Brands Must Adapt to Emerging Social Networks, Apps

Facebook has become the quintessential social media platform, but the real story is much more nuanced, and it has big implications for brands in the future.

There is a collective myopia when it comes to social media online. We usually date its serious arrival to the increase in popularity of Facebook, around six years ago, and that single property has become for many the quintessential social media platform. But the real story is much more nuanced, and it has big implications for brands in the future.

Socialization is, of course, a universal need. And as long as we’ve had computers, we’ve used them to connect with others. We began with network chat, and moved on to message boards, email and early messaging apps. Eventually, we graduated to more expressive platforms like Friendster, Xanga and MySpace—and only after that began to socialize freely on Facebook and Twitter.

The mistake we sometimes make is to assume that the process is complete. The evolution of technology and socialization is in fact ongoing, and this has big implications for brands. Just consider the following for a moment:

These statistics can seem self-contradictory. People aren’t posting on Facebook and other traditional social platforms as much, yet they have accounts and are visiting them. What gives?

Essentially we’re seeing that social activity may be moving on, while traditional social media platforms are changing to meet different needs. Facebook is still about connecting with people, but it’s increasing also about utility and entertainment, too. Its logins, for example, are fast becoming the de facto way we navigate to new sites and services. In addition, Facebook now offers a highly mobile experience with a combination of snackable articles and videos—some posted by friends, but others increasingly by dedicated and professional media outlets. And it’s worth pointing out that Twitter is going in a similar direction, moving away from personal expression and towards content consumption with Moments and Periscope.

Socializing, meanwhile, has leaped onto a new set of messaging apps. For example, WhatsApp recently surpassed 1 billion users. Facebook Messenger has more than 900 million, giving it a growth rate of roughly 60 percent year-over-year. Six of the top 10 mobile apps globally are classified as messaging apps. And Instagram is widely described as the primary social network for people under 24, not least because it generates real conversation, and not simply likes.

Unfortunately, this has left a lot of businesses out in the cold. Their audiences are shifting their behavior toward these apps, but they haven’t been able to use them to connect with their consumers in a meaningful way (forget selling products). So what can we do now to take advantage of the big change?

Make apps to go in the apps: It helps to know something about the model many of these apps are seeking to emulate. China’s WeChat and South Korea’s KakaoTalk have both gone beyond socialization and become ecosystems that users hardly need to leave. They now include music, commerce and a wide variety of services—including things like booking cabs and buying movie tickets. We’ll likely see this development in the West, as well. Facebook Messenger, for example, is reaching out to developers and will likely spend a significant portion of its upcoming F8 conference selling a vision of its own ecosystem. And so it begins with Messenger’s music integration with Spotify.

Develop new modes of self-expression: Domino’s Pizza and Coca-Cola have both experimented with emoji to allow consumers to order a pizza or integrate a favorite into their iPhones. Increasingly, these experiments will turn into serious brand building efforts. In Japan and Southeast Asia, for example, messaging platform Line offers a range of visual characters called “stickers” that enable more expressive communication.

Think seriously about artificial intelligence: The AI that powers human connection at the level of Spike Jonze movie Her is still many years away. However, we now have chat bots that are miles ahead of our old friend Siri. For example, travel app Native creates the feeling of a personal concierge, providing help in a far more personal way than you might imagine. In fact, it’s downright eerie. Believe it or not, that kind of intelligence may be a must-have for brands in the near future.

Look for a new platform to emerge: The evolution of social should continue. While we can’t count out traditional social media platforms (they can always evolve), newer ones may be better-positioned to emerge as the primary place where we connect with friends. Apple’s iMessenger, for example, has made great strides in integrating with the desktop. Slack has taken over messaging in the enterprise—and it could eventually extend to consumers, as well.

The important thing is to recognize that social technology has always been around and has continually evolved to become more friendly, intimate and expressive. Brands need to move where their consumers will be, so developing the ability to be more present and reactive is vitally important today. The biggest danger, of course, is assuming that the social technology of tomorrow will look much like the one we find today. If history is any indication of the future, it most certainly won’t.

Brandon Geary is the global chief strategy officer at digital marketing agency Possible.