• Friday, July 22, 2022

Digital Marketing Tools: The History of Social Media

While social media has become an essential utility in today's world, it hasn't always been that way. Many people are unaware of how Social media started, or the digital landscape before tech giants like Facebook and Google controlled so much of our digital activity. The Rise and Fall of so many social media platforms mirror the same issues modern networks have today, so where did it all start?

Before we begin, it's important to remember that in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Internet was extremely primitive compared to today. The platforms I am about to outline are referred to as Social Media platforms but share more modern similarities to forums. However, what makes a website a social media platform has never really changed; while they may have looked and functioned very differently 20 years ago, the basic premise of connecting and sharing with people online has remained a core pillar of the experience.

According to 'The History of Social Networking', the first social media sites that graced the internet were a host of American companies such as America Online and Prodigy. These sites are primarily made up of bulletin boards, email services and online chat forums. While non of these sites made a significant impact (by today's standards), they gave way to today's platforms and a very turbulent time in the history of the early platforms.

By 2001 the small number of Internet users spread across many small ‘networks’ had moved to ‘Six Degrees’ and ‘Friendster’. These two sites shared much of the DNA you would see with what came next, but these sites are small, and communities are fractured. By 2003, the first significant migration of users happened with the birth of a little place you might know called Myspace.

LinkedIn Founder, and your first MySpace friend, Tom.

The Rise of Myspace

It is difficult to explain Myspace to someone who never experienced it, in 2022. As an overview, it offered many services you would already be aware of, such as direct messaging, photo uploads and comments. What made Myspace different is that it gave users the ability to customise the overall look of their profile and its functionality. To do this, a user would need a basic understanding of HTML and very light coding to get the most out of Myspace. The thought of a platform asking users to understand code to edit a button is mind-blowing, but that made Myspace what it was. While a network released four years later called Tumblr would also allow users to customise their experience, it never went as far as Myspace did.

The company was formed in August 2003 when multiple eUniversity employees with Friendster accounts saw the potential to take what Friendster was doing and create a more customisable platform. Unbelievably, ten days after forming the company, the group launched the first version of Myspace. The first users of the platform all came from eUniversity and enrolled over 20 MILLION users within days.

This created a strong word of mouth, and within weeks users flocked to the platform in their millions. By 2006, the site surpassed Yahoo and Google to become the most visited site in the United States. At their peak in 2008, Myspace had 115 Million active users.

While Myspace had a strong user following and rose to popularity quickly, it didn't have a monopoly over the market; this would be the first 'war for the users' the industry would face. In today's world, platforms offer almost every service you could imagine; back then, they would all be clones of each other, meaning that enrolling a user would depend entirely on where they could speak to their friends.

Introducing LinkedIn, hi5, Orkut, Yahoo 360 Degrees and Bebo.

The First Social Media War

While Myspace wasn't the first, it was the first to catapult social media to the mainstream. You need to remember that for the average user, social media is exciting and new. It was just bubbling up to the surface of popular culture; most people had never seen anything like it before.

The vast majority of users at the time were aged between 15-30; you had to be open to trying something new or be tech savvy to understand and see the potential of these networks.

Today, you hear a lot about the platforms trying to acquire users, but this has been the same since the dawn of the industry. Myspace, Orkut, Yahoo 360 and Bebo would fight feature for feature to gain popularity with internet users.

Hi5 was launched in June 2003 and gained popularity in Latin America, Mongolia, Tunisia and Romania. By 2005, it was the 2nd largest platform, only behind Myspace.

Bebo launched in 2005 and snowballed; at 1 point, it overtook Myspace to be the biggest social media network in the United Kingdom. In 2008, Internet giant AOL agreed to purchase the network for $850 million. The BBC later described this as "one of the worst deals ever made in the dot-com era”. It also cost the CEO his job. After turbulence in the company began in 2008, Bebo would barely survive and continually changed its business model until it was declared bankrupt and later liquidated in 2013.

Orkut was a social media platform built by the search engine company Google. Seeing the rise of Social media-related searches, they decided it was time for them to launch their own. In 2003, Google approached Friendster and tried to purchase the platform. Friendster, seeing the opportunity to surpass Google, declined. Not to be beaten, Google launched Orkut. Membership was by invitation only to create a 'trusted environment between you and your friends’. It was a massive failure in the US market and it never surpassed Friendster or Myspace in users.

That wasn't the end of the story for Orkut; while it didn't get much market share in the US, it boomed in different regions around the world. At its peak, Orkut boosted a community of over 300 million, and by 2014, 55% of its traffic came from Brazil, 19% from India and almost 7% from China. Between 2005 and 2008, it was the only thriving social network in India.

Things changed quickly for Google here, as in 2014, despite success in some counters, they closed the business.

