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The social media wars have proven to be the most engaging media struggle since Leno and Letterman duked it out for Carson’s desk back in the early 1990s.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum
Facebook’s (NASDAQ: FB) spectacular success is the result of a perfect storm of good ideas, good execution and great timing. Not to take anything away from Zuckerberg, but if not for the failures of MySpace and Friendster, it is uncertain whether there would have been sufficient demand for Facebook to fuel its meteoric rise. Facebook came in at the right time and found the Goldilocks zone of social media. MySpace offered too many options, resulting in a disjointed user experience and seizure-inducing profile pages with more blinking graphics and ads than Times Square. Friendster was just plain boring. Facebook, which former MySpace owner Rupert Murdoch dismissed as a "communications utility," found the happy middle ground and the rest is history.
This Internet Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us
It could be that Google+ (NASDAQ: GOOG) is trying to take market share in a market that can’t be shared. The whole point of social media is that people go where the people are. If you’re looking for a party, then it makes little sense to go to the empty bar across the street from the crowded one. Sure, people will try a new place out, but if it doesn’t catch on then they won’t come back. Market research firm, ComScore, estimates that on average users spend about three minutes a month on Google+, versus 405 minutes a month on Facebook. Anyone who has tried to convince a large group to change venues understands how inertia can stifle change, especially without a really compelling and highly differentiating reason.
This was one of the problems facing the social gaming arena in the face of the massive success of World of Warcraft (WoW). For nearly eleven million people in the years before Facebook, WoW was the social hangout for those within one degree of separation of a serious computer gamer, at the time an underclass. WoW was the right mix of familiar game mechanics, graphic design and addictive yet social game play that attracted an entirely new demographic to the industry. It resulted in Blizzard being absorbed by Activision (NASDAQ: ATVI) and since then the online multiplayer gaming community has been trying to figure out how to re-create that moment in time. But it is difficult to get people to make a switch once they are comfortable. Electronic Arts (NASDAQ: EA) and BioWare tried with Star Wars: The Old Republic but it looks like that game with all of the money, hype and desire by the market is not sustaining its audience.
What Zuckerberg seemed to understand better than anyone is that social media success is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People don’t join because a company asks them to, or because an ad tells them they should. They join because someone they know and trust has. And they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on and so on. Once the snowball starts rolling critical mass comes quickly; leading to exponential adoption and market saturation. Short of some ground-breaking innovation or feature, or epic failure on the part of the current leader, there just is not a good reason to switch. People will stay in the same home for years longer than they want to just because it’s a hassle to move. In the end there may just not be a need for more than one social media site. It could be that social media (and online gaming to some degree) is just a zero-sum game.
Other key players in the social scene found their way by doing one thing well. While Google+ is busy trying to out-Facebook Facebook, others have taken one small piece of the social experience and made that their niche. The Old Republic took the same route, trying to out-WoW WoW by adding BioWare’s storytelling and ended up with an entertaining but anti-social game.
There was a time when Facebook status updates were limited to a certain number of characters. Twitter pulled that out and built a platform around saying something as concisely as possible with just 140 characters.
Facebook really exploded when it started taking photo sharing seriously, introducing photo tagging and later implementing The Timeline. Pinterest has been around for over two years now, but it’s only really in the last six months that it has exploded onto the social media landscape, becoming the third most popular social media site in the world. Ironically it was not a fancy new gimmick or technology that made Pinterest so popular. Facebook’s appeal is that it taps into the basic human compulsion to meet and interact with other people. Zuckerberg did not invent social life, he merely provided the platform for people to engage in it online and on a massive scale. Likewise, Pinterest tapped into the fact that humans are inherently visual, so they have created a place where people can gather around ideas and interests presented as a visual scrapbook of sorts. What’s more, they may have also solved the problem that has plagued Facebook, which is how to monetize social media without looking like you’re monetizing social media. By enabling users to share stuff they find online, they have inadvertently created an online catalog, driving massive conversions to pinned products to the delight of retailers the world over.
Path limits users to 150 friends, creating a forced intimacy instead of a contest to collect friends and “Likes.” Instagram lets users take photos, apply filters to them, share them and comment on them. That’s it.
Meanwhile LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD) is off on the sidelines, quietly doing its own thing and taking care of business. LinkedIn was early to the social media game and planted their stake in the business and networking segment. Most people you know have probably never heard of LinkedIn’s CEO (Jeff Weiner), and they probably couldn’t tell you how many users it has (160+ million) or how much money it makes ($522 million in 2011). But most people you know probably use it on a regular basis. What’s more, you probably can’t name a single site that competes with LinkedIn. Speak softly and carry a big stick.
In the end it may be the ones who try the least that are the ones who succeed the most. Just about every social media marketing maven will tell you that the key to success on social media is to be yourself. Don’t talk at people, don’t advertise to them, don’t sell them, just engage and be natural. Tell your story and let your tribe gather around and adhere to you. Think of social media like an artificial reef. You build it, submerge it and watch what happens. But don’t try too hard. For all of its competence, Google+ has tried too hard to be what people already have.
PeterPham8 has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Activision Blizzard, Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Activision Blizzard, Google, and LinkedIn. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.