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Everything bot the kitchen sink

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Let’s look at why Western social media is still playing catch up to China’s all-singing, all-dancing Tencent model – but also why I fear copycatting is turning the sector an increasingly bland shade of vanilla.

There can be no doubt that social platforms and channels are evolving at a shocking rate. The number of monthly active users of Tencent’s WeChat app rose 34% to 806m over the last year and its social network revenues rose 57%, boosted by online gaming and ad revenues.

In the west where we are increasingly taking China’s lead when it comes to social functionality there has also been a flurry of activity as platform owners try to work out how best to monetise their user and advertiser bases respectively.

The constantly shifting social landscape is posing questions for all involved. In China, because of the particular economic and cultural conditions that formed WeChat, the platform is by necessity all things to all people. It’s messaging, customer service, content, ecommerce, gaming and the list continues to grow.

Market forces in the West have created a varied and fragmented landscape where customers separate themselves into social tribes. In a very loose generalisation, kids on Snapchat wouldn’t be seen dead on Facebook and Instagrammers have a largely separate set of ideals to the Pinterest brigade.

That hasn’t prevented a degree of consolidation. Instagram is now owned by Facebook which has also built up its own Messenger platform to counteract the messaging might of Snapchat and Whatsapp.Twitter seems to still be trying stuff out, not altogether successfully having recently gone against the tide and got rid of its buying functionality in favour of Snapchat-esque stickers.

Advertisers still need to keep up with all these tribes who are seeing in-app buying, messaging, chatting functionalities and demanding the same service of their brands. An ad on Facebook means very little any more. It’s now down to integrating artificial intelligence and getting on board the chatbot bus. Integrating intelligently into customer conversations and giving them the ability to fully complete whatever function they need – be it a customer service question or a product purchase – is rapidly becoming a priority. Brands’ media buying just got a whole lot more complicated.

Brands are still by and large cautious about leaping onto social in large numbers. There still hangs a very large data question over their heads. Already benefiting from the wide and deep data social can provide to enhance addressable media, many are weighing up the pros and cons of throwing in their lot with the walled garden. Certainly, brands know that customers are all about personalisation and targeting and social data gives this a big boost.

Of course advertisers are going to continue to buy media outside of social but within it, they need to work with the new functionalities to make sure they can get hold of that essential customer data. This means using clever people to create even smarter conversations that build in elements so you can identify and track that customer journey. This means building trust and adding value so the customer shares that information. Of course, if brands need to have these conversations every time in every channel to guarantee that personalisation it’s going to reflect poorly on them. Tracking that customer journey could be getting even more complicated.

Ultimately, despite its presumed ambitions, we’re not going to see the landscape in the West consolidate to resemble the Tencent dominance in China. That doesn’t mean the platform owners, Dorsey, Zuckerberg et al, don’t recognise the need to onboard as much of the smart tech thinking that’s available to snap up.

In a way it’s a boon for the developers, often young, entrepreneurial graduates. They see their work recognised and given the investment and attention they’d otherwise have to slog for years to achieve. Talent too, is getting the limelight it deserves with leading thinkers changing companies more often than the country gets Prime Ministers.

All this activity may keep the social sector dynamic and evolving but I do fear for its innovation and originality to an extent. The disruptors have become the establishment and, recognising the value of startups like them, snap them up before they have a chance to disrupt the market themselves. The talent may change shops but the ideas they share mean platforms inevitably end up looking somewhat the same.

They may serve different masters, from tween YouTubers to InstaHipsters, but the social offerings become very familiar. We don’t mind our high streets lined with banks all jostling to offer us slightly different versions of the same depressingly low rate savings accounts but somehow we expect something a bit more – exciting – from our social media.

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