Technology comes at us in waves. We catch a glimpse of a wave building – far out on the horizon – but don’t know exactly its size and impact. Some are large, some are small – but all swell and develop. As it approaches, we can begin to see its shape, size and potential impact. In 2007, my startup Vitrue saw a wave coming: social media networks.
The earlier social networks, like Myspace and Friendster, were tapping into this desire for consumers to connect and share—regardless of location and boundaries. And usage began to grow rapidly. We saw that it would fundamentally change the way consumers and businesses would interact – forever. Vitrue pivoted…and we rode that social wave.
For the first time ever, consumers had a platform to interact, learn, share and voice their opinions. It was as if everyone had their own broadcasting platform. Communication went from one-to-one, to one-to-many. Millions were flocking to social networks to share, like, follow and learn. The social networking phenomenon had taken consumers by storm, and it was changing behavior and shifting power.
Social networks gave rise to the empowered consumer. People now had the means to discover information, share and voice their opinions. Facebook became an ever-expanding social community—breaking down regional and global barriers. Twitter was becoming the first place for breaking news. It was 2009 when Sully landed on the Hudson and Twitter took off. Bottom line: Consumers were now empowered – and that was changing everything. It was the end of “business as usual.”
Social networks and empowered consumers forced businesses to completely rethink the way they were going to do business. The traditional consumer-to-business relationship had been drastically altered.
If you go back to the very beginning, we (Vitrue) had a vision that hinged around more people discovering information based on recommendations from peer or a friend. Social networks fueled and amplified that. Nine out of 10 people were buying products based on recommendations - but brands had no way to engage or influence that conversation. Vitrue was formed to help brands do that.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Facebook started to develop partnerships with brands and marketers. I saw Sheryl Sandberg in the fall of 2008 with the simple idea that Facebook was keeping up with the needs of 20 million consumers. We wanted to build software to help brands manage their presence on Facebook. Fast forward to 2009, and Facebook opened up Pages. We were one of the first platforms to work with brands to help manage their Facebook Pages. We added content management, analytics, and grew our platform so brands could manage their presence across Twitter, Youtube, Google+, LinkedIn… basically, anywhere a consumer eyeball was, we wanted to be. Once Facebook opened up these resources for business, innovation and usage skyrocketed.
Now, we see another wave on the horizon. It’s much bigger and it’s coming faster than social networks: messaging apps. For consumers, particularly younger demographics, this isn’t new. Messaging apps have been experiencing explosive growth for years. Popular Asian messaging apps like WeChat, KakaoTalk, and LINE have taken the lead in finding innovative ways to keep users engaged. Snapchat, Kik, Messenger and others boast incredible user growth and are taking a playbook from these Asian app leaders.
But what’s just as important as the total users is the speed at which this mobile messaging app revolution hit.
Note the speed of WeChat – 7 months. Yes, this is an example from an Asian market, where mobile is usually the first introduction to the Internet, but it’s still an incredible example of the speed of adoption of these dynamic platforms.
As of January 2016, according to Business Insider, the big 4 messaging apps overtook the big 4 social networks in usage. And, according to April data from Statista, 4.4 billion users are now on messaging apps.
Just consider these numbers, from around the globe:
WhatsApp: 1 Billion
Messenger: 900 Million
WeChat: 697 million
LINE: 215 million
This wave is about to hit you hard. It’ll knock you back into the sand and force water up your nose. But, if you’re ready, this could be an incredible opportunity. Look for a tremendous amount of innovation around bots – chatbots, service bots, commerce bots, etc. – that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate these engagements at scale. It’s still the early days, but innovation and growth will happen at lightning speed.
So what’s the future? Is it “social networks” vs “messaging apps?” I don’t view it as one or the other. In today’s multichannel, omnichannel world, it’s about meeting consumers across all of their devices, channels and platforms. The right choice will be both social networks & messaging apps. Each serves different needs. Together, they will help you ride the wave of ongoing technology evolution and revolution.