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The next $1B consumer startup will be a vertical social network — here’s why
It’s been hard for new consumer social companies to get traction in the last five years, and even harder to hold on to early hype. The existing “giants” (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter) eat up most users’ screen time and cell data, and their network effects make it tough to justify posting content elsewhere. The only recent “breakout” with lasting traction was TikTok, which built off Musical.ly’s user base and is still spending billions on marketing.
This might seem like a death sentence for new consumer apps. However, we believe that today’s environment is an ideal launching ground for the next group of billion-dollar consumer companies: vertical social networks. Ten years ago, it seemed impossible for a gaming-only network to be worth a billion dollars — now, we have two! (Twitch and Discord).
With 3.5B smartphone users worldwide, a social network that seems “niche” can now attract hundreds of millions of users. And with growing fatigue around swiping and liking static content, many users are looking for more curated and meaningful connections and digital experiences based on their online and offline interests. Enter vertical social networks!
From our conversations with founders who have succeeded or failed in building something in this space, we’ve brainstormed five “keys for success” in early-stage vertical social products. After outlining these factors, we’ll discuss a few specific types of vertical social networks we’re particularly excited about.
For the purposes of this article, we’re limiting the definition of “social network” to platforms where the primary user behavior is posting, consuming, or engaging with content. Users flock to these platforms because they get a “dopamine hit” when someone engages with their content, and they’re entertained by the content posted by other users. This excludes other types of vertical networks like dating apps, entertainment companies, and labor marketplaces.
Five keys for success in vertical social networks
1. Users post things that they can’t (or won’t) share anywhere else.
How do new social networks convince users to post their content? In most cases, users want the largest possible audience to see said content — they’d rather post their photo on Instagram than on a new app where they have no followers. New social networks should enable users to share content that they can’t post elsewhere, which is where vertical-focused platforms can shine!
Nextdoor is a great example of this. It became the default platform for sharing content that was only relevant to a very small group of people (your neighbors). When Nextdoor was starting out, its “killer use case” was hyper-local crime and safety alerts. You’re curious about the police cars parked on your street, but don’t want to ask your 500 Facebook friends about it — Nextdoor is the place to go!
A classic example of the kind of hyperlocal content that we have all come to know and love Nextdoor for.
Snap also found success by creating a place where its users could share ephemeral photos and videos — content they didn’t want on their Instagram! It was almost immediately a hit with high schoolers because it was a great way to post things they didn’t want to stick around (e.g.party videos, risque photos). We’re not surprised that the app remains the most sticky with this demo. By the time you reach college, you’re an adult and less likely to get in trouble with your parents, so you may migrate this content to Instagram.
2. Solves a core, utility-oriented need with a new tool / feature.
We’ve also seen networks find success by building a differentiated feature that solves a specific need for a community. Even if a platform isn’t the first or only place to post a certain type of content, it may win by providing the best tools.
Strava is a perfect example of this. Before Strava, there were plenty of forums for users to share their workouts. The company was able to utilize GPS data, and eventually data from other devices like wearables, to automate the process of logging bike rides or runs — a significant pain point for athletes! Strava has used the stickiness of this tracking tool (see the popular phrase “Strava or it didn’t happen”) to launch more social features and lock in users.
You know you’ve succeeded when your users see their activity history on your platform as art!
Twitch rose to prominence in the gaming community by enabling livestreaming, which was a step-function improvement over YouTube. By the time YouTube finally opened up livestreaming to all creators, Twitch already had 45M users. Twitch also focused on features that were particularly relevant to the gaming community, like integrations with consoles and Steam, allowing viewers to earn in-game perks for watching streams.
3. Enhances a user’s status within an existing community.
One surefire way to get users to flock to your new app? Give them a way to enhance their status within their existing network. We’ve seen this work particularly well for companies that are initially targeting the tech/VC community (for obvious reasons), but it’s also worked for dating apps like Raya and The League that create a sense of exclusivity.
LinkedIn started as a closed platform, with the founders inviting their most well-connected and successful friends. Being on LinkedIn was a status signal that you belonged in this exclusive group. As Keith Rabois later said, this walled garden approach was key to creating an “aspirational brand” that later drove mainstream adoption. Though LinkedIn is now an open platform, many users still try to rack up connections to “flex” the breadth of their network. We’re seeing something similar taking place with Clubhouse now!
The 500+ connection designation has become a status signal of its own on LinkedIn. There are now dozens of blog posts with tips on building your network and warning about the “dangers” of dropping below 500.
Quora took a similar approach when it launched in early 2010. The platform was only open to a small group of private beta users, each of whom could invite 10 friends. It was seen as an “insiders’ forum for Silicon Valley.” When it opened to the public, the founders tried to maintain this sense of status with a “top writers” program for influential users. We polled our college scouts last year about Quora, and were shocked to find how many of them used the platform regularly and were gunning for the top writer designation!
4. Develops and supports its own group of platform-native “stars”.
Being an influencer or online content creator is one of the most sought-after careers for kids today, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to rise to prominence on incumbent platforms. As YouTube and Instagram have scaled, it’s tough to stand out in the sea of aspiring influencers, particularly when their algorithms direct users to creators that already have large audiences.
TikTok (and Musical.ly, pre-acquisition) used this dynamic to their advantage, appealing to teens seeking a “breakout moment” on less crowded platforms. TikTok reduced the friction in creating compelling content, with a 60 second time limit and in-app editing tools, and the algorithm promotes smaller creators alongside larger ones. As TikTok mints new stars like Charli D’Amelio, Loren Gray, and Addison Rae, it attracts more users aspiring to Internet fame.
