My short answer is “Yes, if it continues to evolve”.
But there are numerous challenges to overcome within this evolution process.
SIDENOTE: Throughout this blog, I’ll be referring to social media in the singular. I know that technically media denotes plurality, but, to me at least, phrases such as “social media aren’t mass” sounds weird. Well, weirder than “social media isn’t mass” anyway.
Isn’t social media mass already?
I may have already lost a few readers by this point, who refuse to believe my basic premise that social media isn’t mass.
And they will have numbers to back up their spluttering, incredulous rage:
- The Economist report on social networking quotes Comscore data from October 2009 to note that there were over 800m social network users worldwide that month
- Facebook alone claims to have more than 400m users, with 50% logging in on an average day
- Over 23m of these are based in the UK. In the 2001 census, there were 62m people in the UK in total.
- Facebook accounts for around 45% of all time spent within browsers on the mobile internet.
These numbers sound big. They are big. But they aren’t mass.
This is where semantics get involved.
Firstly, for social media I’m referring to platforms or websites whose primary aim is to connect people and facilitate communication – such as social networks, blogs and forums. I’m not considering websites with social widgets or functionality added – such as the comments section on a newspaper website.
Secondly, I believe there is a big difference between a popular media and a mass media. The definition used on Wikipedia is “a section of the media specifically designed to reach a large audience”.
From that definition, and from my general perceptions, I infer that for media to be mass it requires inclusiveness.
And despite the large numbers, social media is not inclusive.
The Diffusion of Innovations
Rogers posited that, within the population, there are five types of person, each with a different relationship with and attitude towards new innovations. The five types progress along a time series
- The innovator will try something for the sake of it being new
- The early adopter will try something before most people, but only when he or she is confident that it will be worth it
- The early majority (or mainstream) come into the frame when they see a new innovation is gaining in popularity and thus must be worth adopting
- The late majority see a new innovation has proved itself to be worthwhile, and thus they try it
- The laggards are resistant to new technologies, but will try something when there is little or no alternative
Rogers estimated the proportions in the population to be as laid out in the diagram below:
At Essential Research, we have measured to the population in order to calibrate and weight our data for the Essential Eye, our ongoing exploration of digital media usage and attitudes. Our figures are:
- Innovators – 6%
- Early adopters – 11%
- Early majority – 26%
- Late majority – 32%
- Laggards – 25%
If Facebook has 23m UK users in a population of 62m people, that would place it firmly into the early majority stage of diffusion.
Leaving aside my doubts that this figure constitutes 23m unique individuals within the UK, and that as marketers or researchers we are usually (but not always) confining ourselves to adults, I believe social media take-up will shortly plateau unless some big changes are made
Why majority take-up isn’t inevitable
Few, if any, innovations ever reach 100% penetration. There will always be rejectors that go out of their way to avoid certain technologies.
Digital media has the additional hurdle of scepticism among a minority – whether cost, fear of privacy, shame over incomprehension or a belief that they can live their lives quite happily without the internet, thank you, there are a significant minority that never have, and perhaps never will, use the internet.
Anyway, I digress. The main point to note is that early adopters are DIFFERENT to late adopters.
How are they different? They tend to be
- Higher social class, and more educated
- More disposable income
- Greater interest/proximity to science and technology
- Greater opinion leadership
- More social
This may seem obvious, but it is vitally important to reflect upon.
The demographic differences aren’t such a huge deal since people age and earn more over time, and it means the user base will always skew to the more commercially attractive audiences. Essential Research Brandheld data bears this out – 64% of all users of social networks via a mobile are aged 16-34 and three quarters are on a contract phone.
However, the attitudinal differences could be a major barrier to social media uptake.
Later adopters advocate things to a lesser degree and are less social. They have smaller friendship groups and are less likely to want to meet new people.
The network effects become less powerful. Latecomers see less benefit. Their investment into the software will bear less reward.
And this is assuming that later adopters can be sold on the idea to begin with. This is not guaranteed.
The mainstream prioritise different benefits
The proposition that convinced the earlier users to adopt social networks will probably not work for the latecomers.
Earlier adopters saw their friends on the site. They saw the software made it easier to keep track of their large and disparate friendship groups. They got to grips with the technology quickly, and found it easy to adapt as the social networks change to accommodate a larger user base.
Yet even in the early majority, we are witnessing problems with adoption. Examples include loud protests over redesigns to Facebook or people getting confused by a simple error within Google’s algorithm.
Two things need to fundamentally change in order convince the mainstream to trial, let alone permanently adopt, social media.
