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Kris Makuch

Head of Digital London

There was a time when the priority for social media users was to collect as many friends or followers as possible. Often, users pursued this objective regardless of how well they knew one another in the real world. However, in the constantly evolving world of social media, recent trends suggest some users are moving away from large public networks towards more private and personalised platforms.

You’ve got a friend

In describing followers or connections, social media network Facebook uses the term ‘friends’. In doing so, it stretches the definition of friendship much further than its traditional meaning. This liberal definition is, in part, how Facebook managed to grow to be the largest social network on the planet with approximately 1.7bn users, each of whom have on average around 150 ‘friends’.

Facebook set the standard for championing the concept of a large public network, and Twitter notably followed suit. Indeed, the success of a Twitter account is often measured in terms of follower size – the aim being to maximise the audience to every post.

Organisations adapted their communications strategies accordingly and began developing content to fit in to people’s news feeds, taking advantage of the large networks to spread their messages.

These dynamics accounted for the significant growth Twitter enjoyed in its early years. More recently, however, the social media giant has suffered a period of relative stagnation. Data released in October 2016 revealed a disappointing quarter for Twitter, in which it failed to reach its user growth targets and suffered a slide in advertising revenues.

While this has been attributed to a variety of factors, a broad examination of user trends suggests that Twitter may be among the first victims of a wider shift in society’s social media habits.

Shifting sands

It was not long ago that the mobile phone app SnapChat was written off by many as a fad. Few anticipated how far-reaching and popular the app, which enables the sharing of self-deleting photos and videos to a small group of friends, would become.

By putting limits on the size of user networks, SnapChat hit on something much deeper in the human psyche –the capacity for users to nurture no more than 30 relationships at a given time, and in doing so connect more closely with ‘truer’ friends.

While the average Facebook user has approximately 150 friends, the average Snapchat user interacts with between only 20 and 30 other people. Naturally, people are much more comfortable being themselves in front of a smaller audience. As such, users are not only more inclined to post content, but also more likely to engage with the content of other users.

Further evidence of this comes with the rise of messaging apps such as WeChat, Telegram, and Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger, which have all embraced the appetite for greater privacy.

New social strategies

This new trend has significant implications for how organisations engage with people over social media. In many cases, strategies may need to be updated to reflect an increasingly ‘personal’ approach that is supportive of individual privacy and not a challenge to it.

With SnapChat for example it is possible to sponsor different ‘filters’ –the special effects users place over their photographs and videos. This provides exposure for an organisation on the messaging app in a way that supports personalisation and is conducive to private conversations. In doing so, this enhances their individual social experiences without invading them. It also places organisations at the heart of situations where people are more relaxed and open.

Tailoring your approach

While it may be true that people are increasingly reverting to private conversations, this does not mean there is no longer space for public contribution. Indeed, both Facebook and Twitter remain highly valuable and influential platforms.

Nonetheless, organisations may want rethink spreading their message by simply broadcasting content into the social media feeds of as many people as possible. The key in this new era of interaction is to create engaging content that encourages readers to share it among themselves.

Ultimately each organisation will need to adopt a strategy that is specific to their own objectives, messages and the audiences, and tailor their approach and content depending on the social platforms they use.

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