Less is more: the rise of small talk

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 20 February 2015

One in seven people on the planet is a Facebook user. There are more Facebook users than Catholics. But that scale has turned it from an intimate social network into a broadcast channel. People are seeking out new spaces to have personal interactions and creating micro networks of their own within messenger apps. Small talk is becoming big business.
The realisation has dawned that having your innermost thoughts out there for all to see – from bestie to boss – isn’t such a good idea. On messenger and group chat apps information is not shared en masse, but to smaller, carefully selected, groups. WhatsApp, Snapchat, Kik, Viber, Line and WeChat are just a few that have fragmented the social landscape. There are also anonymous social apps that are finding a small but growing audience.
Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for US$16 billion a year ago was a sure sign of the direction things were taking. Facebook also spun out its own Messenger feature as a standalone mobile app, and launched Rooms and Groups apps.
Snapchat has more than 100 million users globally – some reports put it closer to 200 million, and more than 400 million images and videos are shared every day.
Even Twitter is getting in on the act, extending direct messages to allow group messages – something it previously didn’t allow.
We Are Social’s global Digital, Social and Mobile Report in January identified that of the six biggest social networks, four were actually message or chat apps. Globally, Facebook Messenger has 500 million users, WhatsApp has 700 million, and Chinese-owned WeChat and Tencent QQ have 468 million and 829 million respectively.
It’s a global trend and one that marketers locally should keep an eye on – particularly as it’s the elusive younger consumers who are shifting their behaviour. Local data from We Are Social showed that 18% of people have used Facebook Messenger in the last month, 8% used WhatsApp and 6% had used Snapchat. In the teen audience the Snapchat figure grows to 19%. Australian teens are also using up to six separate social/chat apps. On the surface, Facebook’s two messenger apps are broadly similar, but this year, well-placed sources say, Facebook will start to push differentiation between Messenger and WhatsApp.
Local Nielsen data shows that the time spent on Facebook by Australian users declined from around 9 hours a month, to 7 hours 45 minutes towards the end of last year – driven by shifts towards mobile. Thomas Lyngsfeld, head of digital and business development at social influence agency Social Soup, says some of that time is going to messenger apps.
The proliferation of messenger apps doesn’t mean a death knell for Facebook and Twitter, however. It’s not an "either or" situation. In fact, says Lyngsfeld, Facebook is driving the shift by spinning out messenger.
It might be a social network, but most people view it as a broadcast channel. The new media has already become the old, with experts likening it to traditional models such as TV or the morning paper. “Before [Facebook] was about sharing, now it’s like the old newspaper in the morning. You go on, get the news and go off again,” says Lyngsfeld.
According to Howard Parry-Husbands, managing director of research consultant Pollinate, trends suggest that many users now favour small talk.
"As Facebook becomes a broadcast media, at the same time you’re not having an intimate conversation with anyone. it becomes almost axiomatic. Facebook becomes so large it becomes about reach," Parry-Husbands says. "So, if Facebook is everyone, you’re going to seek out a more tight group for more targetted stuff. It might be a group within Facebook or other mediums. What will happen is people will seek out and treasure those moments where they can have meaningful moments,” he explains.
Douglas Nicol, creative partner at The Works, views Facebook’s role as that of “social plumbing” rather than a personal platform.
“Facebook seems to be inhabiting a practical, functional, organisational role in people’s lives. They’re not sharing their innermost secrets but they are organising their lives through it because it’s so predominant. Facebook will play a role, but it will be functional and the emotional interactions are going to happen elsewhere,” he says.
Facebook doesn’t subscribe to the "one size fits all" mode of sharing and is well aware of the growing popularity of small talk. It talks about sharing and connection being “in the right context”. So people will use Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram and regular Facebook for different types of communication – not necessarily based on what they are sharing, but built on the context.
Does money follow the eyeballs?
So what does that fragmentation mean for social media as a distribution network for publishers, content creators and brands through advertising? One-to-one sharing doesn’t immediately look like a place that brands should be stepping into.
In Facebook's earnings call in January, CEO Mark Zuckerberg hinted at the commercial potential of WhatsApp and Messenger, but didn’t give anything away. “[They] will reach the point where they contribute to our business in a big way, but it’s important to get it right and not rush it. We’re early in the cycle – and probably where Facebook was in 2006/2007. Facebook then was really just a consumer product. Putting ads in felt wrong, so instead what we did was create pages, a way for businesses to interact for free and start creating organic interactions so we could figure out what consumers wanted from businesses. Our recent success in advertising is built on those experiences,” he said.
