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Optimizing for Positivity: Niches and the Future of Social Mediaby@scottdclary
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Optimizing for Positivity: Niches and the Future of Social Media

by Scott D. ClaryNovember 17th, 2022
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Spencer Rascoff is an entrepreneur who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, and dot.LA, Pacaso, Recon Food, Queue, and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. Sophia Rascoff is co-founder and CEO of Recon Food, the vertical social media app where people can reconnect over a shared love of food. Together they launched Recon Food, a “vertical social media network” that focuses on a single space (in this case, food) instead of a broad reach. It just might be the next evolution of how we interact online. The data continues to show how much the big platforms were harming young people (young girls especially), as they felt immense pressure to post regular content and fight for likes. This fixes all that and makes social good (and social) again.

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“‘Better social media’ is the new category.”

Okay, sounds like some far-fetched idea from a Silicon Valley CEO that is about to pour millions of dollars into the next Twitter, even though they are so removed from the average user experience they wouldn’t understand why an edit button is needed.

Wait, that was a 16-year-old that hasn’t finished high school yet!?

When I sat down for Success Story in October to talk to Spencer and Sophia Rascoff, a father and daughter duo that mixes an impressive resume with impressive ideas, I didn’t know what I was in for.

I assumed it would be Spencer driving the conversation — after all, he is a co-founder of Zillow, Hotwire, and a handful of other successful startups. But it was Sophia, his incredibly articulate daughter that had me scribbling quotes and advice.

They have recently launched Recon Food, which is what they call a “vertical social media network.” That’s something focused on a single space (in this case, food), instead of a broad reach, and it just might be the next evolution of how we interact online.

Teenaged success story

“I’ve had a few lemonade stands.”

That’s Sophia again with a perfect one-liner to explain her experience at such a young age. She’s not your average 16-year-old. In middle school, she decided to start an entrepreneurship program based on the kinds that are in high schools and colleges.

She is a recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award, a leader in the Latin American/Hispanic Student Organization, and has taught herself software development on the side.

She’s not even a senior yet.

It helps to have a dad with such a strong resume. Spencer went from Goldman Sachs to private equity, founding Hotwire, working for Expedia, launching Zillow, and on and on.

He created (and taught) the Harvard Business School course Managing Tech Ventures, and now hosts his successful podcast on the dot.LA network (which he also founded).

If you are thinking that Sophia might take over the world, you’re right. But after talking to her for a little while, there might not be any better hands to put it in.

Don’t mix your cupcakes with climate change

So what does it mean to evolve social media? The Rascoffs aren’t trying to create a new Instagram. They aren’t trying to outdo Facebook. While those platforms chase down broad engagement and encourage outrage, she just wants to share photos of her favorite food.

It’s not that simple, but it kind of is, too. I’ll let Spencer explain:

“We baked cupcakes this weekend, right? And posted them on Recon Food. But Instagram was pretty heavy on Sunday. When you were making those cupcakes, there were a lot of terrible things happening in the world.

Recon Food is meant to be a respite from all of that, and bring social media back to when it wasn’t the noisy, scary place that it is today.”

If that seems like pie-in-the-sky thinking (sorry for the pun), it’s not. It’s what teenagers, like Sophia and her friends, are looking for.

When internal documents from Facebook were leaked, an internal research presentation included a slide that stated “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

The data continued to show how much the big platforms were harming young people (young girls especially), as they felt immense pressure to post regular content and fight for likes.

Stressors, not depressors

When Spencer explained that posts on Instagram to do with climate change, the Ukraine war, or gun violence in schools depresses him, Sophia jumped on to identify a key generational gap that is being overlooked.

“I describe it as more of a stressor than a depressor. It makes me sad, I guess, but it makes me way more stressed than sad because it’s about the future. Something that weighs on me is this idea of having to fix these problems, or at least having my generation fix these problems.”

It’s something that I hadn’t ever considered. How differently a 15 or 16-year-old kid would feel about something like climate change, knowing that — as Spencer tragically put it — “if their generation doesn’t fix it, we’re all doomed as a planet.”

For so many users that are arguing on social media today, there isn’t the built-in pressure of having to fix the problem. It can just be a topic to yell about or regurgitate talking points within your echo chamber.

