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The USP of a social network

Last week at its investor meeting, Twitter announced that it would be moving to a Facebook-style filtered news feed. At the same time, Google announced, it’s Google+ Authorship search rankings would no longer continue. Two big announcements in the social world, both underlined by a common problem, the USP of the platform.

For Twitter, the announcement that it would be shifting to filtered news feed instead of a real time stream was met with negativity from Twitter users. Many people prefer Twitter for its ability to see everything – the full transparency of their feed. Although the signal to noise ratio may be quite high – what is noise to some has proven to be a signal for others – something Facebook hasn’t yet cracked.

Take for instance what @zeynap highlights in her article “Why Twitter Should Not Algorithmically Curate the Timeline”  the discovery that Bin Laden was killed was announced and discovered for many via Twitter first, rather than traditional news channels. As shown in her article, Keith Urbahn, the ex-chief of staff for Donald Rumsfeld who didn’t have a large following at the time – only 3 digits –tweeted:

Within a few minutes of the tweet, Brian Stelter, a journalist, saw this tweet, made the connection, and retweeted it, thus creating a contagion about the news.

This isn’t to say that one person followed the other and search wasn’t to play, but at the same time, other instances of tweets taking off for brands both good and bad have happened being led by people with small followings. The transparency and development of an unfiltered newsfeed have allowed for more conversation, more discovery, and more socially driven moments across the world. Can an algorithm successfully manage these moments of discovery?

Although a filtered newsfeed could potentially benefit brands and most definitely plays into Twitter’s revenue plans to appease its investors, it also takes away the core USP the platform had over others – it’s 100% transparency. The beauty of Twitter and its power comes from this USP and without it; it then just becomes a secondary player, rather than a real force amongst other platforms.

Google+ has always been classified in that secondary tier – never really breaking through to organically become a powerful player of the social networking platforms. Other platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat have launched since Google+’s appearance and have garnered a larger, repeat user base. (Remember, Google+ cites its 7-day active user metric as any user logging into any Google platform as Google+ plugs in to search, YouTube and even Gmail.)

Last week, John Mueller of Google Webmaster Tools, announced the end of Google’s Authorship rank, which benefitted authors and their articles in Google search results, ranking these articles higher than without the connection in searches.  The end of Author Rank for Google has been cited as being due to two factors:

Little difference in click behaviour between authored and non-authored articles in search;

Low adoption by authors as indicated by a study indicating that 70% of Authors have not connected their work with their Google+ profile.
The Authorship program launched in June 2011 in conjunction of the launch of Google+. Google, in one aspect, had an identity platform on its hands and a tool, but instead decided to focus its efforts less on the utility of its new platform and more on the idea of connecting and adding people or brands to circles.

In essence, instead of focusing on its potential unique tools, something people tend to think of Google for – search, Google docs, Gmail, it focused on the same areas that Twitter and Facebook already had a hold on – a personal connection platform to share content and thoughts. As such, it was derided as just another Facebook after launch and had many people complaining about having to join another social network, rather than seeing the benefits of the tools it provided  – in comparison to Instagram, WhatsApp or Snapchat when they first launched.

The key aspect for adoption of a social network is based on three parts:

and Utility.

Identity and belonging refer to whom you connect to and how that portrays you publicly – and all social networks cover this base. However it’s the last point – utility – that is actually the most important. What is its use, what does it do, in essence what is its USP that I can actually use this platform for?

With Google+ this would be the tools it created – Hangouts, privacy controls, mass conversations, and better privacy – yet it shied away from these tools at its launch. Rather now the platform has been incorporated into other Google tools to ensure adoption rather than having a USP to create a need for the product.

Twitter on the hand, has had a USP since the start: the unfiltered feed. If this goes away, then so too will the power and utility of Twitter vs. other social networks and it will become just another social network with no real USP. It will be, as many people have pointed out, just another Facebook – zero transparency and zero additional utility to its users.

The social USP is one that is often overlooked by brands when deciding which platforms to participate on, but by understanding the unique utility of each platform, it can help create a more informed social presence and in turn help design experiences ways of connecting with its customers in a much more strategic fashion.
By Tessa Barrera (@tessabarrera)