They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and nowhere is that more true than on social media. Whenever a new feature piques user interest, competing platforms quickly implement their own versions to keep users from fleeing, and those platforms are relegated to the dustbin of social media history alongside Friendster, MySpace, Google+, and countless others.
For example, in 2013, a short-form video app called Vine took social media by storm. It was dead four years later — but the style of its short, concise videos has since resurfaced, becoming what James Creech, Svp of Strategy at social analytics firm Brandwatch, called “one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds” in the social designated area. It includes players like Snapchat Stories, Instagram Stories, Instagram Reels, Facebook Reels, and YouTube Shorts.
Not to mention photo app newcomer BeReal, which has spurred companies like TikTok Now and Meta’s Roll Call. Even as the app’s hype period wears off, platforms are still moving fast to emulate the latest draw, seeing it as a potential risk of losing users and advertisers.
As a result, everything old on social media is new again at some point.
A fight breaks out again and again
The root of this phenomenon starts with good old-fashioned competition — and maybe a little paranoia.
“It speaks to… how much [apps] crave user time and attention to fund their platforms and fear that if another platform starts to stick its head out and become popular, they will react quickly and try to capitalize on what makes them interesting or relevant to those users to become,” said Richard Oldfield , vice president and executive director of Media and Connections at advertising agency R/GA.
And as TikTok became the most downloaded app of 2020 with 89 million downloads in the US alone, it’s harder to believe rivals like Instagram (62 million) and Facebook (53 million) were watching.
“Then other platforms start noticing and adapting their services to capture and hold audiences’ attention,” said Claudia Ratterman, director analyst at research firm Gartner.
Hence the hotly contested battlefields. And even if the copycat feature isn’t as good as the original, it can still help retain users longer — and attract new users — while reducing the likelihood that they’ll try alternatives. And as users stay, there are more ways to promote them.
Move slowly and copy things
But it’s also harder for giants to evolve as they grow. Finally, in 2014, Facebook dropped its infamous internal “move fast and break things” slogan.
“In my opinion, platforms have gotten so big that they don’t have much time to innovate,” Oldfield said. “Consumer tastes change pretty quickly, so they don’t have time to necessarily recalibrate and really think about what their product offers and how it would have done 10 or 15 years ago.”
And because they don’t have time to look too far ahead, they have to “kill out any competition right away… Reels being the perfect example,” he added.
Whether it’s TikTok’s short-form looping video or BeReal’s dual-camera feature, copycat features on established platforms result in loyalty from existing users — which also means more opportunities to generate revenue through advertising for those users.
But if every social media platform eventually has some sort of short-form video functionality, there’s a risk they’ll all start looking the same. However, there are several ways apps can stay relevant.
core value for the audience
For starters, platforms should focus on why consumers were drawn to them in the first place and innovate from that point, rather than veering in an entirely new direction based on what other platforms are doing.
Gary Nix, chief strategy officer at digital agency The Brandarchist, warned against drastically changing why users come to you – and knowing your purpose and where you fit in the overall ecosystem.
“You still have to serve the users that have come to you,” he said. “Otherwise, if you’re trying to keep up with other channels, people will be like, ‘OK, so now you’re trying to be this other channel, and you’re going to take what I like from yours? Why I’m here?'”
As an example, Oldfield pointed to streaming platform Spotify, which has reportedly been testing a TikTok-like video feed. “Yes, there is great opportunity when it comes to music and video, but as TikTok has shown, once you try to evolve beyond your core utility, it becomes increasingly difficult,” he added.
Copycatting – or even what Creech calls “feature bloat” – also risks spoiling the user experience, as users are exposed to the whims of the algorithm rather than the content they actually want to see. He, too, referenced Instagram, which updated the navigation bar to more clearly highlight Reels and demote shopping.
“[Meta is] still testing those features or focusing on those business priorities,” Creech said. “But they’re also responsive to what users want, so hopefully there’s a healthy balance that gives us a better experience.”
At the same time, he admitted to hearing complaints about the platform pushing Reels to users.
“There’s definitely been a public outcry about these apps constantly copying other features and trying to be the full social platform,” Creech added. “A lot of people are really saying, ‘Well, I’m glad Instagram is the place for photos and TikTok is where I get videos and Facebook is where I get news content,’ but that doesn’t necessarily serve the platform’s business interests in getting the widest possible audience.” put on [and] as many advertisers as possible.”
After all, a platform’s revenue comes from advertisers drawn to users – and user data – which is why the former yearn to be everything to everyone.
To avoid backlash, platforms can implement social listening tools to better understand user behavior. That way, if there’s a feature like search that’s gaining traction on TikTok, other apps can determine not only whether to improve their existing functionality, but also how to do it better.
“Understand that behavior changes slightly based on what’s happening in our external environment, so we have to adapt and offer them what they’re looking for,” Ratterman said. “And they tell us what they want. So I think that platforms that listen and adapt their platforms to actually serve… they’re more user-centric than brand-centric.”
Similarly, Nix said the goal should be relevance rather than competition.
“If you see something different and feel like you can improve on what’s already happening here, yes, find ways to integrate that,” he added. “You say, ‘So I can add something to make the experience better,’ because you’re doing it for the people there and not just the bottom line.”
Ratterman agreed that some platforms are struggling because “they focus on ads, ads, ads” rather than users.
“There can be a hazard if you try to move too quickly when trying to implement new ad models that seem to work for someone else,” Oldfield added. “They increase ad load when there’s less care and concern for brand safety…there’s a question about the environment and ultimately what’s being created.”