How to grow traction for social networks

Jun 26, 2013

Table of contents:

  1. The problem of incumbent social networks
  2. 4 strategies for building social network traction
  3. Conclusion

The modern “Golden Age” of online Social networks can be thought of as being from 2006 to around 2012. During this time period, Facebook expanded beyond it’s initial college only foundation, Twitter started to gain more mass adoption, and new startups like Tumblr and Foursquare started to emerge as the leaders in there respected niches. During the course of these 6 golden years, Facebook achieved 1 billion monthly active users and Twitter became a realtime media service for disseminating world news instantly as well as the official second screen of many of the biggest entertainment events from around the world.

You could argue that the “Golden Age” has come to a close. The leaders have established themselves and it seems increasingly unlikely that a new upstart could conceivably topple them.

But of course, if you have that outlook, you are probably in the wrong business and you are definitely reading the wrong website.

Today represents just as good of an opportunity to become The Next Big Thing™. In this post I’m going to look at why it is so difficult to grow a social network, the problems that you will face and finally, 4 strategies to grow traction for your online social network today.

Whenever there are a group of big incumbents, it can seem like an impossible mission to try and disrupt them. However, I can’t help but feel excitement for the opportunity of building something huge from just an idea.

The problem of incumbent social networks

In order to become The Next Big Thing™, you are going to have to topple the current incumbents. Just like in every other industry, trying to tackle a bigger competitor head-on is a recipe for disaster. You can’t out-Facebook Facebook.

Instead you need to look for weaknesses or opportunities that are waiting to be exploited. If you can see an opportunity that nobody else can see, you have a good chance of building something really big.

Generally I can see three big problems with attacking the existing incumbents.

1. Network effects keep leaders at the top

Leaving scale to one side, building the actual software of a social network is really not very difficult at all. It would not take very long for a group of talented designers and developers to create an alternative to Twitter or Facebook. Building software is commoditised through online tutorials and Open Source software.

The real moat of a social network is the powerful network effects that have been built up over the years. As a new user joins a new social network, the network as a whole becomes exponentially more powerful. Networks have higher switching costs and higher barriers to entry.

2. Social network / app fatigue

Despite rising trends of social network and mobile application usage, it is clearly becoming more competitive to launch and grow a successful new product. Fatigue is a real problem that you have to be aware of from the outset.

If you ask the average user about some of the more niche social networks or mobile applications, they probably won’t have heard of them, haven’t installed them or haven’t signed up. Participating in all of these networks and using all of these new applications is mentally taxing.

In order to combat this fatigue, you need to be offering the user a new mechanism that promotes a unique type of endorphin feedback.

3. Attention

And finally, people just don’t have enough attention for more than a handful networks or applications at any one time. It’s unlikely that a user is going to share the same bit of content on multiple networks for a long period of time because it is just too much hassle.

In the fight for attention, you need to offer something unique and provide a compelling reason why a user should choose you over the competition.

4 strategies for building social network traction

So despite the problems that I have listed above, I still think there are many exciting opportunities for building new social networks. If you believe that all the good ideas have already been taken, you are in the wrong industry.

Here are my 4 strategies for building traction for new social networks. Generally I would only choose one of them. If you are still struggling to get traction, it will probably take a full pivot to evolve your product to suit one of the other strategies.

1. Build connections

For the last couple of years, building connections has been the number one strategy for new social networks. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all realised that there was a magic number of connections required to become an engaged user (Growth hacking: leading indicators of engaged users).

The next wave of applications realised they could leverage the existing social graphs of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to make creating these initial connections easier. Companies like Zynga saw meteoric early growth through spamming a user’s Facebook wall and recently Path has been accused of abusing users address books.

Whilst there is likely still value in trying to build connections, it is becoming a tired strategy. Importing your entire social graph makes finding your existing friends much easier, but I don’t think it is a magic bullet for increasing traction and engaged users.

