The social media world has been a place of growing innovation and fierce competition over the past decade.

Major tech players in the field could even be depicted as gladiators fighting an ever-developing combat around the user engagement and, more importantly, advertising revenue arenas.

It is clear every player in the social media sector makes significant efforts and hefty investments into bringing innovative ways to keep users’ and advertisers’ eyes on their services. Prompted by fear of missing out on features though, companies often end up blurring the lines of social apps so much, it is hard to differentiate them.

We see an example of this in recent pushes for transitory content made by the biggest social and communication app providers.

Instagram followed Snapchat by introducing disappearing Stories in 2016 and, more recently, working on ephemeral messages.

Facebook launched the stories feature to its core app in 2017, while Twitter recently introduced Fleets and WhatsApp provided an option to disappear messages after a week.

Why, though, is disappearing content gathering such momentum and will social media apps keep losing their distinguishing features?

The mobile drive
Opensignal VP of analysis Ian Fogg believes the popularity of temporary content comes with the rise of mobile devices as the main means of communication, as “only the smartphone is a truly 24/7 device where users have the opportunity to see such short-lived communication”.

In addition, the “always online” handsets sport sophisticated cameras enabling the creation of “compelling images and video”, a major drive for visual ephemeral content in apps.

“And, equally importantly, most of the time there are fast mobile upload speeds available that make sharing the large media files easy by social media users”.

Staying relevant
It stands to reason devices enabling smoother use of services focused on media content are key for the appearance of disappearing stories and messages. However, there is another important pillar boosting the trend, which is rooted in social media companies’ desire to stay relevant in an ever-changing digital environment.

Nitesh Patel, director of wireless media strategies at Strategy Analytics, told Mobile World Live all app providers need to evolve their feature sets or risk being left behind as consumer behaviour shifts.

He believes ephemeral features enhance the capabilities of all messaging and social apps by giving users tools to share content for fun, boost privacy, or reduce clutter in their feeds and devices.

“As younger users who use Snapchat get older, they will also engage with the other social and messaging apps”, such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn, Patel explained, thus creating an opportunity for providers of these apps to increase engagement by providing “familiar and capable communication tools”.

Furthermore, most consumers typically use multiple messaging and social apps to interact, depending on how their contacts prefer to communicate. This broad exposure, Patel noted, results in shaping user preferences on features, functions and user experience.

“Therefore, as the market matures, we see a significant crossover in capabilities, although how it’s implemented will vary”.

Threats to core experience in social media
Social media companies will probably agree there is a thin line between the aim to always keep up with rivals with the latest features and the goal of staying true to the main vision of their offering.

To face the challenge and ultimately meet user needs, Patel suggested messaging app providers need to conduct regular research to understand which capabilities are perceived as “must-have versus nice to have” by their users, while also observing their competitors.

“What’s important is that these apps don’t dilute or destroy the core experience while adding new functions”, he said, citing WhatsApp’s simple design, Telegram’s security and LinkedIn’s business appeal.

Risks for operators
Social media companies are not alone in facing challenges presented by evolving customer needs when it comes to the use of messaging apps and novel features.

“If mobile operators are to maximise the opportunity from social media creators, they need to ensure the mobile network experience they offer their users is capable of meeting the needs of the most demanding users that obsess over perfecting their appearance in videos and images for sharing to thousands, if not millions of followers”, Fogg stated.

Regardless of the future journeys companies will embark on to keep, and potentially increase, their user base, it is clear as day rapidly evolving customer expectations require agility and flexibility to keep up with the latest innovations, mixed with maintaining the core capabilities people embraced in the first place.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.