News & Analysis

Forget Algorithms, Brands Need to Focus on Social Behaviour 

Image Courtesy: CN&CO

In case you are hoping that the next big social media innovation is going to be a better Facebook or an improved Instagram, think again! For, if at all there’s going to be a revolution in this space, it would be one that aligns better with the social behaviour of people. To understand this, let’s look at some of the biggest social media evolutions. 

In the early 2000s, a bevy of social networks arrived. How many of us remember  Friendster, Orkut and MySpace today? They came, saw early growth, and slowly disappeared. However, one cannot discount their value because they connected people on the internet, which till then was used to consume news and send emails. They set it up for the next big thing – Facebook.

Early Days of Socializing

For those who may have forgotten, Facebook was an experiment to connect Mark Zuckerberg’s alumni over a ‘safe space’ to gather and interact away from the crowded cyber space. Soon the network expanded and by 2008 conversations with friends and family became routine. 

Just like Myspace was a musicians online identity, Facebook made their profiles their primary digital identity. Similarly, Linkedin was built to create a professional digital identity. During this time, even Twitter gained popularity because it gave users a public identity away from friends and family. It also gave the world hashtags, which are now synonymous with discovering new and interesting topics across the internet. 

From Text to Beyond

Then social media was mainly text. Soon, smartphones became popular and people had the power to take lots of good quality photos and images soon became a big driver on Facebook. So much so that its algorithm made posts with photos more prominent in their feeds. And these were easy to create – a great dish served up with garnishings, a scenic view. The user got results with minimum effort. It was easier than ‘Saying Something’ and pictures made our identities richer and were also more entertaining. 

Soon enough we had social platforms that were totally image oriented. There was Pinterest and Instagram, the latter gaining in popularity by leaps and bounds. Facebook found Instagram was a threat and bought it over $4 billion. People who ridiculed the move did not see the natural progression of Instagram’s photo-based networking into a new ecosystem. It was like people in an earlier era had moved from newspapers to radio and then television.

The User Groups & Influencers

In between, Facebook had shifted all its closed groups over to WhatsApp, which too it acquired to add to its growing portfolio of messaging. The signs were clear that users were moving from just connections to entertainment via Instagram, which was home to entertainers. This gave rise to the whole influencer phenomenon. Naturally, video was the next big thing on social media. 

There was YouTube but it was restricted to people with good bandwidth. It was also a passive network where people uploaded content, most of it pirated or where they had no copyright, as video production wasn’t as easy as taking a picture.  And, Snapchat was the first to create a network with videos. 

Snapchat made videos appear as pictures – it was fast, quick and engaging. Features like ‘stories’ which disappeared in 24 hours, got people using video messages and ‘filters’ which made content much more interesting than just images. 

Having made an unsuccessful attempt to buy Snapchat, Facebook tried to quash it by copying their features and providing more algorithmic prominence on their platform. So, stories on instagram had much more views than Snapchat owing to Instagram’s already huge community. But both Facebook and Snapchat couldn’t do what TikTok did.

The Mobile First Approach

What TikTok learnt from its earlier avatar called Musically is to make video production easier by giving people readymade ideas and production tools. TikTok also was built mobile first unlike YouTube, which made the experience much better. Though YouTube content had long-shelf, TikTok was more effervescent as audience taste had shifted to quick and dirty entertainment. 

Bytedance – TikToks parent company – works on algorithms which promotes better, more entertaining content and gives less importance to the Facebook like follower system. This is why TikTok is a bigger threat to YouTube than Facebook or Instagram ever was. The fact that 99% of TikTok may be garbage but the remaining is super compelling and rises to the top.

After India banned TikTok, Facebook and Instagram quickly launched Lasso and Reels. One could  argue that unlike facebook, TikTok’s success is easier to replicate because it does not have the baggage of the follower system which is a costly and a decidedly painful process. Does that mean that TikTok has got it right and everyone can follow the model?

Maybe so. For a brief while. What marketers must realize is it’s not about cracking an algorithm that they should worry about. It is about being a user and understanding and adapting to social behaviour. So, if a brand focused on Snapchat and missed the TikTok bus. You may look at it as a lost opportunity or a new challenge. What the brand gained is an experience of adapting to the changing social behaviour. 

And, this is much more valuable than merely gaining followers who may be dormant. This way the brand remains in sync with the new social behaviour and the experience will give them the edge to influence the next big social network – instead of merely following someone else. 

Which is why when clients ask me about the next big thing on the social network, I keep my answer simple: “It doesn’t really matter.”

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