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Social+ hype: what’s all the fuss about?

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Social+ products have been getting a lot of attention lately. You may have come across the term and wondered what all the fuss is about. You may be wondering whether social+ is just a passing Silicon Valley fad, or if this something you need to take seriously. 

What precisely does the term “social+” mean? And what does it mean for your business?

Keep reading as we break down the definition of social+, what makes a product social+, explore examples, and discuss whether all the hype is justified.

The rise of the social+ business model

In 2018, the South China Morning Post reported on the rising trend of “Social+” business models in China. It gave examples like social commerce apps Pinduoduo (which offers users discounts on “group buys” facilitated via WeChat) and Xiaohongshu (which encourages users  to create and share content featuring links to the products they purchase). 

The article also included a better-known example, social video platform Douyin. Now internationally known as TikTok, the platform started out as a social music platform featuring short clips of choreographed dances and lip-synching.

What started out as a China-based trend soon gained traction internationally as more and more companies recognized the potential of making social an integral component of their business model. 

Recently, VC firm Andreessen Horowitz created an entire content series dedicated in large part to the social+ phenomenon that’s definitely worth a look if you’re interested in exploring the topic in depth. They went as far as to declare that “the best version of every consumer product is the one that’s intrinsically social.”    

What is a social plus company? 

Social+ company definition:  A social+ company is one that sees social engagement as an inextricable component of its product. That is to say, social engagement is an integral part of the experience of using that product. 

Social+ products combine a transaction layer (the function of the product) with an interaction layer, which appeals to the user’s emotional and social needs to create a virtuous engagement loop for users

For instance, in addition to performing a specific function, a social+ product might also provide less measurable benefits like inspiration, encouragement, status, entertainment, advice, and a sense of belonging––among other advantages. This sense of community can be a significant differentiator from similar products that don’t offer these social benefits and force users to take to other platforms like Reddit or Discord to have these experiences and discussions.

According to Andreessen Horowitz’s D’Arcy Coolican, social+ products typically meet three conditions:

1.The social graph of a social+ product is purpose-built for that product and inseparable from the product itself. 

The product generates a community and network that exists because of the experience of using that product. This is by necessity an owned community, which means that the product is not hosted on an existing social platform (like Facebook or WhatsApp) and thus not dependent on that platform’s social graph. 

2. The social graph is inextricable from the product. 

This means that the social component of the product must be integral to its user experience, not an afterthought or marketing gimmick. 

3. Peer-to-peer engagement is built into the product itself. 

This means that users naturally interact with one another socially in the process of using the product. A16Z cites the P2P user engagement seen in fitness apps as an example of this, comparing Strava––where users create and interact with content––to the more one-sided engagement seen with Peloton––where engagement is primarily focused on instructors. 

Social+ apps help users to build beneficial connections and overcome personal challenges through peer-to-peer engagement with dedicated communities of like-minded individuals. 

Examples of social+ products

We’ve written elsewhere about how even the traditionally private industry of personal finance is going social+, and it’s not the only “single-player” activity that’s turning into a social experience. 

Below, we’ve rounded up some examples of social+ products. 

Personal finance and investing

With the rise of retail investing apps like Robinhood that charge low or no brokerage fees, as well as topics like FIRE (financially independent, retire early) trending online, investing has become more accessible to the average individual. 

What’s interesting is that many of these new investors are turning to dedicated communities on social media platforms like Reddit to learn, discuss investment strategies, seek advice, and post about their wins and losses. In response, platforms like Public and Commonstock are creating social+finance products that embed social experiences in the investment process. On these platforms, users not only trade but follow other investors and engage in discussions.

Health and fitness

The health and fitness space is geared towards social+ products because individuals seeking to get into shape or meet other health goals often look to others for instruction, guidance, motivation, and accountability. Dedicated product communities provide this supportive social experience in a way that most traditional fitness products like gym memberships don’t.

