The second coming of social: rise of the vertical networks

For a long time, Facebook has embodied what “social” meant to the web. And with its IPO only months away, some are already calling social ‘done’, focusing their attention on finding the next big differentiators in consumer web.

But for all the pundit talk, an interesting contradictory phenomenon has been occurring in front of our eyes for the past few years: more and more successful ‘special purposes’ (or dare I say, ‘vertical’) social networks are taking off.

Examples abound: Instagram, Pinterest, Foodspotting, Foursquare, Quora, Path – just to name a few. How can these social networks find large audiences, when the undisputed king of social networks, Facebook, still controls the throne? Hypothetically, couldn’t a consumer do, directly on Facebook, what they’re doing on these other, smaller social networks?

Or… are these people living under a rock somewhere, where no one’s discovered Facebook yet? To the contrary, all of these services are well-integrated with the Facebook platform and have no problem maintaining a huge audience overlap.

Some argue that consumers are building new social graphs more relevant to their special purpose (an interest-based graph if you will) on these other social networks, causing them to thrive. The argument goes, for example, that my social graph on Instagram is drastically different from Facebook, and I have curated a ‘special friend-list’ there, peopled mostly by those who care about beautiful photos. Or, that my friends on Foursquare are more interested in location than my friends on Facebook.

I find this argument weak at best. Sure, there are some differences between friends across various networks. But, by and large, for most people, the friends they maintain across these different networks (and Facebook itself) are more similar than different. If anything, friends who are excluded on my vertical social graphs are simply those who have yet to sign up for the services; as these vertical networks grow, the friend lists on these networks converge toward, not away from, the mean – which is to say, toward the Facebook graph.

So how else we can explain this phenomenon? The real draw for consumers is, I think, the more targeted user experience that vertical networks are able to provide.

Take Instagram: you know what you’ll get when you use Instagram. Photos aren’t mixed with cat montages from YouTube and articles about education reform from The Washington Post. And your publishing action is highly targeted at photos, at uploading and maybe adding filters to them. That simple focus has turned the service into the destination for posting photos and discussing them with friends. Most Instagram users still share photos they post there on Facebook, so it’s not that they don’t find the photo suitable for their Facebook graph – people liking and commenting on Instagram are often the same as on Facebook – but rather, these users find the focus and intention of the Instagram experience more appealing than the Facebook alternative. And knowing that they could automatically share their Instragram photos on Facebook as well, these users know that by choosing Instagram over Facebook, they’re not missing out on anything. It’s a win-win situation.

Some might argue that the additional value of more focused user experience is outweighed by the effort involved in setting up and maintaining yet another social network. That would have been a fair drawback a few years ago. But today, we can simply re-create our social graph on a new property within minutes, thanks to the prevalence of new features, like those that recommend people a user might already know, when they join the new service (the result of Facebook Connect, Gmail contact importers, etc).

The most successful vertical networks succeed in making the the maintenance and expansion of a user’s social graph on their sites as simple and painless as possible. Furthermore, the fact that content published on vertical social networks can be seamlessly posted to other networks, Facebook in particular, at the click of a button, eliminates the major drawbacks of using a more specialized tool for one’s social engagement needs. In the mind of a consumer, hopping aboard the next great social experience that caters to  an important facet of life is an all-win opportunity.

Does such specialization hurt Facebook? Not in the least. As discussed, almost all the content published on vertical social networks flows into Facebook, which continues to own users’ “master” social graph. The development of vertical social networks is actually a great win for Facebook. And Facebook knows this, hence their continued investment in Open Graph and their continued support of the above mentioned vertical social networks.

An interesting parallel to this phenomenon was highlighted by Jay Jamison, of BlueRun Ventures, when he compared Facebook to broadcast networks and vertical social networks to cable channels. Even though I disagree with him on the assertion, that in his words, interest-based social networks are taking off because they allow creation of a different social graph on each network (see above), I really like his broadcast-cable analogy and feel it describes what’s going on here. Once we install a cable line in our apartments, the marginal cost of getting those special channels is further reduced, and we start to consume media from ESPN, CNN, and Comedy Central, ad infinitum.

So does this mean that we’ll end up with a large social network for every possible vertical? I believe that users will transition to the specialized social networks that cater to major facets of their lives. The obvious verticals will revolve around fun, food, love, sports, career, finance, and the like. LinkedIn has already built a successful public company focusing on just peoples’ careers. Zynga’s done the same, tackling gaming for our entertainment. There is still a huge untapped opportunity around sports. For love and romance, of course, we at Zoosk are continuing to build the romantic social network where consumers will create and share their romantic journey.

It’s important to re-iterate what conditions are necessary for such vertical social networks to take off, beyond simply creating a compelling user experience around something people care about in their lives:

  • Automation (as much as possible) of the social graph creation
  • Seamless flow of content to other networks
  • A strong mobile experience to facilitate publishing
  • No dilution of the social graph by pushing ‘people discovery’ to extremes (I think shooting for 80% overlap with other networks is a good target)

Combining the above principles with a great specialized user experience can lead to successful vertical social networks. The successful vertical networks that already exist will help usher in the next wave of successful web destinations that are yet to come, if the opportunities are seized. Social is just getting started!

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