Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
The sudden rise and nearly as sudden fall of social-media sensation Vero provides an object lesson on the perils of building a new(ish) social-media app, while suggesting there may actually be room among the giants to create an alternative.
Vero launched in 2015 and subsequently languished with a mere 150,000 downloads. For reasons that aren’t clear to anyone, about two weeks ago, it took off, downloaded by the millions. Then, just as quickly, Vero ran into its own limitations and had a rapid fall from favor.
Its brief time atop the Android and iTunes app lists reminded me of tbh, which had a similar rocket ride before Facebook bought the positivity app for an undisclosed sum. I wrote back then that Facebook’s purchase was both a) smart for them and b) bad for everyone else, for antitrust and market-diversity reasons.
Now Vero’s tale provides another teaching moment. It’s an unlikely story, tracing an arc so perfectly constructed and time limited that it’s like the Vine video of Vine’s rise and fall. So what are those lessons? Let me elucidate:
Pay to play? Might people pay a modest subscription fee for an app that doesn’t strip-mine their life and friendships into targeted ad fodder? Vero promised free lifetime access to its first million signups. Latecomers would be charged an annual fee of “several dollars.” We may not find out the answer to this question with Vero, which said it was holding off charging anyone “until further notice,” even as its downloads neared 3 million. But we’re seeing increased willingness by some to pay for quality online content and experiences. Maybe they’ll do it for the right ad-free social-media app too.
Design matters. Vero offers some design and user-interface features no longer (or never) available from Instagram, its closest analog, or the other giants. One is the chronological feed. Many Instagram users are still irate about that site’s shift to an algorithm-fueled feed, especially big influencers whose engagement numbers plunged, Snapchat’s new interface replaced that bewildering thing so many early users fetishized, and have pined for since. The result is the departure or indifference of many early adopters, even as Snapchat’s overall adoption numbers rise.
Vero also offers messaging and the ability to handle many kinds of content. That helped attract new adopters casting about for an IG/Snapchat replacement. On the other hand, Vero’s interface is clunky enough that one critic called it the ugliest in social media. Feature lists matter. But so does the way you implement those features.
Nuanced sharing. Vero users can classify their connections with such designations as “close friends,” “friends,” or “acquaintances,” then decide which ring of people sees what posts. Theoretically, it’s great (Facebook allows it too). But users also tell me all that classifying feels a lot like work. Snapchat became a hit with disappearing content, which ultimately serves a similar function, in a simpler way. You share the silly stuff on Snapchat so you don’t have to see five years later. But perhaps there’s a design trick that painlessly handles the classification and friend targeting? Design matters. So does easily controlling who sees what and for how long.
Cross-platform sharing. One of Instagram’s attractive features early on was the ability to simultaneously share to Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Vero can send to Twitter and Facebook. These days, it’s considered poor practice to shotgun an image optimized for one platform to others. But easy cross-platform sharing can make your app the place where time-challenged users start, instead of the one they don’t quite get to.
Prepare for success. When Vero’s bustout moment hit, the site wasn’t ready. It was so clogged with new signup requests that many people couldn’t even create an account. Operations crawled for those who did get in. Not a good way to make a first impression. Companies from Amazon’s AWS on down specialize in offering scalable resources such as backup server capacity that can spin up when the signups start whirling. Too few companies actually are ready if they create a hit. Don’t be a Vero. Plan for your wildest dream.
Be transparent. Some potential users balked, and posted about it, when they saw Vero’s user agreement, which claims wide-ranging rights to your content. Of course, so do the user agreements for Twitter, Facebook, and other sites. But maybe you and your lawyers could create plain-language terms of service that give flexibility without scaring off users or their friends? You don’t need the bad publicity of opaque and scary legalese, as Vero found out at a crucial moment.
Eliminate risk. Among Vero’s many oddities: to close your account, you must ask permission. That’s ridiculous. Even worse, combined with the overwhelmed systems (see No. 5), people with second thoughts couldn’t leave. They got mad, posted about it, and scared off other potential adopters. It may seem counterintuitive, but making it easy to leave also makes it easier to try your app. Reduce the risk and more will check out what you have to offer. And again, who needs bad publicity?
Values count. Millennials and GenX kids, the studies show, care a lot about the values of the companies they do business with. That’s partly why so many companies are cutting ties to NRA members. After the latest school shootings, an NRA connection isn’t worth the business NRA members can provide, especially compared to the larger business impacts of a boycott.
Vero had yet another public-relations black eye when word spread about family business dealings of the company’s billionaire Lebanese backer, Ayman Hariri. He’s the son of a former prime minister of Lebanon, and half brother to another. A family-owned business, Saudi Oger, was hit with 31,000 complaints for non-payment of wages after it cancelled a big construction project, stranding thousands of Filipino workers in labor camps with limited access to food and water. Hariri eventually produced documents showing he had divested from Saudi Oger before the mess. But it came too late to head off a #deleteVero campaign that helped fuel the company’s rapid fall. Smart companies pick their partners and backers carefully. And if you have specific skeletons rattling in your closet, be prepared to respond quickly and loudly. They won’t stay in the closet if you become successful. Just ask Travis Kalanick and Martin Shkreli.
It’s too soon to say if Vero is a dead app walking, or if it can evolve and become an option for some social-media users. The spotlight’s glare certainly illuminated many problem areas Hariri’s team will need to fix.
The real question for me, however, is whether someone else can take the lessons of Vero, tbh, and other challengers and craft a competitor whose story has a happy ending. Now that would be interesting to write about.