- A return to simplicity: Feature creep is a well document problem with iterated software. The earlier adopters – the more vocal power users – may appreciate greater customisation but it raises the barriers to entry for newcomers. The longer they leave it, the harder it is for them to figure out how to use these services. And the greater the chance they abandon them. Apple may have beautifully designed products, but the simple and intuitive interface is the most important part of the design. The core social media service should be simple, with additional functionality optional for those comfortable – the Firefox model, if you will. A quick fix would be for Facebook to offer its lite version as a default.
- A realignment in promotion of benefits: Mainstream and late adopters are less inclined to experiment. The benefits to using social networks need to be immediately obvious and tangible. A benefit either gives you something – entertainment or information – or lets you save something – time, money or effort. The more averse to new technology someone is, the harder these benefits are to communicate. Currently, there is plenty of room for platforms, developers and marketers to improve in this area
How social networks can become more attractive
Conventional wisdom might say that the less affluent among us have more time on their hands. 8 hour shifts, no ski-ing holidays in Chamonix etc. They have the social surplus that Clay Shirky talks about. And we’re not expecting them to create a new Wikipedia, just to engage in the social media space.
But, given the current platform, not gonna happen. They will be more likely to stick to their gin and television.
What do people gain from social media that they cannot get elsewhere? Why should they divert their time from their favourite TV shows, or from housework or other chores, in order to “join the conversation”?
Where are the tangible benefits?
Well, they may already be there. They just need to be communicated
- Facebook and Twitter are building on the fact that they are increasingly responsible for traffic directed to major news sites. Conversely, despite being unfashionable, the portals are still popular. This is primarily because they offer a single place to get all desired information. If Facebook or another social network desire to become a portal, they need to contain, or at least link to, all relevant information for that person in a similar manner to the portals
- Even if people aren’t social themselves, they may still like to read or hear the opinions of others on topics or areas that interest them. A comparison could be made to radio phone-ins, but with a criteria of entry based on interest rather than geography
- Vouchering schemes are highly discriminatory, but cost/cost saving is eye-catching. People will gravitate towards the discounts
- I really like Doc Searls’ idea of Vendor Relationship Management, where potential customers recruit providers instead of companies advertising to potential consumers. This clearly represents an easier route to deciding upon a major purchase, and is far preferable to disruptive advertising or poor performing display advertising.
The final point brings us on to the business model.
The challenges for a successful business
It is one thing to succeed in bringing in an audience. It is another thing to successfully run that business. To my mind, there are three major challenges to overcome before this space can be fully monetized
- Competition – in this instance, competition can be a bad thing. Maintaining a presence on a social network requires a major investment of time and effort. People are reticent to needlessly duplicate this. I believe that the low distribution barriers and start-up costs in the digital space mean that there should be no concerns over monopoly activity. Google, Amazon and eBay have all succeeded in this position to date, and there is no reason why Facebook cannot . I see no issue with them maintaining that (sound business strategy permitting, which is where Myspace fell down), with specialist networks operating in its orbit. If I am right, Google Buzz will swiftly fail
- Evolution without natural selection – I have quite a large problem with Google Buzz. Dumping a new social network on a group of people without it evolving from innovators downwards is a recipe for rejection. Without any proven benefits among even a minority of users, there is no reason for the average user to adopt it. It could be argued that the average Gmail user is savvier than those of competitor services, but there are as yet no clear benefits to using it. I’ve personally removed it from my Gmail, and it will remain turned off until these benefits become apparent. Throughout the evolution of social networks, there will always be the tension between placating the current users while reaching out to the sceptics. This requires a careful balancing act between keeping pace with the ambitions and needs of the power users, and the more conservative use of the later adopters
- The commercial model – there are many potential routes to take – basic display/interruptive advertising, VRM, subscription or integration with search to give just four examples – but the commercial model for ensuring the success of the social media space is still unclear. There may be a growing number of social media agencies in the space, but until they offer real, workable proposals for a) monetizing the current user base and b) attracting a mass audience, the prospects for mainstream success remain limited. It is therefore in their interests to do this, otherwise they will remain a niche proposition at threat from integrated campaigns from digital agencies, not to mention full service agencies.
Will social media become mass? Ultimately, I think so.But not in its current guise.
Social media is currently geared towards the technologically savvy. This is fine. But if the platform wishes to mature, then it is necessary to change.
The focus needs to move away from the exploration of something new towards the benefits people receive. This is achieved through highlighting the gains – information and entertainment – and the savings – in time, effort and money. Running alongside this is the need to identify and promote a sustainable commercial model – not an easy task.
Yet, to revisit Rogers’ model, an individual needs to trial something before they can fully adopt it. While social networks are free to join, the registration page still represents a barrier. Keeping most of the functionality behind the log-in is analogous to a paywall. It is hidden away. It is exclusive to users.
This isn’t a trait of a mass media. Social media needs to evolve further before it can be considered one.
Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ejpphoto/2633923684/