Every social network that gets popular inevitably declines. They all decline in the same way. And the decline happens for the exact same reason.
If you don't know about this, you'll fall into the "trending traffic" trap again and again. You'll be lured in by "social starlet" success stories, jump on a new platform when it's already too late and experience yet another disappointment.
Read on to discover what drives the inevitable decline of social platforms (and why you need to own your platform, instead).
The Instagram Monster
This is a story that perfectly illustrates what I'm talking about here. It's worth reading in full, but I'll briefly summarize here:
- This is the story of someone who built a good following - and started making a living - on Instagram.
- She starts out growing her audience organically, posting good content and essentially getting rewarded for the good work she does.
- Later on, she finds herself doing things she never wanted to do. She's gaming the system, exploiting loopholes. Cheating, basically. And she has to do this to retain her reach on Instagram
- In short, she's had to stoop to tricks and techniques to keep going, she no longer finds joy in what she does and Instagram seems to make things increasingly difficult and expensive for her, just to keep afloat.
This is a story that reflects the experience of thousands of creators, on every social media platform that has come and gone since the dawn of the web.
Why has nobody told you about this before?
I don't know. They were probably too busy selling you something.
Technically, what happens as a social media platform grows is simple: organic reach shrinks proportionally to the growth of the platform.
That means you can have followers on Instagram, subscribers on YouTube, followers on Facebook etc. who never see what you post, even though they ostensibly subscribed to receive your updates.
A perfect example of this is the introduction of the "bell" in YouTube:
Note that it doesn't replace the subscription button. It's there in addition to it. So, someone can subscribe to your channel, but they may or may not see your updates. If they really want to see your updates, they have to "bell" your channel as well.
Did you know that the exact same thing happened on Facebook? It looks like this:
It used to be that YouTube showed you all the content from channels you subscribed to, Facebook showed you all the updates from pages you liked to and Instagram showed you all the pictures from accounts you follow. But now, you have to take extra steps to see those updates.
Seems weird, right? Why ask people to subscribe twice?
The reason is that most people don't subscribe twice. Out of everyone who follows you, few will take the second step and double down on their subscription. And thanks to this, the social platform can reduce organic reach over time, which it must do to keep growing.
Why it Happens
This limiting of organic reach happens as a consequence of a social platform gaining traction. It happens because soon, there's too much noise and not enough signal. It happens because the platform runs out of "inventory".
Here's what that looks like:
A platform's success is the fuel for its own decline. The more people use it and the more businesses are successful with it, the greater the competition becomes for each individual user's attention.
There are only so many updates any given user will consume and what people say they want to see is not a reliable indicator of what they actually want to see.
That's why the network can't rely on subscriptions and has to instead apply filters and rules and algorithms that ensure people see stuff that's as engaging as possible to them. Show them the flood of updates that are irrelevant or annoying to them and you lose them as a user.
A Closer Look: YouTube
Let's get a little geeky and look at YouTube as an example: the longer someone remains a user, the more channels they are subscribed to and the older some of those subscriptions become. YouTube would lose your interest if they only showed you updates from your subscriptions, on the YouTube homepage. Because all the stuff you've subscribed to is actually not the stuff that will get the most clicks and the most view minutes from you.
A better determiner of what you're actually interested in and what you'll actually keep watching is behavior based targeting with algorithms I won't pretend I even begin to understand.
As a result, your personalized homepage would show a lot of stuff you're not that interested in and have no more room for the floods of new material coming in all the time, that may get more view time from you (and view time = ad revenue for YouTube). It is therefore in YouTube's interest to not show you updates from channels you've subscribed to and instead let their algorithms work out what to show you.
For YouTube creators that means: the better these algorithms become, the fewer subscribers they can reach, on average. After all, there are only so many hours in the day someone can be watching YouTube videos. There's too much noise, too much content for YouTube to show you subscription updates and maximize your view time engagement.
The Vicious Cycle
In the early days of a rising social platform, there will be emerging social starlets who gain a large audience and start making money on the platform. Inspired by their example more people and businesses start flooding the platform. Soon, the belt is tightened on organic reach.
Suddenly, you have all these creators trying to survive as their reach and income dwindles. They start gaming the system, using automation tools and paying services to bolster their presence on the platform. Keep in mind, they game the system because they must. The alternative is losing their business and income.
The more creators do this, the more it becomes necessary to use automation and services and tricks to even get in the game. This creates price competition, as every creator starts spending a greater proportion of their income on keeping the income source alive.
In the end, it's a pyramid and only those at the very top survive and prosper. "Small creators" become a thing of the past.
What to Do About it
There's no way to fix this. You can't avoid this fate. The best chance you have, if you're on a social platform, is to become one of the big players early on. That way you have the resources to sustain your presence when things become more difficult.
Of course, that's not what I recommend.
What I recommend is that you are aware of the fact that social platforms function like this. And that should be reason enough to build your own brand, on your own platform.
Instead of making a social platform the very basis of your existence, use social platforms to boost your business. Keep using them for as long as they serve you and then ditch them when they're no longer worth the time and effort.
Instead of relying on a platform to generate enough income for you to continue surviving on the platform, generate your income from selling your own digital products. There's way more money in this (especially at a small scale) and that money makes it easier to stay in the game on social channels.
Prioritizing Your Time
An important take away from all this is that you need to prioritize time spent on social media correctly. In my post about budget friendly marketing automation tools, I mention that automation is especially important for social media.
If you join a platform in the early days, as the tide is rising, it may be worth investing a lot of time there. If you do it cleverly and build your own platform at the same time, you can get a positive ROI. But for established platforms with steadily dwindling reach (like Facebook, for example), you should limit the time you spend on them. Spending a lot of time hustling to get more Facebook followers is not a wise investment, because those followers lose value every day.
This is why I like using services like Missinglettr to minimize the time I spend to do any social media related work.
Only on Social Media?
The principle described here doesn't apply only to social media. In similar ways, other "business opportunities" can also become saturated and decline in value, as they become more popular.
An example comes from a recent comment from our Facebook page (irony not intended):
FBA - fulfillment by Amazon - was all the rage for a long time. But by the time most of us heard about it, it was already too late. The market was already being flooded with competitors, automation tools and services to help sellers game the system in an increasingly hazardous environment.
There are now various services for finding product opportunities, monitoring prices and competitors and automating a lot of the work related to running an FBA business. These tools may be really useful, but because tens of thousands of FBA sellers are using them, it means you simply cannot even participate in this game anymore, unless you spend $XXX/month on tools and services.
Before too long, Amazon needs to tighten things up, to prevent a flood of junk from ruining their reputation.
A few years before, the same thing happened with self-published Kindle books.
And remember the t-shirts craze? Or the "sell yourself as a social media expert to local businesses" craze?
Basically, this happens all the time. Everywhere.
And in my humble opinion, the only way to win at this game is not to play.
What's Your Take on the Social Media Monster?
Have you experienced this "monster" effect on a social media or other platform? Do you have success or failure stories to share? Do you think I'm full of it?
Whatever thoughts this post sparked for you, I'd love to read about them in a comment!