Mike Cushing / Innovation / June 9th, 2015

Build Digital Products on Solid Ground, Not Borrowed Land

Live-video sharing app Meerkat garnered a ton of attention when it launched at SXSW earlier this year, riding high on buzz from attendees and tech journalists as the next big app. Unfortunately, Meerkat launched with a congenital flaw, one that has claimed the life of many an up-and-coming digital product: it built its burrow on borrowed land.

Meerkat is entirely dependent on Twitter for growth, engagement and connection. Users need a Twitter account to sign in, and all in-app engagement – likes, commenting, etc. – are done through Twitter. Like any new app, Meerkat was faced with the challenge of driving adoption, and leveraging social logins can drastically improve discoverability and ease user onboarding.

But Meerkat does not own Twitter, and therefore doesn’t own access to its own audience.

In short order, Twitter launched a competing service called Periscope and shut down Meerkat’s access to Twitter’s social graph – the means through which Meerkat allowed users to connect to their Twitter followers and discover new content.

The effect was pretty immediate. Meerkat may not be dead, but it’s certainly been knocked back.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 11.03.52 AM

Meerkat may or may not be a superior live-streaming app to Periscope, but now it doesn’t matter. When you build a house on someone else’s land, you play by their rules. And, as Meerkat quickly discovered, those rules are subject to change at a moment’s notice.

If technology or software is your only competitive advantage, relying on someone else’s network is doubly dangerous. Bringing a great idea to market quickly isn’t always enough. You need to think through the impact of your product to gauge where competition will arise. Twitter, for instance, thrives on real-time interactions and personal storytelling – Meerkat set upon its path and should have seen that challenges were on the horizon.

Kiss Your Roadmap Goodbye

cliff sign

We know that digital product development can be a dicey proposition, but the best products have a long-term roadmap for success. It helps set business strategy, prioritize features, identify growth milestones and more. Once you tie your product strategy to someone else’s platform, your own roadmap becomes much more challenging.

Tying product features to another platform can be incredibly valuable, but it can make it more difficult for your product to stand on its own merits. You have to gauge if adding users quickly is worth the risk of possibly being pushed out of the marketplace by the network or technology you’re leveraging.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have their own roadmaps which have absolutely no room for your strategic plans. They may not prioritize the same things you do (e.g., Facebook’s horrible mobile development track record), or they may just decide to add your product’s core function as a new feature on its own platform.

If you want to own your users, own the platform. If you want to be indispensable, don’t be expendable.

Rethinking Social Platforms

Meerkat’s rise and fall highlight a persistent danger of networks like Google, Facebook and Twitter. After years of content sharing and many millions of dollars, companies still walk a razor’s edge by relying on these channels. Companies know they have to distribute content on these channels to reach an audience, but too often companies use social networks as their primary content channel, or even build their entire business around them.

Ultimately, your audience is their business. If Facebook or Twitter decide to take those audiences away, there’s not much you’re going to be able to do about it.

Image credit: PatchworksRobot
Image credit: PatchworksRobot

There are many opportunities to fill in the gaps in Twitter and Facebook’s service offerings: for a while, Zynga capitalized by growing social gaming through Facebook. For years, search marketers have made a living providing content for Google, and Google has continually pulled the rug out from under our feet over the years with (not provided) and scraping content for its Knowledge Graph.

At the end of the day, big social networks own more than the platform – they own the audience. If your core users must access your service through Twitter or Facebook, they’re not your user. In fact, you’re likely just further contributing to the network’s base of engaged users.

Engaging users through social is a necessity, but relying on those networks for interaction is folly. If you don’t control access to your users, it may just be a matter of time before your platform of choice decides it can deliver your service better than you.

Users, Users, Users

Ultimately, digital product success can be measured in one statistic: users. Users drive feature iteration. Users provide monetization. Users attract acquisition. Leveraging someone else’s platform can help you gain users quickly and cheaply, but that success can be fleeting. If you don’t own the platform, your users are tourists, not residents.

