When social media platforms start to look alike, the key differentiator is in their roots

When social media platforms start to look alike, the key differentiator is in their roots

This story is part of an eight-article editorial series that explores the ramifications of a fragmented social marketplace. More from the series →

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and arguably nowhere is that truer than in social media. Whenever a new feature captures user interest, competing platforms are quick to implement their own versions lest users flee, leaving those platforms relegated to the dustbin of social media history alongside Friendster, MySpace, Google+ and countless others.

In 2013, for example, a short-form video app named Vine took social media by storm. Four years later, it was dead — but the style of its brief, succinct videos has since resurrected to become what James Creech, svp of strategy at social analytics firm Brandwatch, called “one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds” in social. It includes players like Snapchat Stories, Instagram Stories, Instagram Reels, Facebook Reels and YouTube Shorts.

That’s to say nothing of photo app newcomer BeReal, which has spurred the likes of TikTok Now and Meta’s Roll Call. While the app’s hype period may be waning, platforms still move fast to mimic the latest draw, seeing it as a potential threat to lose users and advertisers.

As a result, everything old in social media is eventually new again.

The root of this phenomenon starts with some good old-fashioned competition — and maybe a little paranoia.

“It speaks to … how much [apps] are craving user time and attention to fund their platforms and the fear that if any other platform starts to poke its head out and become popular, they quickly react and try and capitalize on what makes it interesting or relevant to those users,” said Richard Oldfield, vp and executive director of media and connections at ad agency R/GA.

And when TikTok became the most-downloaded app of 2020 with 89 million downloads in the U.S. alone, per Apptopia, you better believe competitors like Instagram (62 million) and Facebook (53 million) were watching.

“That’s when other platforms start noticing and adjusting their services to capture and retain the audience attention,” said Claudia Ratterman, a director analyst at research firm Gartner. 

Hence the hotly contested battlegrounds. And even if the copycat feature isn’t as good as the original, it can still help retain users longer — and appeal to new users — while also decreasing the likelihood they will try out alternatives. And when users stay, there are more opportunities to advertise to them.

But it’s also more difficult for giants to evolve as they grow. After all, Facebook dropped its infamous internal “move fast and break things” slogan in 2014.

“My sense is the platforms have become so big they don’t have a lot of time to innovate,” Oldfield said. “Consumer tastes are changing quite rapidly, so they don’t have time to necessarily recalibrate and really think about what their product offers and is doing in the same way they might have done 10 or 15 years ago.”

And because they don’t have time to look too far ahead, they have to “stamp out any competition immediately … with Reels being the perfect example,” he added. 

Whether it’s TikTok’s short-form looping video or BeReal’s dual camera feature, copycat features on entrenched platforms yield stickiness among existing users — which also means more opportunities to generate revenue through advertising to said users.

But if every social media platform eventually has some kind of short-form video functionality, there’s risk they’ll all start to look the same. There are, however, several ways apps can stay relevant.

For starters, platforms should focus on why consumers were drawn to them in the first place and innovate from that point rather than pivoting in an entirely new direction based on what other platforms are doing.

Gary Nix, chief strategy officer at digital agency the Brandarchist, cautioned against drastically changing what users come to you for — and to know your purpose and where you fit in the whole ecosystem.

“You still have to serve the users that came to you,” he said. “Otherwise, if you try to keep up with other channels, people are going to be like, ‘OK, so now you are trying to be this other channel and you’re going to take away what I like from yours? Why am I here?'”

Oldfield pointed to streaming platform Spotify, which has reportedly tested a TikTok-like video feed, as an example of this. “Yes, there’s a great opportunity when it comes to music and video, but, as TikTok has shown, the minute you start trying to evolve beyond your core benefit, it becomes more and more challenging,” he added.

Copycatting — or even what Creech called “feature bloat” — also comes with risk of degrading the user experience as users are subjected to the whims of the algorithm instead of the content they actually want to see. He, too, pointed to Instagram, which updated the navigation bar to more prominently feature Reels and demote shopping.

“[Meta is] still testing out these features or leaning into those business priorities,” Creech said. “But they’re also being reactive to what the users want, so hopefully there’s some healthy balance there and that’s allowing us to have a better experience.”

At the same time, he acknowledged hearing complaints about the platform’s push of Reels onto users.

“There’s definitely been public outcry about these apps constantly copying other features and trying to be the complete social platform,” Creech added. “A lot of folks really say, ‘Well, I’m happy with Instagram being the place for photos and TikTok being the place I get videos and Facebook having news content,’ but that’s not necessarily aligned with the business interests of the platform to attract as big an audience [and] as many advertisers as it can.”

After all, a platform’s revenue comes from advertisers attracted by users — and user data — which is why the former yearn to be everything to everyone.

To avoid backlash, platforms can implement social listening tools to better understand user behavior. This way, if there is a feature like search that is gaining traction on TikTok, other apps can determine not only whether to enhance their existing functionality, but how to do it better.

“Understand behavior changes slightly depending on what’s happening in our external environment, so we have to adjust to that and offer them what they’re looking for,” Ratterman said. “And they’re telling us what they want. So I think platforms that listen and adjust their platforms to actually serve … they’re more user-centric versus brand-centric.”

In a similar vein, Nix said the goal should be relevance instead of competition.

“When you see something different and feel like you can enhance what’s already happening here, yeah, find ways to integrate that,” he added. “You say, ‘Here’s how I can add to it to make the experience better,’ because you’re doing it for the people there instead of just for the bottom line.”

Ratterman agreed some platforms struggle because “they focus on advertising, advertising, advertising” instead of users.

“There can be a danger if you try and move too fast, if you try and implement new ad models that seem to be working for somebody else,” Oldfield added. “You increase the ad load, if there is less care and consideration around brand safety … there’s a question over the environment and ultimately, what’s being created.”

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