The Maturity Continuum of Social Media

facebook-twitter-635Social channels will come and go. Why are we still surprised by this? Just last week, Catharine Taylor talked about the ennui that’s threatening to silence Twitter. Frankly, the only thing surprising about this is that Twitter has had as long a run as they have. Let’s face it. If every there was a social media one trick pony, it’s Twitter.

The fact is, if you are a player in the social media space, you have to accept that there’s a unique maturity evolution in usage patterns. It’s a much more fickle audience than you would find in something like content publishing or search. The channels we use to express ourselves socially are subject to an extraordinary amount of irrational behavior. We project our own beliefs about who we are and how we fit into our own social networks on them. This leaves them vulnerable to sudden shifts in usage, simply because large chunks of the audience may suddenly have changed their minds about what is socially acceptable. And this is what’s currently happening to Twitter.

This is compounded by the fact that we’re talking about technology here, so where we perceive ourselves to be on the technology acceptance curve will have an impact on the social channels we find acceptable to us. If we think we’re early adopters, we’ll be quicker to move to whatever is new. Not only this, we’ll be unduly influenced by what we see other early adopters doing.

The Maturity Continuum for Social is as follows:

It’s a Fad – You use it because everyone (in your circle of influence) else is doing it. Early adopters are particularly susceptible to this effect. They’ll be the ones to test out new channels and tools, simply because they are new. But that momentum doesn’t last long. New entrants will also have to prove that they have at least a certain amount of functionality, and, more importantly, something unique that users can identify with. If this is the case, they will transition to the second phase:

It’s a Statement – You use it because it makes a statement about who you are. And with technology, it’s usually about how cutting edge you are. This makes it particularly prone to abandonment. But there are other factors at play here. Is it all business (LinkedIn) or all fun (Snapchat)? A small percentage of the user base will stick in this phase, becoming brand loyalists. The majority, however, will move on to the third phase:

It’s a Tool – You use it because it’s the best tool for the job. Here, functionality trumps all. It’s in these last two phases where rationality finally takes hold. The sheen of the BSOS (Bright Shiny Object Syndrome) has faded and we’ll only continue using it if it provides better functionality for the task at hand than any of the other alternatives. The problem here is the functional supremacy is a never-ending arms race. Sooner or later, something better will come along (if it successfully navigates through the first two phases). This is typically the end of the road for most social media one-trick ponies, and this is what is currently staring Twitter in the face.

It’s a Platform – You use it because the landscape is familiar. Here you rely on becoming a habitual “stickiness” with users and something called UI Cognitive Lock in. Essentially, this is an online real estate play. If you’ve had a long run as a single purpose tool and have developed a large user base, you have to expand that into a familiar landscape before a new contender unseats you as the tool of choice. This is what Facebook and LinkedIn are currently trying to do. And, to survive, it’s what Twitter must do as well. By assembling a number of tools, you increase the cost of switching to the point where it doesn’t make sense for most users.

Each of these phases has different usage profiles, which directly impact their respective business models. More on that next week.


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