Obviously, you’ll need to leverage social platforms to attract users – that’s inevitable – but you need to strike a balance. Meerkat went all-in on its dependence on Twitter without prioritizing the features that could eventually lessen its reliance on the network.

“Rubin [Meerkat founder and CEO] says that if he had more time, he would have been prepared with features for Meerkat that made it easy for people to discover each other without the Twitter graph, like search and discovery. These features were planned—Meerkat never wanted to stay on the Twitter graph forever—but in the blistering speed of the app’s rise to public consciousness, he has not prioritized those features. With some warning, perhaps he would have.” ~ Fast Company

We’ve faced these challenges building our own client’s products, including our friends at YouCaring.com. Social sharing was a key strategy in its growth to be the 2nd-largest crowdfunding platform, but we knew that wouldn’t be enough. We needed an engaged community of fundraisers and donors on the site, so we helped them build it through email, on-site messaging and more. Social sharing remains a valuable way for fundraisers to share their stories, but YouCaring.com is the platform where they tell the story.

Build a Better Way

Many startups and R&D teams forget that a brilliant product is not always enough to win in the marketplace. You need to cultivate a dedicated user base to which you control access. Social engagement through Facebook and Twitter may always be a valuable means of connecting with prospective users, but a lasting product needs its own ecosystem.

Getting to market requires a minimum viable product that contains the core features you need to gain traction with users. For a sustainable viable product, it’s vital to prioritize items that help you build that community on your own terms: a website that delivers consumer value, email collection, mobile apps and more. As you build, continually invest in assets that you own.

It may take more time for your product to gain traction and find an audience, but you’ll move forward with a product that you control and an audience that you know you can reach. When you’re building your product, don’t forget a platform on which it can thrive.

Image Credit: Richard Palmer

  • Christopher Burns

    In college I took an entrepreneurship class and the professor recommended something similar as a business model. His recommendation was to build a product in some niche that the giants (Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc) aren’t servicing, but is very close to their core offering. He argued, that if you do it right, they’ll just buy you instead of trying to copy you. So you want to be right on the edge of their turf, but still don’t want to do in on their land. For example, maybe YouTube wouldn’t have been bought for $1.65 billion if Google had a way to just pull their plug.

    • Mike

      Good point, Chris. I think that works if you have a semi-unique technology and the ability to scale your product offering and your user base quickly. Once you secure users, it definitely makes sense to position yourself to be acquired, like Waze was eventually bought by Google. I think if you have a poorly defined roadmap or don’t have the ability to grow quickly, you’re just as likely to be copied and forced out of the market. Definitely a tightrope to walk.

  • BurtonHohman

    Isn’t there a balance though? At some point when are you creating something new just for the sake of having it on your own. As the Facebooks and Googles continue to get bigger and more advanced isn’t there a line where the cost of building your own system would be more cost prohibitive then the potential risks of being pushed out by one of these bigger players?

    Looking at it on different terms, where is the line of re-inventing the wheel? If you wanted to get an ecommerce site up and going doesn’t it make sense to go with an existing platform like Shopify vs starting from scratch?

    I don’t know what that answer is and I think the Meerkat app was a great example to use. I guess the success story of this philosophy would be SnapChat. They went out of their way to create their own platform separate from anyone else, and when Facebook tried to directly copy their product they weren’t able to get traction because SnapChat already had it’s own established audience.

    I also lost track of what my point was, but great post Mike. Got me thinking!

    • Mike

      Haha, thanks for reading Burton! I definitely think there’s a balancing point to find, and it all comes down to strategic planning at the launch of your product. I think if your service offering is different enough – if your eCommerce site has novel products – then leveraging the network of Shopify is a great idea, especially if you can use it to quickly build a following that loves you.

      I think the danger comes if your only advantage is the technology or product you’re selling, which can be copied eventually. If you don’t have the groundwork laid to gather a loyal audience and the tools to expand beyond the platform, then I think you might run into trouble. Definitely agree that SnapChat is a great example of owning the platform and users. Thanks Burton!