When we think about the social media landscape, the major networks and messaging apps, where monthly active users total up in millions and billions come to mind: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat and WeChat.

The industry immediately feels out of reach for newcomers looking to break in. After all, with existing platforms offering features that address a wide-ranging array of needs, is there anything new that can be launched to entice users?

But perhaps, the opportunities now lie in niche markets.

Take Strava as an example – created as a social network for athletes, the app has garnered tens of millions of users. There’s also Swipe Labs, a social app studio that has been acqui-hired by Uber in a bid to make its app feel more human.

These startups are showing that even in the crowded social media space, it’s possible to grab a slice of the market pie.

In this article, I’ll touch on the core features that define social media apps, and share tips that have proven to be successful for startups and entrepreneurs we work with at Appster.

Core features of social media apps:

1. Profiles

Personal profiles are a key feature for social networking apps; as seen from a 2017 study by Statistia, apps that enable users to actively promote their own accounts garner the highest popularity among users.

Therefore, app makers need to focus on developing features that enable users to set up and personalize their profiles – such as uploading a picture, adding personal details and inserting links to blogs and personal websites – quickly and effortlessly.

social media profiles

One way to do is to allow users to set up profiles through linking up with social apps that they’re currently using, so their profile information may be automatically retrieved.

Profiles are a primary means for self-expression, so it needs to feature tools that allow for personalization. These tools may range from filters and frames for profile pictures, to background pictures and colors, as well as different themes for the content or layout of the profile.

2. Feed

Memes, animated GIFs, eye-catching pictures, news updates – a constant stream of content that shows up on a newsfeed is what keeps users engaged on social media. These content typically fall into three categories:

  1. Updates: Updates are posts where users share about where they are or what they’re up to, such as including their location on an Instagram post, or checking in to Facebook Places.
  2. Expression: Popular social media apps cater to their users’ need for self-expression through the following ways: implementing features that enhance or make the user-generated content appear unique, making the process of posting up content as easy as possible and enabling users to target their posts at different audiences.
  3. Esteem: These types of content bolster the self-esteem of users and make them look good. These could be posts that show them in flattering situations – like vacation photos in an exotic destination – or content that enables users to gain rewards for their activities. For example, LinkedIn users are awarded the All-Star profile status for making improvements to their profiles, while Swarm unlocks access to stickers for users who increase their number of check-ins on the app.

3. Connection

Apart from communicating with other users, app makers need to put in place mechanisms that enable users to connect with one another. Here are five ways in which new connections can be formed:

  1. Search: The search mechanism needs to be carefully designed so as to allow users to look up real-life friends and acquaintances, as well as individuals they’re keen to connect with online. Beyond full names or usernames, parameters and filters should also be added so that users can sieve out results that are relevant to their needs.
  2. Groups: Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Twitter lists – these are communities curated or formed to gather users with common interests and values. Creating groups can be an extra feature or the key focus of an app, as in the case of social platforms like MeetUp and Citysocializer. These group-oriented networks connect users to social groups and events within their city.
  3. Social networks: With approval from your users, connections may be obtained from other existing social networks.
  4. Suggestions: Based on information that the app has access to, recommendations can be made to connect users with similar interests, personal profiles or locations.
  5. Content: Connections are established when users interact and share content with one another. Yet, different types of users engage with content in unique ways. App makers need to understand how each type of users engage with content, so that they’ll be in a better place to design feeds that foster interaction among a diversity of users.

The following show examples of different user types, and common ways in which they interact with content:

4 Tips for creating a successful social media app:

1. Recognise changes in the competitive landscape, and adapt quickly

Steve Jobs’ statement, “Picasso had a saying – ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’” is one that rings true in a competitive mobile landscape.

App makers need to keep a close eye on and adapt to strategies and features implemented by key competitors.

It’s how platforms like Facebook have thrived, while other sites which once enjoyed greater popularity, such as Myspace or Friendster faded into obscurity over time.