Vertical-driven socials

So what is the answer? In their minds, it’s to “reduce the noise” and to think of social media as a vertical, instead of horizontal, platform.

Focus on a specific category or topic and don’t let it spread beyond that. In their case it is food, but they were quick to point out some other examples. LinkedIn has built a vertical platform based solely on career growth. Strava is one based on running and cycling. Alltrails, for hiking.

This is why it can be called evolution, not necessarily an outlier. The next wave of platforms is already on its way, Sophia and Spencer are just leading the charge.

If that’s the case, then there will be readers of this article that want to know: how do you do it? How do you build that next evolution and successfully roll it out? Well, they were kind enough to share some wisdom.

Building community

Everything always comes back to community. Every startup, every brand, and every marketplace always needs to create loyalty and investment from its users. For Recon Food, that means four key methods

Iteration

There is nothing worse than a stagnant service. If you are trying to build a community, you have to serve your existing users first. That means frequently iterating on your product or service, whether it’s adding new features, fixing bugs, or simply changing the design. The key is to show that you are constantly listening to feedback and trying to improve the user experience.

By having their suggestions heard and implemented, you’ll create evangelists for your product — ones who will go out and spread the gospel to others.

PR

Listen, even in today’s age you still need a good PR game. That’s why I could book the Rascoffs for Success Story, and why you’ll probably see them in some other publications going forward.

If you’re not constantly selling your story, then you’re not doing enough. Make sure everyone on your team is aware of your community efforts and can speak to them confidently.

In-person events

But even if you are the co-founder of a billion-dollar company, there’s still room for showing up at a trade show and shaking some hands.

When it comes to community, you need to put a face to the name. That’s why in-person events are so important for startups. It could be as simple as attending a meetup or throwing an event. But whatever you do, make sure you show up and represent your company well.

Convert existing groups

There are already probably thousands upon thousands of people in the world that are using a group chat to share pictures of food. They’ve created their own small-scale social media platform and housed it in another service.

If you can target those people, and show them that there is someone out there building something that specifically meets their needs, you can poach them from the existing group and get them invested in your own.

Doing this will also give you access to their network, which could be full of other potential users for your product or service.

Interestingly, Sophia also pointed out an unexpected factor that has inhibited Recon’s growth. People like anonymity on social media, at least when they are so used to the angry shouting matches on other platforms.

It sometimes leads to users consciously not sharing it with their friends, as they would rather get feedback on their recipes and photos from someone they didn’t know.

To get around this, you’ll have to build trust over the long haul and show them that it’s safe to bring people they know into the sphere — there won’t be any political arguments here.

Topic-specific features

“Instagram’s never going to build a run-tracking feature because that’s not what their app is for. But that is what Strava is for.”

Next on the list after building community is creating features that won’t be found elsewhere. These are topic-specific things that don’t belong on other platforms but can add value to the vertical you are chasing.

For Recon, it’s recipes, restaurant maps, and food collections. The possibilities here are endless because so are the topics. Cater to your audience, not the whole world.

Optimize for enjoyment

While the broad social media apps are just trying their best to keep you from moving on, the next era will be focused on giving you the best experience. Sophia, again, puts it perfectly:

“It’s such a powerful tool to connect people across borders, across countries, across worlds. There’s such potential there, but the way that it’s currently being implemented and executed is not it. It’s not maximized for user success and enjoyment. It’s maximized for clicks, likes, views, and time spent on app.”

Make them love to be there, not scared to leave.

Audience first, monetization later

In terms of building it into a business, Spencer is clear about one thing. Don’t worry about monetization until you’ve secured your audience. There will be ways to make money down the line, but if you’re building something with that in mind from the start, you’ll fall into the same habits that so many others have.

Final thoughts

That’s enough to fill an entire podcast but I touched on so much more with Spencer and Sophia. The challenges of balancing school and business, the importance of continued education, the benefits (and challenges) of working with a family member, and what characteristics make the best startup CEOs.

If you want to hear the entire discussion, head over to the Success Story YouTube channel and marvel at one of the next generation of business leaders.

That’s it for this week, talk soon!

Also published here.