Social startups understand that consumers desire products where the memory of an experience is the product itself. Companies like Soulcycle, The Nudge, Museum of Ice Cream, Rosé Mansion and Drybar focus on delivering not just a service, but a memory. 15 months ago, I outlined my focus on startups who had excelled at building physical-first experiences that cast a memorable digital, online footprint.
One pandemic later, I still deeply believe that creating experiences that expertly intertwine our offline & online worlds are the future of consumer social products. But the past year really put this to the test.
Confined inside, missing social interactions, we craved physical connection. Global lockdowns made it impossible however. We had more time on our hands so we developed new hobbies, but we didn’t have natural world outlets for these newly created interests.
So social products adapted. They created digital-first, natural-world informed experiences to help us find more meaning in our lives.
Now, we also know that at a moment’s notice, another pandemic could force us back inside. And that the end of that lockdown will swiftly swing consumers back into the real-world. Social experiences now have to be omnichannel-ready, at a moment’s notice.
Commerce was the first industry to go omnichannel, years ago. It attempted to seamlessly tie together an in-store and online experience. Early social products like Pokemon Go also did this. Who can forget how they got us a little too intertwined with teens getting stuck in caves and falling down hills? And Nextdoor, founded in 2007, has been a continual source of connection to my neighbors and neighborhood the last year.
Throughout the last year, I watched a new wave of social products arise to fill the space that physical-first social experiences and products had left void.
The common threads that can be found in all of these omnichannel, digital-first social products are that they:
- Encourage you to research and engage in your physical world
- Gamify and digitize your physical life
- Reward authenticity, punish posers
- Elevate and enhance offline lives and relationships
- Have a digital-first design and but can support an offline or online mentality
As a consumer investor at Lightspeed, I’m always watching for the next big thing in social. Below are 3 categories of social products that are innovating to deliver new types of digital-first, omnichannel ready, social experiences.
The first wave of digitally native, natural-world social products recreated offline activities that did not have great online outlets pre-pandemic. These teams are all thinking through their in-person strategy as the world opens back up and the question whether they were only pandemic successes is quickly being forgotten. It only takes consumers two months to form a new habit, and these omnichannel-ready products are proving extremely sticky even as the pandemic fades:
- MomentHouse, Flymachine, Roblox & Fortnite — concerts online
- RuntheWorld, HopinTo — conferences online
- HeyGo, ShakaGuide, HearHere — travel tours online
- Popshop, Lalabox, Pretzel, Chums, Whatnot — live/group shopping online
- Confetti, Offsyte — team-building online
- Peloton — working out with friends online
- Hags — hallway hangs with high school friends, online
- Lumenate — tech-assisted psychedelic experiences online
Another wave of digitally native, omnichannel-ready social products created online spaces for newly rediscovered hobbies. Right up there with puzzling and baking bread, the millennial’s essential quarantine package was rounded out by adopting a puppy and some house plants. Sometimes single player, often multiplayer and social, but all of these helped us find community around our new hobbies:
- Greg, PictureThis, LettuceGrow — plants / gardening hobby
- BookClub, Goodreads — book / reading hobby
- Petfinder, Embark, GoodDog — puppy hobby
- Zillow, Upland, Fractional — daydreaming and gamifying real estate hobby
- Cravings, CraveIt, Tastemade — cooking/eating hobby
- Marine Snow, Locker Room (now Spotify Greenroom) — music hobby
- Goat, StockX, SNKRHUD — Sneaker hobby
- Noble, Commonstock, Public, Finary — investing hobby
- Faves – curating hobby
Inventing New Experiences
A third wave of social products created a new type of omnichannel social experience altogether, by combining the best of offline and online worlds. They created digital-first interactive social products where the full experience could only happen if one of the parties was simultaneously engaging in the real-world.
- Fan Controlled Football (FCF) — mixing in-person football with digital coaching play calls
- NewNew — Truman show for influencers, letting onlinefans drive real-life decisions
- Flickplay, Superlocal — gamifying local exploration through online check-ins
- Poparazzi, BeReal, Dispo — creating spaces for online appreciation of in-person presence
- FanFest — fan-led “Sports Center” pre-game, interactive talk shows
Take an example of how these all come together. I was in Chicago last month for a wedding (congrats again Megha and Rahul!). Upland was getting ready to launch a new set of blockchain-based properties in Chicago for purchase in their metaverse world. As I walked around River North and neared the Chicago RiverWalk, I looked up at the residential buildings in the area — something I never would’ve done before. I also checked out HearHere before I went to learn more about the city’s origins, and watched a Chicago HeyGo after I came back to savor some of my trip.
There are downsides and upsides to these models as well. On one hand, having a physical component to a product experience can make scaling sign-ups more challenging (could be perceived as a barrier to activation). On the other hand, it can also make retention much higher and the product even stickier.
At a macro level, this trend represents a slow shift away from consumer social apps that optimize solely for engagement toward those that optimize for more user happiness. Studies have shown that engaging in physical activity can make people happier, and thus more fulfilled.
This new wave of omnichannel social products has given me a greater curiosity in my surroundings, new friendships and deeper connections. They’re more versatile, and thus more ready to support our lives — whether we live them online or offline. They’re the future of social products.