Upstream vs. Downstream Social Networks: Content vs. Community

Content is King. Many of us have said this and many of us still do. But we’re running into a problem where there’s so much content. Read/Write Web founder, Richard MacManus, wrote an article recently pointing out that Facebook is becoming overwhelmed with 3rd party content. If you look at the right hands side of your new Timeline layout, you’ll probably notice a lot of 3rd party apps featured “above the fold.” At this point in time, if you look at my profile, you’ll see my friends widget, my Goodreads widget, followed by the most recent pages I liked and then my Spotify widget. You’d actually see a lot more there but I just went through and cleaned up.

Even if you look at my most recent posts, most are made through another 3rd party app. Most of my posts come from Path, Posterous, Hootsuite, Foursquare or Instagram. Only a few are made directly into Facebook.

Upstream Social Networks vs. Downstream Social Networks

It’s this evolving behavior that leads me to the realization that there are developing Upstream Social Networks and Downstream Social Networks. I hinted at this idea in a post about Path at the end of last year.

Something that I haven’t posted about yet but have been working out in my head is the concept of Upstream Social Networks (USN) and Downstream Social Networks (DSN). Social networks like Path are USN where our updates originate from and social networks like Facebook and Twitter are DSN, collecting all those updates. In fact if I look at my Facebook page it’s mostly posts from Posterous, Instagram, Path, GetGlue, Goodreads, SoundTracking, and the occasional Foursquare checkin.

At the time I was still chewing on what this actually meant. To help elaborate I created this flow chart. And if you want to see what this looks like in action, you should read the post about my social media workflow.

Upstream Social Networks vs Downstream Social Networks

The value that USN provide is that they create a more intimate or specialized experience. Path limits the noise and allows me to choose which posts go to which social networks. I can post something to just my limited friends on Path or my broader group of friends in Facebook or Twitter. If I check-in to something on GetGlue or update my reading list on Goodreads, I can choose to push those updates to Facebook and Twitter or I can not push it through and just let my friends who have chosen to follow me on those services. For me, it’s part privacy but part noise control. Some people may not care about every Doctor Who episode I watch or what I thought about the latest steampunk book I read or every place I check-in at on Foursquare. (At least that’s what other people have told me.)

So What Does All Of This Mean?

Beyond the individual implications to each of us and how we use social media, what does this mean for business? The way that brands and individuals can interact with each other is being limited by two factors:

  1. The amount of noise.
  2. The different Social Networks business models.

1) There’s so much noise out there and I don’t care what brand you represent, you’re not as important as an individuals immediate friends or family. (Nor should you be.)

2) Facebook and Twitter are not going to help your brand organically connect with people. I recently wrote that social media “ownership” was swinging from PR towards advertising. Facebook and Twitter benefit from your brands need to connect with the communities on their platforms and any friction that exists which makes it more difficult for you to organically do that. Facebook and Twitter are aggressively encouraging you to advertise to reach existing and potential customers.

The further up “the stream” a social network is the better position it is to build a business model around premium services. This is the way that Path has started to build their business. The further down the stream a social network is the more dependent they are upon advertising. The ability to collect and analyze all the upstream social data allows the DSN to provide more targeted advertising. This is why Google is so desperate to get their hands on that data and why they are tripping over themselves to compete with Facebook.

Most USN don’t even allow brands to have a presence and even if they did, the audiences are so small that it often doesn’t make sense.

Stuck in the Middle: Reach vs Richness

There are degrees of how far upstream or downstream a social network is. There are several (in fact most) services that allow other services to work upstream. Foursquare is a great example. You can push check-ins to Facebook from Path and Instagram but you can also push check-ins from Foursquare to Facebook and Twitter. You can do the same with Tumblr and you can even push updates between Facebook and Twitter. (But you really shouldn’t. Please stop.)

Services like Foursquare and Tumblr will eventually make most of their revenue off advertising but they all have additional revenue models. With Foursquare there are coupons and high value deals. Tumblr allows you to purchase premium templates and they’ve only just started introducing the ability to “highlight” a post for a small fee.

The further upstream your social network is the more these services will rely on premium services and high value advertising (as opposed to traditional CPM ad metrics) and the further downstream the social network is the more they will rely on a CPM or PPC model.

Is Your Brand Up a Stream without a Paddle? Traditional WOM is Your Life Jacket.

Word of mouth is always the highest value marketing your brand can achieve. This used to be the real power in social media. As things get noisier and brands have to start to rely on more and more advertising to get their word out one way to overcome this is to move upstream. You already see many brands benefiting from using Tumblr and Instagram. But how do you get your band on a social network that doesn’t allow, or doesn’t lend itself to brand use (Path doesn’t make sense if you can only friend 150 people)?

You need to focus on creating experiences. Remember WOM is not a digital tactic. Creating great WOM allows your band to be on any social network because your fans bring you with them. If you create WOM moments then people will share posts and pictures about your brand and those experiences. It won’t matter if you have an account on any social network if you can create those kind of sharable experiences.

WOM used to be all the rage 5-7 years ago and I feel like we’ve moved away from it at our own expense. The problem of course is that pure WOM (like PR) is really hard to measure (not impossible and getting better). If it were easy to measure, it would be advertising and you would be competing on a CPM or PPC metric. WOM doesn’t work that way because ultimately each individual user rates the value of the experience.

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About Tac Anderson

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.
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