The Gist

  • Pivotal juncture. Social media platforms face challenges in maintaining user engagement and exploring superapp possibilities.
  • Superapp potential. Twitter, with Elon Musk's influence, is considered the closest Western platform to achieving a superapp structure.
  • Regulatory hurdles. The rise of superapps in the West may face  challenges, such as whether acoommodating regulations will be in place when they emerge.

When it comes to the history of the internet, social media platforms are experiencing a watershed moment. Beset by increased consumer choices for online activity and community, social media platforms are seeking ways to provide their users with an enhanced customer experience.

However, the question remains: Will any of these ventures enable the current crop of platforms to become a superapp, serving as a one-stop portal for a wide range of consumer services? If so, which platform will emerge as the winner?

CNN has reported on rumors indicating that Meta is exploring the development of a new social media platform, one designed with features that could support a superapp. However, it remains uncertain whether this new platform can overcome the existing challenges.

What Is a Superapp?

To understand the importance of a superapp strategy, we must first examine the fundamentals of a superapp. A superapp is an all-in-one application that provides users with access to a wide range of personal services, including music streaming and payment options. The primary purpose of such apps is to save users time and eliminate the hassle of switching between multiple applications.

A typical social media platform is primarily designed for communication. Each user has a profile, and their posts can be shared on a central feed, interspersed with other shared content, advertisements and video segments. The layout differs across platforms — for instance, Twitter is distinct from Instagram — but the primary objective remains casual communication between users. Users can also engage with brands by following their profiles. However, when accessing platforms like Twitter or Instagram, the main focus is on reading and interacting with others' posts or videos. Although users can make purchases, this process typically requires clicking on a post or video and completing the transaction on an external site, usually the brand's own website.

In contrast, a superapp is designed with a focus on transactions for a primary service. Initially, the app is recognized for a specific offering, but it later expands to include additional services. The platform's algorithm recommends a diverse range of vetted, complementary services to enhance its main offering. For consumers, a superapp delivers a personalized commerce experience on their smartphones, placing greater emphasis on in-app transactions rather than streams and posts that direct users to external websites and apps. 

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The History of Superapps (So Far)

Business leaders have coveted a superapp marketplace following the emergence and success of superapps across Asia. Leading examples include the Chinese app WeChat, Paytm in India and Grab in Singapore. These apps have demonstrated an ability to recommend products more effectively, in contrast to social media streams cluttered with advertisements and unrelated commentary that attempt to guide users to products or services. 

Recently, social media trends have begun to evolve toward a superapp model in various ways. For years, social media platforms have competed for consumer and advertiser attention. Technology journalist Alex Kantowitz highlighted the potential outcome of this rivalry — the emergence of a single winner due to feature uniformity. Social media users are noticing that a feature on one platform often appears on another, creating a challenge for these platforms to maintain not only their audience but also their attention.

Related Article: What Social Media Trends to Expect for 2023 

Twitter’s Rich Data Would Be Hard to Replace

Among the Western-based platforms, Twitter has been the closest in achieving superapp structure. In interviews, Elon Musk has advocated for a superapp, a desire that played some part in his decision to acquire Twitter. Numerous outlets indicated that Musk believes Twitter can be valued at 10 times its current value through an in-app commerce strategy.

However, Twitter has served as a go-to platform for a wide range of purposes beyond commerce. Researchers have long observed the richness of Twitter's data, featuring commentary from journalists, celebrities, politicians and technologists in a manner that has not been easily duplicated. Various interest groups and individuals use Twitter for communal support, sharing information via hashtags, and hosting discussions in Twitter Chats and, more recently, Twitter Spaces. Without Twitter, the global impact of social movements such as combating sexual harassment in the workplace or addressing Black Lives Matter and policing issues would have been significantly diminished.

Twitter is not alone. Despite efforts to build better commerce options among consumers, social media platforms have not yet created an influential in-app commerce environment in which a super app framework can flourish. 

Learning Opportunities

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An Influencer on the Possible Transition to a Superapp

Do influencers and business owners anticipate such transitions on the horizon? I asked John Lawson, CEO of Colder ICE Media, host of The Smartest Podcast and a popular business expert. He shared his insights on the potential of a superapp in the US:

"In some parts of the world, apps that combine multiple services like Gojek, Paytm, and WeChat have become really popular. However, it's not clear if this same kind of app will catch on in the US and other Western countries. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have a lot of users, but they're mainly focused on connecting people and sharing information. It's possible that new types of all-in-one apps will emerge in the future, but we'll have to wait and see."

Challenges for Establishing a Superapp

One of the biggest challenges in establishing a superapp is the current turbulence faced by social media platforms. While these platforms are introducing more features for in-app purchases, they are also grappling with stagnating or even declining user engagement among key consumer groups. eMarketer reported a decline in social media ad spending during the last half of 2022, while overall ad spending declined for the eighth straight month in February

Why Superapps Thrive in Asian Markets

The recent changes in social media present a stark contrast to the thriving marketplace of superapps. The minimal regulatory restrictions in Asian markets have enabled superapps to flourish. The bans on specific social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp in China, have diminished competition in the regions where superapps function. This supportive legislation has played a significant role in the success of superapps throughout Asian markets.

Moreover, the reduced competition allowed superapps to address marketplace shortcomings such as regional transportation logistic issues and small business financing concerns. The offered solutions strengthen the appeal of superapp makers, building their market positions. CNBC reported how superapp Alipay enabled small village locations to accept payments, permitting small businesses to compete with larger businesses online.

Will Commerce Regulations Be in Place in Time in the West?

If current trends persist, minimal commerce regulations may not be in place by the time these platforms launch their own superapps. Despite growing calls for TikTok bans in some regions, there are no tight restrictions on Western-based social media platforms that would create a protected market. Regulators in the US and Europe are becoming increasingly aware of the rapid pace and complexity of the digital ecosystem. For instance, eMarketer reported that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has ordered Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube and Twitch to submit a report on their ad vetting processes to prevent fraudulent product sales and scam attempts. This order reflects a growing concern that digital ad vetting procedures have become too lenient.

Ethical Issues Galore

A more significant challenge arises from potential ethical issues stemming from the extreme focus on commerce within superapps. Many services offered through a superapp are necessities, such as electric and gas utilities. Considering ethics, if you were a superapp platform, how would you handle a customer's superapp access for nonpayment of a minor retail item when the same app is required for utility payments? Would you shut down access? What exceptions might be necessary, such as customer support confirmation for a physically impaired person who cannot easily travel to a nearby store? Examining ethics in conjunction with technology provides a more nuanced perspective on potential outcomes for customer experiences using a given technological application.

Final Thoughts on the Emergence of Superapps

Despite the challenges, industry experts still anticipate the emergence of a superapp. Deloitte predicts the arrival of a Western superapp within a few years, with 2025 being the estimated year of debut. Thus, while the social media landscape may be turbulent, the introduction of a superapp appears to have a clear path in the near future. Whether it can avoid the fate of failed platforms like Google Plus and Periscope remains a prediction best left for another moment in time.