Lessons on Engagement

Header image by Alice.

Vine was born into a vacuum. Four years ago, it blew open a virtually untouched market: user-friendly short-form video. Suddenly, the three-person startup (bought for $30 million before it was even launched) was a massively successful creative platform for short stories, comedy, contests, and ads. It encouraged partnerships between big brands and college students. It launched class clowns into fame and turned high school students into pop stars. It fostered creative meetups and collaboration. Plus, it was easy to use. Yet this time last week, Vine (and parent company Twitter) announced the platform’s discontinuation. The closing date and process are vague for now, but we know for certain that Vine will close its doors in the next few months. We’ll enjoy a dose of six-second nostalgia later on, but now let’s focus on the good. Mourn later! Today, we’re mining Vine for all its wisdom.

1. Keep it Simple

Vine’s massive popularity fostered a culture of micro-blogging – anyone could become a sketch comedian or culture commentator in six seconds or less. But multitasking isn’t always efficient – and as an organisation, sometimes less is more. While Vine’s success took off, its parent company Twitter was busy fighting for its life in the stock market and negotiating a user-friendly live-streaming function. Because its attention was elsewhere, Twitter couldn’t manage Vine’s product vision or future. No one noticed that the same short attention span that drew Viners in the first place was ultimately its demise: most smartphone users only access 1-5 apps per day, and there’s no point using several apps that serve virtually the same function. (e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, Vine). Twitter could have seen this coming, but preoccupation doesn’t bode well for product development. Pay attention. Keep your finger on the product’s pulse. When in doubt, keep things simple.

2. Listen to the People

Hear them out. Half of Vine’s top 50 creators gathered last autumn to confront Vine’s management and offer an intervention: change the product, pay each star $1.2 million, and the creators would make a dozen pieces of original monthly content (each). This, they believed, would salvage Vine’s waning engagement. Vine said no. Vine creators also bemoaned lack of intervention in harassment issues. Online communities have a tendency towards cruelty, and top creators were used to verbal abuse and harassment in their comment sections. They also begged for links in captions, improved recommendations functions, and more practical editing tools. The people spoke, but the platform didn’t listen. By then, most well-known creators had already taken their businesses elsewhere (to YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook). In fact, Vine springboarded its users from one platform to the next. When top Vine creators left the platform, millions of followers migrated with them. Build a loyal audience that will do the same for you.

3. Know What’s Ahead

In the beginning, Vine had massive promise – independent creators created elaborate short videos without much setup. Twitter changed communication culture with limited messaging, and Vine changed creative culture with limited video length. The success was short-lived – the same year Vine launched, other platforms introduced similar functions like Facebook autoplay and Instagram short video. The competition was fierce, and Vine didn’t move fast enough. It seemed innovative four years ago, but rival platforms shot up quickly and crushed the competition before anyone could blink. Vine’s niche market was scooped up from beneath them. In planning for the next year, anticipate your competitors’ goals and audiences. Chances are, if your idea is “the next big thing,” someone’s already waiting to compete for your audience. Be ready.

4. Kill Your Darlings (But Don’t Take It Personally)

Twitter, who bought Vine in 2012, cut its global workforce by 9% after failing to find a buyer.  Although the platform grew (average monthly users rose by 3% a quarter in 2015), revenue did not (rising only 8% a year and suffering third-quarter net losses of $3 million). Twitter is positioned for long-term growth, aiming for engagement growth and year-over-year growth for daily active usage, according to CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey. To maximise profitability and engagement, they need to invest in their highest priorities. Vine is not one of them. Do you have any near-and-dear side projects or investments? Assess their value and be willing to re-prioritise – or sharpen the axe, if necessary. It’s not personal, it’s just business sense.

5. Clear Your Vision

Twitter and Vine both have massive reach – their audience includes corporates, celebrities, comedians, high-schoolers, politicians, brands, artists, PTO groups. There were two key problems, however: although Vine’s audience (and appeal) was massive, its users weren’t loyal. Why? The platform was slow to evolve and respond to users’ needs (particularly its top creators). Vine struggled in similar ways to its parent company: cloudy product vision led to inflexibility and sluggish development. It attracted initial influential users, but did not retain them. It’s not enough to know your audience. You must know your product, too (and accept that it may need to evolve over time). What do you offer and why does it matter to consumers? Are you willing to change what’s on offer as your audience evolves, or will you stay stuck in the mud?

6. Appreciate Your Ambassadors

No one works for free! Vine’s top creators felt “unappreciated” by the company – although their content drove millions of users (and billions of views) to the site, Vine couldn’t pay them – at least, not directly. The creators drafted contracts, but nothing moved forward (although Twitter considered the offer and tried to reconcile this issue with a marketing / talent agency, it was too late). Ultimately, this issue is what killed the app. As the New Yorker’s Brian Patrick Eha aptly observes, Vine died because it was not monetised. No one was ever going to watch a 15-second ad for 6-second content. The takeaway? If you don’t appreciate ambassadors, someone else will.

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