better revenue from the advertising machinery that sits underneath that user experience. So while it’s likely that social networks will continue to borrow and steal from one another, it’s short-sighted to believe that they’ll suffer from their decisions. The only reason those changes are being made is because the platforms have repeatedly been rewarded with better revenues and soaring profits.

And like any other business, they’re content to follow the money.

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Featured image attribution: Tjeerd

Jonathan Crowl specializes in digital marketing and content creation for both B2B and B2C brands, with an emphasis on startups and technology. His past and current clients include B2B brands IBM, LinkedIn, Mad Mobile, Oktopost, BrightSpot, and Waze, as well as B2C brands Porsche, Epson, and PayPal. He lives in Minneapolis.

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