Thinking Outside Facebook

One of the most important implications of Facebook's high-priced acquisition of mobile social photography app Instagram is the tacit admission that the social network was really a social network. The game-over thinking around Facebook, that it was the de facto social platform for the web, is an important fallacy to debunk. As one who has never been a fan of Facebook's ever-changing face, interface, privacy policies, and ad models, I admit to enjoying some of its recent missteps. From walls to timelines to sponsored stories, the company still feels like a cool lab experiment that isn't clear and stable enough in its mission to be a platform for anything but breathless coverage in the digital press.

Its lack of a clear mobile strategy-even as the majority of its users will soon be engaging the network from devices-struck me as odd in light of its IPO. And frankly, just from a user's point of view, I never found Facebook easy to use. The torrent of posts is intractable and seems to demand tending. Certainly, it has an interface that still seems crafted by engineers for engineers. And its performance on mobile devices has always been terrible, no matter what phone or tablet or even set-top box I use.

I don't think I am alone, and so the popularity of other social media offerings such as Instagram, Pinterest, Viddy, Tumblr, and SocialCam doesn't surprise me in the least. My 20-year-old daughter, who generally keeps her Facebook page open in the background for most of the day, tells me even she now prefers posting on Pinterest and Instagram. These visual media-sharing services have a different tone and mood. They encourage the exchange and discovery of creative and inspiring moments, not the offhand and relentless brain droppings that seem to occupy most Facebook and Twitter scrolls. Interestingly, a number of media sites are reporting that Pinterest, in particular, has become an even more important driver of social referrals than Facebook.

Perhaps even more to the point, these alternative sites are simply more visually engaging and attractively designed than the first generation of social networks. This is content that people don't scroll to "catch up," but content people truly browse and swim within.

Now, to be sure, many of these new services such as Instagram, SocialCam, Viddy, and Pinterest are relying on Facebook and Twitter to supply the actual social "network." People use the sign-ins for these larger social nets to log into the new media-sharing sites and often help the new sites grow their base by posting to Facebook and Twitter. But even on their own, some of these personal media-sharing sites are in fact growing their own networks. SocialCam, for instance, has a leaderboard where the top most followed posters each have more than a million followers. The same is true for the top four posters on Instagram.

The most interesting byproduct of this greater diversity of social media energy in the last year will be new ways of thinking through the business models. Some models will be quite familiar, such as MTV using Instagram (700,000-plus followers) to broadcast backstage images. But many of these more stripped-down, image-heavy services such as Tumblr also encourage different ways of thinking about communicating an advertiser's brand-perhaps more through shared senses of style than in straightforward promotion.

Sports teams have embraced mobile video-sharing app SocialCam, for instance, as a place where they can post in nearly real time video interviews with players and coaches from the sidelines during and after a game. Because SocialCam is tied into the mobile OS's and the associated alerting systems, the user gets a system alert whenever someone he or she follows has posted new content. The mobile media-sharing ecosystem allows advertisers to craft a one-to-one direct relationship with the fan in a way even earlier social networks could not.

The best news for brands about emerging social media-especially the device-based personalized platforms-is how hard it is to advertise on them. Traditional pitches and touts in the midst of browsing Instagram or Pinterest would simply break the experience and feel cheap in otherwise delectable settings. These platforms demand content, not advertising. They force advertisers to genuinely please and engage customers and to build brands by doing, not just saying. While Facebook and Twitter keep trying to figure out ways of inserting ads into our daily torrents of trivia, I am more interested in how publishers and advertisers use the new mobile media to break out of the old-media, impression-based box.