Even for platforms that don’t target Gen Zers, the chance to build a following (either personally or professionally) is often a strong incentive to join a new network. Pinterest successfully targets older users (mostly millennial and Gen X moms) and has spawned its own influencers, some of whom make a living on the platform. Joy Cho was one of the first beta users of Pinterest, and is the platform’s most-followed account. She has her leveraged her Pinterest fame to build a huge career as a creative director — inspiring blog posts and interviews that encourage potential creators to follow in her footsteps.
5. Platform is a “system of record” for identity within the vertical.
In the best case scenario, a vertical social network becomes a system of record for your identity. What does this mean? It holds all the important data related to your profile and interactions within the community. This encourages frequent engagement on the platform, and also makes it harder to churn.
One good example of this is Goodreads. Despite having a mediocre product in many ways, Goodreads has been able to retain users because it serves as a system of record. Users store lists of to-read books, read books, and ratings and reviews within the app. They also add friends whose reading recommendations they want to follow, and join book clubs and other discussion groups. This has created one of the largest and most trusted sources of data on book quality, and makes Goodreads the go-to source for readers to decide what they want to read next or update their reading history.
Goodreads does a fantastic job of “hooking” users in through collecting data on them that is hard to export and store elsewhere. Like Spotify’s famous “Wrapped” feature, Goodreads also generates an annual reading challenge and creates a “Year in Books” report that encourages frequent behavior.
Facebook is perhaps the ultimate example of this. It initially functioned as an online directory for college students — the easiest way to look up classmates. Even as the platform has scaled far beyond this initial use case, it maintains value as a system of record, partially because of the size and strength of Facebook networks. We all have Facebook friends that we can’t contact anywhere else, which means tools like “Events” and “Messenger” remain valuable even if the core feed activity has died off.
Where will we find the next big vertical social network?
There’s so much potential to build billion-dollar companies in the vertical social space. Here are a few categories where we are particularly optimistic about a strong vertical entrant:
Apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are arguably smartphone-specific social networks. They “work” because almost every phone has (1) a camera to create and consume photo/video content, and (2) contacts that allow you to easily connect with people you know IRL. Companies like Foursquare have also taken advantage of unique functionality within a device (e.g. GPS in a smartphone) to enable differentiated social experiences.
There are now a few devices that have reached a large enough user base to theoretically be a platform for a $1B business. New devices often expand the amount of time and the ways in which we can be “present” on social products, creating an opportunity for new networks. For example, AirPods allow users to easily listen to and create audio content when their hands and eyes aren’t free. Clubhouse has benefited from this — it’s not uncommon to hear someone talking on the app while simultaneously cooking or driving!
New devices or step changes in functionality can also enable new types of content, which can be the launching point for a new social network. AR filters were arguably a big part of Snap’s success, especially as it expanded outside the initial userbase of high school students. It’s still TBD whether devices like the Apple Watch, VR headsets, or Facebook Portal will spawn new networks, but we wouldn’t bet against it.
Vertical business networks
LinkedIn is the best example of a professionally-oriented social network, and it has proven that individuals (and companies) have a clear willingness to pay for advanced functionality. However, LinkedIn is limited in the value it can provide to users because its features need to be broad enough to be applicable across businesses. There is significant potential for vertical networks that build specifically for each industry to grab market share.
For example — LinkedIn works well as a curated profile, but the fact that it is user-controlled introduces limitations in terms of how valuable the information is. There is no way to verify someone’s claimed accomplishments (or even their work history!), or access unbiased performance information. Github is one example of a company that has been able to successfully merge work product data with a user’s identity/profile — and we’d be interested to see how this could work across other industries.
Fishbowl has been able to draw 40%+ of employees at top finance, consulting, and accounting firms through a semi-anonymous Q&A app that is hyper-targeted to these users’s daily challenges.
We’ve already seen a few interesting companies in this space. Fishbowl is like a vertical Twitter for people who work in a certain company or industry. The app targets industries like consulting, finance, and advertising, and has already attracted 40%+ of employees at firms like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and EY. Capicheis an even earlier stage company that focuses on SaaS power users — users can answer each other’s questions about products, and start to build a trusted database around pricing and reviews.
YouTube is a massive business, with 2B+ monthly logged-in users (~1/3 of all Internet users) who stream 1B+ hours of content every day. Last year, YouTube did $15B in revenue on ads and premium subscriptions. But because YouTube has to serve all types of content, there is a significant opportunity to “unbundle” it by building products with killer features for specific categories (#2 in our “keys for success”). Even a small change can make a huge difference to users in these communities.
Beauty is one category where the potential for a Discord or Twitch-like network seems particularly obvious. Beauty and gaming both have large and highly engaged communities of users, who are accustomed to spending money on their hobby. Supergreat is one example of a network that has narrowed in on a key component of beauty videos — the product — and organized content in a new way in line with this insight. Every Supergreat video is about one product, and every product has a page where users can see all of the reviews and click to buy. While watching and making videos, users earn coins they can redeem for “drops” of popular products.
We’re excited to see founders create other vertical apps to disrupt YouTube — fashion hauls, unboxing videos, finance (e.g. stock trading, crypto) and education seem like obvious categories where new entrants can build better features for users and enhanced monetization for creators. We’re also interested in some of the more “fringe” categories that are on the rise among Gen Zers, like astrology, true crime, subliminals, sustainable living (e.g. #vanlife, veganism) and Mukbang.
We are sure there are many categories that we missed — if you’re working on something in vertical social, even if (or especially if!) it’s “weird” or niche, we’d love to hear from you!
Big thanks to Saar Gur and Josh Elman for their feedback on this article!
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This post was originally published on Medium.