In modern history, this wouldn't be Google's only foray into Social Media. In 2011 they launched the ill-fated Google+, which was a disaster. Taking the invite-only route, Google would also let you invite two friends to join the platform with you. As you can imagine, a place where you can only connect with a few people didn't work out. They later auto opted-in every person who had a Gmail account thinking this would incentivise usage. The network became a ghost town and would lose feature after feature until Google closed the platform in 2019.

By 2007, the market's user base was spread thinly across many platforms, and monetisation wasn't as robust as it is today. Different countries adopting different networks further fragmented the market, and users were forced to sign up for 5 or 6 different networks to share photos with their friends. But in 2008, the landscape began shifting rapidly, as the second social media way was coming, and the outlook was blue.

Hi Mark

In February 2004, Mark Zuckerberg launched 'The Facebook'.

Facebook was initially created as a place for college campuses across the US to sign up classmates as a way to meet each other before term, or organise social events. The Harvard sophomore allegedly stole the idea for the site from Olympic rowers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. It was later discovered that it was created to rank women based on their appearance; Mark himself would later testify that was indeed correct before the American congress in 2018.

While the Facebook we all know today is a behemoth that owns Instagram, WhatsApp and more, in its first few years, it slowly gained popularity around US campuses and began to seep into the mainstream. As people graduated, they would stay on the platform and started inviting friends to join. In 2006, Facebook began allowing anyone with an email to sign up, and in 2008, its popularity exploded.

In 2007 Facebook boosted over 100,000 business pages, which incentivised users to visit them more often and engage with Facebook for longer. It might seem strange, but before this, businesses hadn't used social media. Facebook (as it was now known) birthed many opportunities for small companies to expand their reach and market product for free.

In the years they followed, Facebook gained traction, and between 2008 and 2010, it gained over 100 million users a year. By 2010 they had a staggering 400 million users. This level of user interaction was something that had never been seen before. Facebook would continue adding more features such as Newsfeed and games like Farmville, and expand its messaging offerings to incorporate language options, emojis and chat games.

In 2011, widespread adoption of the iPhone meant a fundamental shift in how people used the internet, and with this, Facebook boomed; adding hundreds of millions of users a year. By 2016, they had 1.8 Billion monthly active users. While Facebook gained popularity, almost all the previous platforms mentioned in this blog died slowly as users and investors deserted in droves. Facebook, by an extensive margin, had won the social media war.

Why did Facebook work?

If you ask anyone in marketing, they will have a very strong opinion on Facebook, and it's usually reasonably negative. The company is embroiled in controversy, its leader is not someone who you can look up to, and its market power to buy Instagram and WhatsApp created an almost monopoly in the market. It’s also abused that power, and what started as a free marketing tool for small businesses, has become expensive and untrustworthy.

However, I think it’s essential to look at the platform's positives and why it gained such immense popularity. Even from its inception, Facebook continued to innovate and add new features at a fast pace. From expanding its initial concept to include a News feed, adding folders for photo uploads, location check-ins, inviting businesses to create a page and market their stores, games, Messenger and more, Facebook knew what users wanted before they knew they wanted it. It also created a business manager that has expanded tools to monitor ad campaigns and learn more about their business. It also got lucky; the world was learning about the internet and how to use it when Facebook became the favourite platform. Compared to its competitors, Facebook provided an approachable, easy-to-use interface for people to chat with friends worldwide.

Without the hard work of all the people who built the many social media platforms before it, Facebook wouldn’t have succeeded.

Tiktok is rapidly catching up to Facebook in global users and has become pop culture's favourite network.

Full Circle

If you had asked me in 2018 if I thought Facebook would be here in 10 years, I would have said yes. If you ask me now, I'm not so sure. Like its predecessors, Facebook has become bloated with features people don't use, and its demographic is getting older while not attracting younger ones. Instagram is also beginning to see the same fate, as Facebook engineers began prioritising the network in 2019.

We also saw the rise of TikTok; its influence on the market can't be understated as it grows rapidly and becomes the world's biggest and most loved social media network. The competitive market that birthed Facebook, is now looking to replace it.

If you are a business owner looking to market your brand, remember that what was true yesterday might not be true today. You need to look at your audience and engage with them where they are. Don't ever be scared to try something new or explore additional options; when we tell a company that their money might yield a higher return on investment on Google ads or TikTok vs Facebook, you can see the fear of the unknown. Adapt and change. Remember, Facebook was built on the grave of a hundred social media sites; 100 more will be built on top of Facebook.

No matter the size of your business, our marketing team are experienced in using your brand values and messaging to increase sales and maximise results across digital marketing channels. Not sure how to begin? get in touch with a member of our team today!