The Social Media Evolution- and What it Means for Marketers
If you’re like me, you remember the day when America Online was THE social media platform of the century! At the time, we didn’t call it social media. We didn’t even refer to it as a platform. Like your Grandma clicking on “the Internet” (aka her browser icon), we simply thought the entire internet revolved around this software. AOL wasn’t the first of its kind and, as we are well aware, it certainly has not been the last.
Over the past two decades, social media platforms have come to the forefront. You have your pick of the litter when deciding which ones you want to use and there seems to be one for every need. Want to network with professionals? Check. Take selfies with cool filters? Yep. Share videos? No problem.
How did we get from one platform with around 3 million users to dozens of platforms with user bases up to 2 billion? Here’s what you should know about the evolution of social media platforms over time and what it means for your marketing strategy:
The Beginnings of Social Media
The beginnings of America Online were in 1985, and while this ultimate internet browser had the start of many social media elements – link-building, forums, daily news, chat – it wasn’t the first social media website. The story actually started in 1997 with a channel called SixDegrees.
With SixDegrees, users could create profiles, send messages, and add other users as friends- all things we still like to do today. It is widely considered the first social media network and it had more than 3.5 million users at its peak.
By 2002, Friendster was “a thing” that came and went with the dawn of MySpace in 2003.
When Myspace came along, it gave users more freedom to express themselves. They could add blogs, photos, music, and videos to their profiles. That paid off as between 2005 and 2009, Myspace became the largest social networking site in the world. And that was just the beginning, as we all now know.
All the Platforms We Know and Love
Here’s a quick stroll down memory lane to see when the largest modern platforms made their debuts:
- LinkedIn joined the social media scene in 2003, offering a place for professionals to network.
- Next, in 2004, a little site called Facebook was launched by Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard roommates to help college students to network.
- YouTube wasn’t far behind, launching in 2005, and creating a space for people to share their own video content.
- 2006 brought about Twitter, 140-character tweets, and the hashtag.
- Then, in 2010, Instagram launched, enabling users to edit and share photos from their mobile devices.
- 2011 brought about Snapchat which featured disappearing messages, videos, and pictures, offering a less permanent alternative to the other platforms. It also offered stories which could be viewed for 24 hours.
In summary, between 2004 and 2011, many of the platforms that would accumulate massive user bases emerged. Since then, they have changed pop culture, politics, commerce, and how we connect with our friends and family. But which ones have been the most successful?
The Top Social Media Channels in 2018
As of 2018, here are the most popular social media networking sites and apps by the amount of their monthly active users:
- Facebook 2,230,000,000
- YouTube 1,900,000,000
- Instagram 1,000,000,000
- Twitter 336,000,000
- Snapchat 300,000,000+
Facebook has ruled the roost since 2008, growing to over 2 billion users-about 30% of the earth’s population! But how did it climb to the top? Timing is everything.
The Battle for the Top Social Media Channel
SixDegrees.com blazed the trail; proving the online social networking concept had potential by gaining 3.5 million users. However, they sold the company and it closed down shortly after. Next up was Friendster which reached 3 million users before being sold to a large Asian company and growing to 115 million users (mostly in Asia). It had technical issues which left many users looking for an alternative, and it ended up closing down which worked out well for Myspace.
Myspace grew to 100 million users and became the most visited website in the U.S. in 2006. However, a focus on advertising revenue instead of usability hurt the platform’s growth. By the time Facebook opened up to anyone over 13 in 2006, users were familiar with social media and wanted a new platform they could trust.
The market was also ripe with budding broadband availability, growing internet usage, and widespread smartphone adoption. Further, Facebook learned from the failures of the platforms that came before it.
It took four years for Facebook to overtake Myspace and become the largest player in the social networking market and it hasn’t looked back since – although it has faced some bumps along the road. Two milestones in Facebook’s success have been its master of public relations and its continuous evolution. Times have changed, technology has advanced, and Facebook has continued to stay at the forefront.
The Facebook Runners-Up
YouTube and Instagram
We can see some interesting trends when looking at Facebook’s runners-up. YouTube isn’t too far behind with 1.9 billion users and Instagram just recently crossed the one-billion-user mark. While Facebook allows for videos and photos, the success of these platforms have shown that channels dedicated to visual media and built for them are also desirable in their own right.
Another large milestone we should note is that Instagram only had about 50 million users in 2012. Facebook bought the rising competitor for $1 billion just two years after it launched. In the seven short years since, its monthly active user base has grown to one billion!
Meanwhile, Snapchat shook things up a bit and was a motivating factor for Facebook to purchase Instagram. It launched its mobile app in 2011 and the story feature in 2013. Shortly after the story feature was launched, Zuckerberg tried to buy Snapchat for three billion dollars but the offer was refused! By the end of 2014, 40% of adults in the US were using Snapchat daily. Plus, it had a markably younger audience than Facebook or Twitter. This new market was up for grabs, and Instagram soon released its stories feature to compete.
Speaking of Twitter, while its growth has slowed in recent years, it seems to be making a comeback, as it earned a profit for the first time in Q4 of 2017. It holds a unique position in the market with its short character limits but has still held a prominent place in the media world. The recent upswing can be attributed to cracking down on fake accounts and increasing its video ad sales. For now, it holds its place as a top channel, but just hasn’t seen the growth that the innovative visual media platforms have been able to achieve.
What it Means for Marketers
Now we are entering a new stage of the social media evolution as our technology continues to improve. We have
- dark social,
- faster internet,
- virtual reality,
- 360 video,
- and ever-changing algorithms.
As marketers, there’s no question about if we should be on social media, the question is which channels should we be investing in?
You need to be in tune with the various social media channels and where they stand in the market. Look for new platforms that are growing fast and older ones that have plateaued. Look at daily and monthly active users to see not only how many people have signed up but how many are engaged. Pay attention to current events that may cause users to go elsewhere. Further, find the platforms that best help you to reach your target audience in the content form they prefer.
The bottom line: As marketers, we can get the most out of social media by keeping a finger on the pulse of the channels both leading and up-and-coming. Identify which channels are best to reach your target audience and adapt your strategy accordingly.