Moderation may be the key to profitable anonymous social networks

November 9, 2015
4 min read

Although social media is on the minds of many marketers, it’s a difficult platform to master. Social engagement is becoming even more difficult with each social network developing unique communities and nuances. For example, anonymous social networks have struggled to monetize due to push-back from users and negative communities making advertisers cautious. Whisper is an anonymous social network that is hoping to do things a little differently by making both its anonymous users and advertisers comfortable with leveraging the app.

According to Mintel’s Mobile Apps US 2015 report, nearly two in five US consumers who own a smartphone or tablet use social networking apps (39%), making these apps the fifth most used type of app among consumers. Facebook dominates the social media landscape, but new contenders have entered the market, often billing themselves on features, such as anonymity, that Facebook lacks. And such is the case with Whisper, however anonymous social networks have had a poor track record up to this point.

Social networking apps are the 5th most used app among US consumers

Struggles facing anonymous social networks

Ideally, anonymous social networks present opportunities for people from all walks of life to safely share their experiences and connect with one another. However, anonymous online platforms have also been used to facilitate highly negative behavior such as organizing harassment campaigns and bullying. Websites like have become notorious for sharing obscene content and for organizing campaigns ranging from organized hate speech to cyber criminal activity.

In 2015, anonymous social media app Secret was shut down, with founder David Byttow saying, “I believe in honest, open communication and creative expression, and anonymity is a great device to achieve it. But it’s also the ultimate double-edged sword, which must be wielded with great respect and care.” Similarly, Reddit has faced criticism for being a platform used to facilitate hate speech and targeted harassment, such as when a large portion of the community began targeting Reddit CEO Ellen Pao after a loved Reddit employee was fired. Pao later resigned, but Reddit has continued to grapple with finding the ideal balance between free speech and community moderation.

Another challenge for Reddit, and a challenge associated with negative communities, is difficulty in monetizing the site. The potential for highly negative online environments means that, even if it were ad-supported, advertisers are hesitant to publish on the site, and Reddit members have been highly critical of paid features. In turn, the site is still not profitable, despite being launched in 2005 and having 202 million unique monthly visitors as of August 2015.

Whisper is doing things differently

One of the common elements of struggling anonymous platforms is a lack of or limited community moderation. While Reddit has shut down a handful of its subreddits for negativity, the site is mostly moderated by members of individual subreddits. One of the arguments Facebook makes for enforcing its real-name policy is that it protects against the type of negative behavior that can happen in an anonymous environment.

70% of Americans age 18-34 agree that images can express feelings that are difficult to convey with words

However, Whisper, launched in 2012, has a unique strategy: the app actively moderates the content posted by its anonymous users with human moderators and an algorithm dedicated to reviewing content. As a result, Whisper users have uploaded a range of content, including deeply personal confessions and thoughts, while also incorporating images into posts to help express their feelings. Research from Mintel research shows that 70% of consumers age 18-34 agree that images can express feelings that are difficult to convey with words, which makes image sharing a key component to the app.

Whisper’s success has resonated with brands, despite the platform having only 10 million monthly active users compared to Facebook’s 1.5 billion. For example, Coca-Cola ran an ad campaign on the platform that received 5,000 replies.

There is considerable opportunity for brands to leverage social media to form stronger connections to their target audiences, but businesses also have to be careful to understand the nuances of each platform they use. With platforms like Whisper, users may share highly complicated, personal and intimate feelings. Therefore, it is likely that messaging that does not seem genuine or does not respect the intimate feelings of its users will fall flat. Brands that push out strategic, meaningful content, on the other hand, will be allowed to flourish.

Bryant Harland is a Technology and Media Analyst at Mintel. He brings almost a decade of experience working in the tech arena, most recently as a Senior Technology Writer with Brafton News.

Bryant Harland
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