Is social media really going private?

At the start of January I was asked by a brand to present a review of the top 10 leading trends in social media for 2016. This is the first post in a series I’ll be writing about the trends I selected.

private social media

A few months ago, Martin Hill-Wilson (who wrote the book on social customer service, literally), highlighted to me the growing impatience of brands on social media. Brands like their customer service to be private because it reduces the risk of them getting a public whipping.

With this in mind, these companies have been investing heavily in web-chat or virtual assistants, rather than scaling up their service teams or, heaven forbid, fixing their products.

Interestingly, in 2015 I noticed that consumers were also moving towards a more focused use of social media. This ‘private social media’ is not due, however (as I’ve seen suggested) to a sudden desire for privacy: even teenagers are getting pretty savvy about what they publish and where.

No. Instead, I believe this shift is down to a pure and simple desire for utility.

In our world of bloated friends lists and followings, private groups offer a fresh opportunity to share meaningful information and ‘get things done’, without spamming your entire world. It’s no surprise, then, that the global user numbers for private messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Viber are already surpassing those of the social networks and are predicted to top 3.6 billion by 2018.

But this desire for utility isn’t limited to messaging apps. As Mitch Joel of digital agency, Mirum, said last year, private groups are regaining popularity on Facebook: “We’re starting to see usage of private groups take hold and a surge in people creating them. It’s no secret that if you ask power users on Facebook where they’re seeing the most value from the platform, it’s coming from the private groups that they’re part of.”

To anyone who remembers the social media industry (if that’s what you could call it) back in 2000, the whole conversation was around building ‘communities of interest‘. The belief was that people would want to coalesce around the topics that connected them and therefore our strategies at that time focused on building niche online communities.

Facebook and the subsequent slew of profile/newsfeed-oriented social networks then pretty much killed off the concept of online communities. Community platforms such as Ning.com, once seen as the future of online communications, have now all but disappeared from view.

But the tide seems to have turned again.

To be clear, I don’t expect stand-alone online communities to re-emerge in the same format as before, but the growing interest in smaller, more useful, semi-private community spaces is an interesting development.

It presents a new opportunity for forward-thinking brands to consider, especially as we see the value of content decline amid the general deluge of content marketing: could we develop more meaningful engagement with our customers in smaller, more focused, communities of interest?

Luke Brynley-Jones
Date: 26th January 2016
Category: Content Marketing Social Media Marketing

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