“In messenger apps, the interactions are just between people, but businesses are starting to figure out what the organic interaction is. But we’re really going to have to figure that out before we look to monetise it. I fundamentally believe that [WhatsApp and Messenger] will be big contributors eventually, but we have to get it right.”
WhatsApp’s founders are anti-advertising. So what options for monetising does it have?
In one word, data. The sheer volume of messages going through WhatsApp is staggering. There are 30 billion messages sent each day on it.
Ian Laurie, head of social at mobile ad network InMobi, says: “Some people in the industry are scared that people are talking privately and so not seeing ads in groups and messages, but it doesn’t really matter because Facebook is still taking that data. So utilising that data in the right way is a massive opportunity.
“Facebook recognised that people want to feel like they are having a private conversation ... but I don’t see that they need to monetise the platform. The value comes from utilising the data behind it within the wider Facebook platform. There’s an absolutely ridiculous number of messages sent on WhatsApp – it might be where there are eyeballs, but I don’t know how there’s going to be a media interaction in that. The data behind it is valuable – not the eyeballs on the platform.”
Messenger apps are where the real-time data to help fuel real-time marketing efforts will come from, he believes. Social Soup’s Lyngsfeld agrees that paid advertising is unlikely to be the next move.
“Buying WhatsApp was a defensive move [by Facebook]," he says. "They see user behaviour going in that direction and will figure out how to monetise it later, but over the next two years I don’t see any paid form of advertising on messenger apps. The reason is people don’t like to get ads in one-to-one conversations – it’s too intimate and personal.
“It’s also about the data – they get the users and the data and they can also push users to other platforms – it’s around owning the digital landscape on the social media space for Facebook.”
But there are other ways to view it. Nicola Swankie, managing director of IPG Mediabrands’ Society, thinks that as people take personal conversations into other places, brands have more space to get attention on the newsfeed.
“As people move more away from mass messaging on Facebook to groups or specific apps for specific social groups, to me it just means our main newsfeeds of Facebook and Instagram become more about discovery of stuff – rather than to keep up with friends so much – which makes them even more key for brands.”
In messenger apps, the fewer the better
On Snapchat, 66% of users have fewer than 20 friends and most tend to share with just two or three people at a time, according to The Works’ social data project, Datafication.
The Works' Nicol explains: “The stats back up the trend that people are moving their behaviour elsewhere. This generation is using a hybrid of social networks and messenger apps, and this young generation values privacy more than they value sharing. If they’re sharing they will stick something on Facebook, but if they want to have an actual conversation they will do that in groups.
“How many friends you have on Facebook used to be a big thing – but now no one ever asks how many Facebook friends you have.”
This shift towards the intimacy of smaller talking makes social a minefield for brands. Anonymous social is another niche.
It’s from a small base, but apps such as YikYak and Whisper – apps that let people share on social without revealing their identity – are a growing niche within social. In the US YikYak, which clusters messages using geo-location, has taken university campuses by storm. In Australia penetration is low, but use is strong with more than half its users on it every day.
“It has low penetration but those using it are using it a lot – and often,” says Lyngsfeld.
In the US, brands including WWF are doing interesting things using Snapchat to talk about extinction of animals, but in Australia there are next to no examples. It's also ramping up the types of advertising it offers, launching Discover earlier this month – a video content platform with built in advertising. Despite Snapchat’s ubiquity, Australian agencies and advertisers aren’t really tapping into it yet.
“Brands have to seriously earn the right to market to people. At the moment they don’t need to – it’s basically just paid ads. But to get a follow on Snapchat, a brand has to work really, really hard,” says Nicol.
While it might be tricky to see how advertisers and brands can move into these emerging micro-networks, We Are Social Sydney managing director Julian Ward doesn’t think they are excluded.
“For marketers there are some important 'watch outs' here. The first is: ensure you have a strong view of the earned world around your brand, not just your owned channels,” Ward says.
“The big lesson for marketers is this: stop trying to penetrate a channel as a first step. Penetrate the behaviour. It’s not a channel problem. The aim is to gain understanding of how to speak in the same language, without stumbling over the wrong line.”

This story first appeared in the AdNews print edition 20 February 2015.
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Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop me a line at rosiebaker@yaffa.com.au

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