How and why does a social media platform gain followers? What are the stages? How do the expectations of what the platform provides differ among the various groups that join in along different ticks in the timeline?
The answers differ from platform to platform, but there is similarities to be drawn to the bell curve of any technology product adoption: the innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and the laggards. For simplification’s sake, I have observed, and been, among 3 more general groups. The expectations of what value the social media platform provides, and will provide in the future, drastically differ among and within the groups.
Here I sketch the attributes and opinions I have held myself or heard from other people as a member of each group.
The innovators, and later the early adopters, “discover” the social media platform. They are the pioneers who join when it’s user-base is small and specialized and the product meets a sensitive need (i.e. Uber, email) or enhances their life in an intensely personal way (i.e. Instagram). These are the lifeblood of a social media platform, allowing it to reach critical mass before exponentially growing its user base among the masses. These adopters are also fundamental in shaping the product: they have a loud voice in the nascent stages of product development (i.e. Twitter), as well as have a sense of “ownership” and investment from being among the first users. Early adopters can be the product’s biggest cheerleaders, harshest critics, and most vocal recommenders. The reception of features by the small consumer base can make or break the product.
These users are often invested and, as an active witness of the platform’s growth, expect to keep influence over the direction of the product. This can sometimes result in disgruntled segments in the case of strategy changes or business model pivots further along the product’s lifetime. Some are enthused when a platform reaches mass market and others disenchanted.
These users are not the first to discover the platform, and may not even have an active or pressing need for the service the social media platform provides, but join on as the user-base bloats because their friends are participating. (On the other hand, they can have similarities to earlier groups but just have made later discovery.)
These bandwagon users have different expectations, often not even fully formed, than early adopters. However, due to the recommendations and popularity among their friends, they expect it to enrich their lives and allow them to connect to the people around them in new ways. When a platform’s user base reaches this phase, segmentation and feature diversification becomes critical to keep and reel in hooked fish.
The laggards– and I have to admit I’ve been one more than a few times– lag behind the crowd, dragging their feet and take the leap to adoption last. The effort to join another social media platform seems too massive, learning its features, amassing enough followers (especially on asymmetric platforms such as Instagram and Twitter), and dedicating time that is already in short supply due to being hostage to the portfolio of other media, doesn’t seem worth it.
This is easily seen in other scenarios, such as iPhone users updating operating systems months (…or years) later or companies running on practically prehistoric technology.
Often the mindset is resistant to change, believing that if they wait long enough to adopt it, it will prove to be a fad. The cost-benefit analysis results in the conclusion that the value of the technology is not greater than switching or adoption cost (especially including their time). Two other expectations (or perhaps justifications) are that the technology will be too difficult to learn (i.e. my mom) or they heard about it too late and it’s not worth playing catch-up.
Another group within the laggards are the “non-conformists” who refuse to participate because of its widespread acceptance and use. Across industries and product categories, this is especially true with social media because of the negative implications of being digitally instead of physically present all the time.