28 Feb Strategy Session: Important Lessons from Vero’s Sudden Rise, Whether It Remains Relevant or Not
This week, a social platform that launched in 2015, Vero, gained major traction and conversation. Vero’s sudden rise wasn’t the result of any major platform updates or marketing pushes, but simply because, to put it in Malcolm Gladwell terms, a tipping point of consumers joined. Many are speculating about whether Vero will remain a popular platform long-term or go the way of so many others who tried to rise to prominence – Peach and Ello to name a few recent examples that never rose to the level of Facebook (or even Snapchat) fame. But whether Vero lasts, there are important lessons for brands and social platforms to learn from its sudden rise to prominence.
Consumers like Vero because there is no advertising on the platform and, a corollary concept, the content displays chronologically, rather than algorithmically. Let’s deep dive on what we can learn from both of these consumer preferences.
Chronological vs. Algorithmic Content
Facebook, as the first social platform to really hit scale, moved to serving content algorithmically relatively early. (I’m currently resisting the urge to date myself by talking about what Facebook was like before there even was a timeline and you wrote on people’s walls and those walls were wikis and you could edit other people’s stuff and oh god, I’ve done it anyway.) But Twitter and Instagram maintained a chronological content flow up until the past couple of years. In fact, many felt and to some extent still feel that the more real-time nature of these platforms made chronology central to the platform’s function. So why the switch?
The platforms claimed that an algorithmic approach benefitted the user, displaying content that they’re more likely to enjoy and engage with and helping them to discover new content and accounts. That’s sort of true, but the reality is that serving content algorithmically creates more opportunities for advertising. The specifics of what the algorithm prefers are tightly held secrets, but it’s widely known on Facebook and suspected on other platforms that it disadvantages brand content, driving ad revenue by forcing companies to pay for impressions and engagement, no matter how good their content is. Digital influencers on the platform are starting to see the same impact on their content, effectively cutting the platforms into a massive social media-driven economy that they’d previously been left out of earning from, even though they’d empowered it.
The assumption was that consumers would enjoy the discovery aspect of the algorithm enough that they would adjust and accept – even embrace – the algorithm. The preference for Vero shows us that’s just not happening.
As each new form of advertising pops up online, new ways to avoid it emerge. Pop ups were quickly thwarted by pop up blockers. Display advertising suffers today from ad blockers. I forget how much I pay a month so that I don’t have to watch commercials on Hulu. And social platforms are no different – given the option, consumers would rather not be advertised to in their leisure time. (I personally blame this on bad advertising that’s poorly targeted, but that’s another blog post for another time. And a little bit this blog post.)
The preference for Vero (and Ello before it and many others alongside) is an indication of just how much consumers prefer ad-free social platforms. In part, yes, because it’s freaky to see the dress I was just browsing on Nordstrom’s website served to me in social content, but also because it does impact the way that platforms make decisions, with algorithmic vs. chronological content being just one example. Users are not social media platforms’ customers, brands are, and that means that the platforms will always make choices that increase advertising dollars over choices that make consumers happy. And consumers don’t like that.
But as much as consumers don’t like that, are we willing to make the changes to become social platforms’ customers ourselves? Newspapers would tell you no, that consumers aren’t willing to spend enough on content subscriptions to support the operating costs of the platforms. It’s clear that social media platforms need more monetization opportunities than simply advertising or subscriptions. Social shopping may deal consumer-oriented social platforms into the ecommerce revenues that have made Jeff Bezos a very rich man. LinkedIn draws funding from a mix of sources, including yes subscriptions and advertising, but also professional services like engaging companies to pay for job listings. If consumers’ preference for Vero tells us anything, it’s that social media platforms will need to explore creative monetization approaches.
The “So What?” for Brands
There’s certainly no reason to run out and create a branded profile on Vero assuming that it will be the next big thing where so many others have failed. (That said, there’s no real harm either, other than the frustration of enduring the slow loading times of a platform that got inundated with traffic their servers are nowhere near prepared to handle.) But there is an indication of what’s to come and brands should heed this warning.
Increasingly, when it comes to investing time and money, brands (and their agencies with them) have prioritized advertising strategy over genuinely engaging and strong content. Ideally, these two would work hand-in-hand (and if they did, consumers wouldn’t hate advertising so much – just look at the fervor for Super Bowl ads). But if we’re moving towards an advertising-free future, then organic content needs to be engaging and shareable all on its own. Brands will have to entice consumers to follow their page the old fashioned way (as old as you get for a 20 year old medium): word of mouth recommendation. It’ll be a more egalitarian world – brands have been lamenting the pay-to-play nature of Facebook for years – but there’s still a cost, and that cost is investing to be genuinely interesting, engaging, authentic and high-quality. The rise of Vero is telling us we should start now.
More personal, less brand-oriented platforms like Vero also underline the need for individuals to advocate on behalf of the brands they love to drive real interest, whether that’s consumer fans, paid digital influencers, executives or every day company employees. Consumers are choosing Vero because it’s social media that’s actually social, that’s actually personal. Brands have to strategically embrace the real people that give them their social personality.
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