More recently, Facebook has been duplicating popular Snapchat features through the launch of Stories and selfie filters on Instagram.

In a TechCrunch interview, Kevin Weil, VP of Product at Instagram states:

“This is the way the tech industry works, and frankly it’s how all industries work. Good ideas start in one place, and they spread across the entire industry. Kudos to Snapchat for being the first to Stories, but it’s a format and it’s going to be adopted widely across a lot of different platforms.”

2. Understand your audience, and meet them where they are at

Social media apps and sites that have failed often committed one of the following mistakes: they changed something that was already working well, or made users perform additional actions to engage with their site when there was a simpler alternative.

social media feed

MySpace’s customised profiles created an exasperating user experience – they were often slow to load, difficult to read and had tacky designs. And Ping had made it mandatory for users to recreate social networks on its site, instead of integration with existing networks.

The key lies in making it effortless and convenient for users to use your app.

It’s one of the reasons why Facebook has retained its popularity – the app has created a framework where users can perform a variety of actions without closing the app. For example, its adoption of widely used features on Snapchat means that users will have little reason to switch between different social media apps.

3. Cater to a specific niche

While networks like Facebook offer myriad features and ways to connect, its wide-ranging appeal can make users feel a little lost.

Here’s where niche social apps can step in by offering users to connect with a smaller, select group of individuals who share similar interests, professions, and aspirations.

An example is Infield Chatter, a social media app launched this year by the Major League Baseball (MLB).

Although baseball fans may easily connect through Facebook groups or pages, the app fills in the gaps in areas where platforms like Twitter or Facebook don’t: it offers an alternative for individuals who gather online just to talk about baseball, and creates a safe space for MLB players and fans to interact with having a team in place that browses and regulates the site.

4. Stay ahead of social media trends

When conceptualizing your app, it pays to stay ahead of emerging trends and to understand how individual users, as well as brands and marketers, are impacted by these trends.

“What are features and trends are popular among users today? How are brands utilizing these features? How will these trends impact upon the broader social media landscape?” are examples of key questions that you’ll need to consider.

I’ve outlined three prevalent social media trends below:

Messaging is transforming social media

In an article on the Buffer Blog, content crafter Ash Read points out that the rising popularity of messaging apps and bots are creating fundamental changes in the way we use social media.

A quick overview of user statistics supports this point: according to The Economist, many teenagers now spend more time on smartphones sending out instant messages rather than browsing social networks, and WhatsApp users spend about 200 minutes weekly on the app.

A RadiumOne study indicates that 70 percent of all online referrals come from dark social – a term that refers to social sharing that can’t be accurately measured, such as when individuals share content through private channels like email, private groups messaging apps.

how to build a social media app

As social activity increasingly takes place in these channels, users may shy away from making public posts to news feeds – which has traditionally been the focal point for interaction and discovery among users.

This poses an important question for social media app makers: What will social media mean, and will it someday refer to a completely different form of interaction altogether?

Rising popularity of ephemeral content

First popularised by Snapchat, ephemeral content refers to impermanent content or messaging that lasts for a limited period of time.

Its surge in popularity has given brands and marketers cause to implement strategies for ephemeral content marketing, and come up with new content ideas. These may range from behind-the-scenes features, to how-to videos and contests or giveaways.

Live video streaming is trending

live streaming

The live streaming landscape may be young, but it has already seen a surge in live streaming apps and usage.

In 2016, live video streaming app Periscope reported that its users made over 200 million broadcasts, and watched more than 110 years of live video daily.

And on New Year’s Eve, Facebook Live saw record-breaking numbers of users who broadcasted videos of their new year celebrations all across the world.

Increasingly, brands and marketers are incorporating live streaming as a key part of their social media marketing strategies.

It’s often used to share events with followers who weren’t able to attend, conduct product demonstrations, broadcast panel discussions or interviews and offer behind-the-scenes looks.

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