As we’ve discussed, some fitness products––like Strava––facilitate this embedded user community and peer-to-peer engagement more effectively than others (like Peloton). There are also a growing number of profitable niche communities around influential diet and fitness trends like Macros Inc, Kayla Itsines’ Sweat and Mari Llewellyn’s Slay apps and communities, to name three. 

(It’s worth noting that many of these fitness communities started out on third-party platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok before transitioning to owned platforms with in-app community features).

Vertical e-commerce

Social+ e-Commerce marketplaces have been popular in China for some time, but they’re now beginning to gain traction around the world, particularly in niches like beauty and fashion. 

In the beauty industry, cosmetics brands like Sephora and Glossier have leveraged their fan communities to drive massive growth.

While these may not be social+ in the strictest sense (the products can be used without participating in the community), these communities form an integral part of these brands’ appeal compared to competitors. 

In fashion, community-powered sneaker marketplace apps like SoleSavy are taking huge market share from sneakerhead-dedicated apps like GOAT, Nike’s SNKRS and Adidas’ Confirmed, as well as long-standing resale platforms like LACED. 

The key difference? Whereas incumbent sneaker marketplaces churn out content for fans to consume, SoleSavy’s built-in community enables members to participate in the discussion, create their own content, and learn from the rest of the community while deciding which pair of sneakers is the best investment. 

Learning

Education is another vertical that is well suited to social+ products. The pandemic accelerated the adoption of elearning in formal education, self-directed learning, and corporate training alike. 

While online education platforms like EdX, Udemy, Skillshare, and others are nothing new, next-gen learning apps are placing a greater emphasis on gamification and social engagement to make the learning experience fun, social and sticky. 

Language-learning app Duolingo has long had social features like leaderboards and allowed users to view their friends’ activity, cheer one another on, and message one another in-app. However, as these features are not essential to the learning experience, Duolingo doesn’t quite qualify as Social+ (yet). 

As remote learning and training become more entrenched, we’re likely to see more e-learning products with social engagement at their core. 

Why social+ products are booming

In recent years, there’s been a steady decline in participation in traditionally in-person community activities, with memberships dropping for religious groups, non-profits, labor unions, and other shared-interest collectives. 

It’s become a fairly common refrain to hear that technology is causing us to disconnect from one another––to lose our sense of community––in spite of being connected at all times. 

But really, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Communities are thriving all around us. They just don’t look quite the way they used to. Sure, the average person might not know their neighbors, but in all likelihood, they’re an avid member of a number of online communities, built around everything from online games to favorite brands, to sports, to shared goals.

Mainstream social media has come under fire for a variety of reasons in recent years due to privacy issues, debates around moderation and censorship, and concerns around the potentially mentally damaging effects of consuming (and comparing oneself to) highly curated content. 

At the same time, time-stressed individuals are becoming more deliberate about how they spend their time, choosing to invest it in their hobbies and goals and forming true, meaningful connections, instead of mindlessly scrolling through various social feeds. 

This shift is contributing to the growing popularity of niche functional communities that allow members to hit two birds with one stone, so to speak.

This is where social+ products have a distinct advantage over social media platforms––and the brands whose communities are built on those platforms. 

Is the hype around social+ warranted?

While some elements of the social+ trend might be overhyped and some industries may not be prime for social disruption, it’s undeniable that businesses that manage to crack the code gain significant advantages over their non-social counterparts. 

Products with a baked-in social component enjoy higher quality user engagement, greater stickiness, better growth loops, and greater defensibility. 

Which are the next industries to be transformed by social+ disruptors? Every month, there seems to be a new candidate emerging, such as social tokens––cryptocurrencies that are based around a brand, community, or influencer. What will be next? 

So in a word, yes; the hype is warranted. 

Luckily, APIs like Sendbird’s in-app chat, voice and video calls make it easy and affordable to rapidly build social features into your app so you too can ride the rising social+ wave.

 

Categories: Insights