Path and the Power of Consistency Wednesday 18 July, 2012
Why no one likes an online surprise
Brendan Mulligan’s TechCrunch piece on Path this weekend has us thinking about how an app’s limited functionality can be actually key to its sense of possibilities. At one end of the spectrum is Facebook’s Swiss Army Knife end goal: every function for every user. At the other are function-as-app services like Instagram and micro-networks like Path, entities defined as much by what they can’t do as by what they can. Paradoxically, Facebook’s most notable quality—its sheer comprehensiveness—is the polar opposite of what seems to be driving most of the fastest-growing new apps today: their laserlike focus on doing one thing extremely well.
Mulligan made a convincing case that what makes Path so delightful is neither its limited friend count nor its design, but instead the “consistency of tone.” On one hand, I see other factors at work in its success—namely, that as we wonder if the internet is literally driving us crazy, there’s a desire for more productive, enriching social media experiences. Stalking an ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend doesn’t make me feel particularly positive about Facebook, the internet or myself, whereas Path’s constant stream of close-friend updates is a guaranteed serotonin-boost, and feels like a genuinely meaningful supplement to our offline relationships.
On the other, I agree with Mulligan that, though the Internet is defined by its sense of infinite possibility, what users really want is to get exactly what they expect. Whether informational, social, or experiential, what we want now are services and functions that deliver exactly what they promise, and nothing else. Even sites for whom discovery is their raison d’etre—Stumbleupon, for instance—pride themselves on their ability to trim the spectrum of serendipity to a pinpoint, ensuring users see only a marginally new variation on the same raw-foodist/cat-lover/travel-aficionado site they’ve seen before. Lately, rather than a one-stop shop, it seems macro-variety is welcome; we’re happy to fill 10 iPhone screens with 150 different apps, all tailored to do one specific task. But consistency at a micro level, tonally and functionally, is what keeps users coming back for more.
There’s a lesson for marketers in this, as consumers flock to sites and services that fill increasingly narrow niches. The mix of media undoubtedly becomes more complex as marketers turn away from Facebook and Google keywords and towards forums, blogs and other interest-graph sites. What gets easier though, is connecting with your audience once you find them. On the interest graph, users of a fly-fishing forum are by definition interested in hearing from fishing-pole-makers; it may be a smaller audience, but also a savvier (and spendier) one. Plus, as Mulligan says, the tone is clear, and how to tap into it it becomes clear too; rather than stunty ads that strive to grab all comers with their wit or shock value, these more-targeted sites let marketers engage in more meaningful, direct and authentic dialogues with their power users. We get conversation, instead of commercials, a trend I’ll welcome anytime.