The Coronavirus pandemic has acted as an accelerant on the businesses and industries that seemed already on track for future growth. Remote work, e-commerce, at-home fitness, connected TV, gaming—each made dramatically more relevant in the era of social distancing.
Among these is an emerging category comprised of “social utilities,” or companies that provide tangible value by virtue of bringing people together.
Zoom makes it possible for anyone to mimic an IRL social experience. Citizen puts a social layer on breaking news and events at the hyper-local level. Peloton offers fitness motivation in the form of a digitally-connected community. Public.com makes investing in the stock market a social experience so you can share ideas with friends and experts while you build your portfolio. The list goes on.
Here’s why social utilities are surging in the era of social distancing.
Uncertainty drives community
In uncertain times, most people find solace in the feeling that they’re not alone. This could mean more frequent video calls (Zoom has grown by more than 50 percent since January) and messaging (Facebook recently reported a 50 percent jump in messaging and has launched a Zoom-like rival, called Messenger Rooms).
And the desire to participate in the company others can be observed in more niche areas, as well, like exercise, career development, eSports—and even financial services. During the peak of market volatility in March and April this year, Public.com tracked a 70 percent uptick in social activity in the app, according to TechCrunch.
Sub-communities create a feeling of belonging
Beyond merely connecting in times of uncertainty, people also want to feel like they belong. Within a larger network, sub-communities make it possible to be part of a global conversation while at the same time curating a more specific experience based on interests and values.
Peloton, which has seen a surge in app downloads and equipment sales since March, introduced a new feature called Tags to nurture the organic subcommunities that were already sprouting throughout the larger community. Tags allow people to select sub-groups with which they want to affiliate in the community, like one’s hometown (#NYCRiders), alma mater (#GoBlue), favorite instructor (#BensArmy), or professional background (#WomeninTech).
Here at Social Media Week, we recently wrapped a month-long virtual conference that brought our community even closer to our content. Social interactions, and building micro-communities within individual talks and sessions, were core to the experience.
Synchronous social captures attention
According to eMarketer, time spent with social media is predicted to increase by 8.8 percent in 2020, no doubt due to social distancing measures that have caused people to spend more time in the home with their devices.
Alongside this broader trend is the proliferation of digital “events” which capture attention during specific moments in time. Synchronous social isn’t entirely new—people have been live-tweeting breaking news and award shows for years—but it has certainly been given a boost as of late.
Take for example D-Nice, the DJ who has been attracting massive crowds on Instagram during planned “Club Quarantine” sets and the video chat app House Party, which recently hosted a three-day virtual festival. Twitch, the Amazon-owned eSports platform that allows people to watch and offer commentary on live games, reportedly saw a 57 percent increase in usage in the month after social distancing guidelines were put into place.
While social media certainly receives its fair share of valid criticism when it comes to furthering divides, it has also served its stated purpose of creating connections where otherwise absent. For many products and platforms, including Social Media Week, this social layer—accelerated by uncertain times—serves a clear purpose for consumers.
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