Monday, December 30, 2013

How will 2014 shape the social media wars?

It's been an important year for upstart social media sites, with +Google+ and Pinterest both showing impressive gains in audience, according to U.S. data, with Facebook and its Instagram affiliate photo site stalling out. Twitter had good gains also in the fall after a slide for several months, but now Google+ is edging it out in Compete's count of unique monthly visitors. These stats are samples of Internet traffic, so take them with a huge grain of salt in terms of absolute numbers, but they're useful for general trends.

 In a few days we'll get some new data from Compete, and one would expect that Google+ will show another good gain. I say this not necessarily because G+ has been doing extra-awesome things lately - though the new photo enhancing options are certainly attracting attention - but largely because Google+ seems to gain visitors every time that an Android or Chrome OS device is sold. Each time that happens, Google+ is more integrated with those devices and with other Google platforms and services, so its usefulness increases somewhat independent of the portal itself.

Twitter's boost might be tied in with its push for television integration, with major TV producers pushing the use of hashtags on Twitter to promote the viewing of their shows. Similarly, Pinterest seems to get a lot of pins for merchandise from sellers wanting to attract attention. While I hesitate to say that these platforms are being "gamed," it certainly does seem that the idea of viral marketing gets an awful lot of sock puppets at the controls these days. Twitter is being pushed so hard as the default real-time public messaging service that it's hard to imagine that they'll stall out in 2014, but if other services can do a better job of managing breaking news and events, then they may not have such a rosy year.

I am not sure that Google+ growth based on Android growth has plateaued, because Android has yet to realize fully its potential for tablet market penetration and we have a new generation of Android-based TV appliances expected in 2014. The impact of other platforms such as +Google Glass will be minimal next year for driving G+ growth, but as Glass attracts more trend-setters and job-function users, it may attract more people to Android devices that complement Glass best. And of course the explosive growth of Chrome OS in 2014 is just the beginning of cloud computing's certain march, which may also favor those Chromebooks users with Google accounts making more use of Google+.

 And then there's Facebook, which seems to have grabbed as much in U.S. markets as it can, but is far from done in penetrating overseas markets. Instagram growth is stalled, and not likely to grow as it becomes more of a Facebook feature than a destination. The highly problematic deal between Facebook and +T-Mobile to offer free Facebook data bandwidth for certain plans seems to point towards Facebook seeking subsidized schemes for using its huge base of users as market leverage more effectively. Facebook is not near becoming the next mySpace, but they do seem to be settling down to become an AOL - a service that gained hughe market entropy but that cannot go anywhere new with it very effectively, in part because they decided too early that they were a media company rather than a customer services company.

 Others such as Pinterest will hover around the periphery, waiting to be snatched up by Yahoo or other major properties, since they really don't have significant second acts beyond a relatively narrow set of core features. I'd reckon that we'd see a Yahoo acquisition of Pinterest by June, if not sooner. So it will be an evolutionary year for social media, with Google+ taking advantage of the general growth of Google services, but in need of some key new features to score some knockout blows. The improvements to Hangouts and YouTube integration are a step in that direction, but these improvements are incomplete and in need of much more attention to detail.

Blogging integration is also an opportunity for Google+, with the comments integration in +Blogger having been a first step but still lacking an effective way for content to appear in both blog form and Google+ form more conveniently. Also remaining unsolved are how better to make family/friend oriented content managed a bit more separately and successfully from interest-based content. Too many people still turn on Google+ and wonder who's there to communicate with who they know and who actually uses the service.

 What are your thoughts for social media in 2014?