The Future of Social: From Content Distribution to Conversation
Social media has become a catch-all term for many different types of platforms. There are the traditional content distribution platforms, like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, as well as chat apps like WhatsApp and Telegram; there are also conversation apps like Reddit and Multytude.
Is it right to call them all ‘social media’? Yes, they all entail social connections and user generated content (UGC) of some sort, but are their aims and business models the same? Do they share similar ‘social’ missions?
This article aims to capture the landscape of social media from its infancy with that famous zoo video on YouTube to today’s startups that are shaping the future of ‘social.’
The first ever video to be published on YouTube, Me at the zoo, has over 175M views as of August 2021. This innocent home-made video ushered in a decade of user generated content and the start of the creator economy.
YouTube’s first slogan was “Broadcast yourself”.
Content platforms like YouTube are all about broadcasting yourself and building followers in an endless loop where you try to generate as many impressions as possible for ad revenue. They’re social as far as the comments are concerned, but the main proposition is to be able to share what you have to say with the entire world. These platforms essentially act like digital megaphones.
In the initial transition from ‘old media’ to ‘new media’, just the possibility of being able to broadcast yourself to the world was novel. YouTube partly developed this trend and also rode the big wave that it itself created. As expected from Google, the business model was advertising at scale given the massive amounts of content it could monetise. As of May 2019, 500 hours of video were uploaded every minute.
We’ve seen this business model thrive but also hit roadblocks around supply and demand as the amount of content generated by users far surpassed advertiser demand.
New Format, Old Business Model
In the past 10+ years since YouTube, the main innovation in this space has come in the form of format. Instagram took the same business model and applied it first to photos and then quickly added video. Snapchat added stories into the mix, which then got copied and pasted into pretty much all content platforms, including LinkedIn for some reason. The final iteration came in the form of TikTok, which popularised vertical video and finessed mobile content creation, and Clubhouse, which pioneered social audio.
With every new entrant into the UGC distribution space and the increasing ease of creation especially on mobile, there were more and more opportunities for everyone to become a creator. More platforms meant more megaphones.
97.5% of YouTubers in the US don’t make enough to reach the poverty line
Today, there are more than 50 million creators in the US alone, who earn revenue from ads, sponsored content, merchandising, and other alternative monetisation methods.
But ad-based revenue is not really meaningful for the majority of creators due to the high supply of content versus ad spend.
For instance, 97.5% of YouTubers in the US don’t make enough to reach the poverty line (source). Hence, branded content is essential to any creator’s livelihood, which more than doubled between 2019 and 2021 globally, growing from $6.5 billion to $13.8 billion in the three years alone. (source)
Creators as Brands
Given the importance of alternative monetisation, the most successful creators will be those who deeply understand their audiences, not just those with scale. If a creator with 10K audience can build a community and deeply integrate their business with that audience’s wants, they can have a business that doesn’t depend on ads.
Imagine a food creator being able to prove with data that their audience cares about travel, especially to specific destinations. Now that food creator can pitch to travel brands for a branded content series and even co-create with their audience what that content should be.
And when I say ‘understand their audience,’ I don’t mean content platform analytics like demographics, but deeper audience data such as behavioural segmentation, interests, activities, other brands used, etc. These are the data points that brands look at when they run innovation sprints for new products, testing and iterating. Creators need to understand their audiences just as brands do.
This requires creators to think as brands and start to open bottom-up conversations that they can analyse. Comments sections on existing content platforms cannot fill this need as there’s no way to analyse the data.
The Future of Social
This is why I believe the next wave of social will not be about distributing content but truly and squarely about social in the dictionary sense of the word — community and conversation.
The next wave will include tools that enable bottom-up dialogue, provide behavioural analytics, and allow the creator to host idea gathering or feedback conversations. Older tools like surveys that we would normally use in these scenarios will become defunct with the inclusion of NLP and machine learning in these tools. Unrestricted insights and trends will become the norm, all powered by community conversations.
At the end of the day, there isn’t much space left on the content distribution side of things, and there are other needs from existing creators as they start to run their businesses as brands do. In short, the opportunity is in making sense of conversations.