2016: Social Media's Plateau?

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LinkedIn and Twitter both reported flat growth this month, leading to the typical Wall Street stock battering.  Both companies are making more noises about retooling and new business models to spark new growth, but analysts aren't speaking to a harder truth.  Social media as a whole might be out of its growth phase and into a mature stage where companies fight among themselves for new subscribers.  How that works in a world where most customers are "free" isn't very clear.

Predicting unlimited growth is a bad habit in rapidly growing markets, but we can go back 15 to 20 years to bandwidth demand numbers pumped by UUNet and WorldCom to see where happy talk infinite growth bubbles were created in a combination of company self-delusional belief, industry group think, and Wall Street analysts pitching big booms for big bonuses.  The dot.com bubble burst to become dot.bomb because of overinflated predictions on how big the total market for services would grow.  Today's social media reality check shouldn't be a surprise.

Now social media is in a competition for attention with other types of communications. Consider how many communications channels people use today.  Email, Google+, Instagram, Reddit, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and good old websites/blogs are among the most popular, plus Tumblr, Pinterest.  And you know there's at least another half dozen that I can't mention that you or someone else finds important.

How do you keep up with them all? Everyone can't be on everything. At some point in time, most people who signed up for multiple services will "narrow down" into two or three favorites that they keep current and abandon the rest.  

Any individual social media service will ultimately peak in existing, mature markets, so this is what we're seeing now.  Twitter and LinkedIn skew more towards a business and mature tech market demographic.  How many retirees happy not working are going to keep up on LinkedIn? Compare them to Snapchat (younger, consumer) and WhatsApp (successful in emerging markets).

Facebook appears to be a long way away from its "AOL" moment, but it already has figured out that it can't sit on its current user base.  Purchasing WhatsApp and pumping Internet.org/Facebook Free Basics as a front-end freebie for emerging markets are two ways the company is working to expand its current user base -- ways in which Twitter and LinkedIn  haven't really mastered.  

Complicating the picture is that people continue to use things other than social media.  We're in a multichannel world, mixing real-time communication with asynchronous forms like chat, email and social media. People still carry phones, make voice calls, SMS text message and send email.  Despite the best crowing in some camps that that it is "dead," email is still live and rolling along.  In the mobile world, leaving a voice mail is "Hands free" when compared to texting or email; there's a case to be made that mobility and voice interfaces should stem the tide against a perceived decline in voice mail. 

Facebook has embraced a multichannel world with live chat and voice calling, but Twitter and LinkedIn don't have those tools, further limiting their utility and reach. Google is, well, Google, so it has its discussion groups, but the company has a problem in completing a project.

If Twitter really wanted to expand its reach and utility, it would figure out how to crib a page from Microsoft and add things like automated translation services -- a feature I've been begging for. LinkedIn's challenge is trying to figure out how it can get more "collabor-team-y" like Slack, able to provide online project management and unified communications. There's nothing wrong where LinkedIn is now, but the company thinks that by forcing people to do what it wants it will continue to get new customers -- and that just won't work.

Contributing Editor

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