“Connection optimisation” feels like it is now an old growth hacking strategy and probably not something that you want to focus all of your attention on.

2. Content first

An interesting product focus is where you build the tools to allow users to create and share content. A user is clearly coming to your product to create, curate or consume content and therefore there is a clear purpose and derived value from joining your network.

I think one of the best examples of this is Dribbble. Dribbble is a design community that allows it’s users to share screenshots of what they are currently working on. Dribbble makes it very easy to upload and share your work, create “buckets” of inspiration and discus a particular piece of work through comments.

Dribbble also has a clear incentive for users creating content. Many of the best designers from around the world got their big break or continue to find employment opportunities by showcasing their talent on Dribbble.

Content first social networks are able to grow very rapidly because they heavily reward repeat and continued usage. By creating content, you are giving users a clear value proposition of why your network has value. Creating, curating or consuming content is something that fits intuitively with online social networks and so you don’t have to explain to new users how they are supposed to interact with this kind of network.

Content first social networks also benefit by having a very good Viral Coefficient by having a low Viral Cycle Time. Dribbble, much like YouTube, makes social sharing on other networks as easy as copy and pasting a URL.

3. Single User Utility

Single User Utility is where a product can be used in isolation of all any social components. A classic example of this is Delicious.

Delicious is an online bookmarking product that allows a user to store and organise a list of interesting bookmarks from around the internet. The beauty of Delicious is that a user can use the product in isolation without any requirement of interacting with other users. Social becomes a powerful add-on when users start to consume the curated links of other users.

The important thing to note here is, the product will create value for users with or without the social component. This means you can build significant traction with the product without the requirement of building a critical mass or density of users.

When you do add the social component, it should multiply the value of the product. This is usually done by opening the product up to users that want to consume or curate content, rather than create it.

Social networks that rely on the interactions between users are much harder to create because you are faced with a chicken and egg situation. Instead, if you build your product so that it can be used without the social component, you can focus on the content creation side of the product, before opening up the social side.

4. Grow from existing networks/niches

And finally, I think a relatively untapped opportunity is to grow from existing networks and niches by building your social network product specifically for them. By focusing on solving a problem for a very specific community, you can establish yourself as the dominant platform before expanding outwards to other existing communities.

I think a good example of this is Tumblr. Tumblr is the productised version of a popular online sub-culture of “Tumbleblogs”. Tumbleblogs are a variation of blogging that favoured short-form, mixed-media posts over the longer editorial posts frequently associated with traditional blogs.

Tumblr was able to gain traction extremely quickly by creating a product specifically aimed at the community of Tumblebloggers who wanted to have a home on the internet where they could post interesting things they had found online. Tumblr has quickly grew in popularity with other hardcore online communities in the world of fashion, music and entertainment.

To grow from an existing community you need to specifically target a single community and look for a product opportunity that meets their needs. By building this product, you can worm your way into becoming the dominant platform of engagement and establish a beachhead.

Once you have achieved this beachhead you can expand outwards to target other passionate communities by building tools or showing how your existing features can create value for them too.


Building traction for a new social network is always going to be incredibly difficult. When you look back at how Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Foursquare built their networks and became dominant players, it can be easy to convince yourself that all you have to do is build a product and the rest will just happen automatically.

In reality it is going to be excruciatingly difficult.

In order to build a successful new social network you need to get two things right.

Firstly you need to build the right product. You can’t just glue a random selection of features together and hope it’s going to work. You need to focus on each feature and how it will benefit the user.

Secondly, you need to choose the right strategy. Hopefully this post will have given you inspiration for choosing the right strategy and how to employ it to build traction.

A lot of the secret to building traction is focus. Product focus, strategy focus and goal focus on what you are trying to achieve and how you are planning to get there. By having this singular focus, you have a clear end goal and you are able to make product or strategy adjustments in order to stay on track.

Are you trying to build traction for a new social network? Are you using any of my suggested strategies? Or do you have a secret sauce strategy that no one else has noticed?

Philip Brown


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