It’s hard to beat social media apps for raw numbers of users and engagement hours. Statistics suggest that half the world’s population use social media. That’s around 4 billion people. While in terms of engagement, daily usage is on average 2 hours 25 minutes.
But it’s not just the current amount of users that’s impressive. Social media year-on-year growth rates since 2015 are on average 12.5%. The space is incredibly vibrant and creative, with lots of opportunities, niches and communities to serve.
If you want to develop a social media app, you’ll run into some stiff competition. Only the best and most creative apps are able to cut through the noise and survive. But how do you define the perfect social media app? Is it by the sheer number of users? Its features? Monetisation and earnings? All of the above?
While Facebook is currently the most used social media app — with more than 2 billion active daily users — there is still plenty of room for unique and innovative apps to explode into prominence. In April 2020, the Alpha Exploration Co. launched Clubhouse. It was a huge success and proved that the right app idea can penetrate even the most crowded of markets.
If you’re looking to design and build a social media app, you’ll need to understand what your competitors and potential audience are responding to. This article will look at a host of different social media apps that are performing well across several metrics in 2021.
We’ll look at current trends and features to figure out what ingredients are responsible for their success. From there, founders can better understand what types of apps will resonate with the social media users of 2021 and beyond.
Most Popular Social Media Apps of 2021
Monthly active users (MAU): 2.8 billion
Facebook is by some way the world’s largest social network with 2.8 billion monthly active users. Most people use Facebook to connect with friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, and school friends by using various forms of shared media like posts, comments, videos, pictures, live videos and Facebook stories.
However, Facebook has introduced a slew of innovative features over the years. For example, Facebook 360 is compatible with the Oculus V.R. headset.
But perhaps the areas where Facebook are most impressive is through their use of organic and paid social marketing to drive revenues. To give an idea of how successful that has been, almost 1 in 5 adults made a purchase through Facebook last year.
Facebook has become a place where brands drive awareness on their platform through organic content and develop relationships through customer service. Additionally, Facebook Shops is another area where eCommerce and consumers meet, with Facebook taking its cut.
Facebook App Features:
- Sharing content
- Playing games
- Follow artists, brands, business
- Local events
- Facebook Marketplace for buying and selling goods
MAU: 2.29 billion
Video hosting giant YouTube has come a long way. While the platform is mainly about hosting videos, its social dimension has developed dramatically over the years. YouTube hosts an unbelievable amount of content creators serving a never-ending variety of niches. As a result, audience numbers and engagement are sky-high.
Their model is simple. Allow channels to build passionate and loyal followings, then split the ad revenue. In short, YouTube is all about content. But instead of investing in content, like, say, T.V. or other streaming sites, YouTube monetises user-generated content.
As a social media app, YouTube is huge. It has vast communities for every niche, with passionate and lively comment sections.
YouTube App Features:
- Allows content creators to make and stream videos
- Allows users to watch videos
- Massive user base with comment sections for each video
- Sells music and videos.
MAU: 2 billion
WhatsApp is the world’s largest messaging app with a vast user base of around 2 billion. However, it can be considered a social media app. There are two ways that users can connect over WhatsApp: one-to-one or within social groups.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that WhatsApp has become central to the lives of many people, with work, family, or interest groups enabling a connection between people.
WhatsApp is also used for commercial messaging. Many eCommerce brands use the platform to communicate with customers, showcase products, and solve service issues.
WhatsApp Business is a customer service tool that allows smaller businesses to have better communication with their clients. Many of these businesses also use bots, eliminating the need for customer service staff and allowing their customers to access 24-7 service. WhatsApp payments.
WhatsApp App Features:
- Groups are used by almost everyone, from families, colleagues, and business
- WhatsApp payments allow eCommerce businesses to sell items over the platform.
- Facility for brands to use WhatsApp as their way to conduct customer service, marketing, and more.
- No ads
4) Facebook Messenger
MAU: 1.3 billion
Messenger is Facebook’s other private messaging app. It used to be Facebook’s private messaging feature, but in 2011 it became a standalone app.
It has many similarities to WhatsApp, but also some notable differences, like:
No end-to-end encryption
Features lots a lot of advertisements
Links user’s contacts from Facebook and Instagram
Despite it being inferior to Facebook’s other private messaging app, WhatsApp, Messenger has a huge user base and many good functions. Playing games with friends, lots of groups, video calls, and more makes this social media app a stable and reliable choice.
Similar to WhatsApp, Messenger is used by lots of eCommerce brands to connect with customers. Users can shop through the app, browse products, and have any customer problems solved. Again, businesses can use bots to deal with the bulk of this work.
Messenger App Features:
- Message anyone on Facebook without requiring a contact number
- Voice call, video, and voice messages
- Send money securely in the U.S., U.K., and France
- Connect with brands for deals, customer support, and more.
MAU: 1.22 billion
Instagram is another Facebook-owned property in the top 5 social media apps. While Instagram did start out as a photo-sharing app, it has morphed into an eCommerce and social media powerhouse in the last few years.
In essence, Instagram has become like a vast virtual shopping mall. Users follow eCommerce stores, brands, bespoke designers, etc., and can securely pay for items within the app. Of course, shopping isn’t the only feature that Instagram has, but it’s certainly essential to the apps business model
Additionally, for brands, Instagram is an excellent social media app for brand awareness. Stories, Reels, and Instagram live are amazing ways to serve content to well defined and targeted user bases. Throw in the massive amount of influencers that use the platform, and it’s easy to see why Instagram has a large and dedicated community.
Instagram App Features:
- Shoppable post
- Share photos, stories, and other content
- Instagram live allows streaming connections
- Private messaging
- Explore tab helps users discover videos, images, stories, brands, and people they are interested in
6) WeChat / Weixin
MAU: 1.22 billion
WeChat isn’t the most well-known app, but it has over 1 billion users. If that sounds strange to you, it’s because most of its users are based in mainland China. Because Western social media apps are banned in China, this created a gap that Tencent —the publishers of WeChat —has filled.
It’s important to note that there are essentially two versions of the app: WeChat and Weixin. WeChat is for international users, Weixin is for Chinese-based users.
Weixin is the most extensive social media network in China. It is staggeringly advanced and allows users to message, video call, shop using the WeChat Pay facility, call rideshares, play video games, and use government services. Amazingly, 73% of respondents in a Chinese social media survey had used WeChat in the past month.
WeChat App Features:
- Video calls and messaging
- Government services
- Gaming with friends
- Calling rideshares
- Payment processing
Members: 756 million
Since Microsoft bought it in 2016, LinkedIn has declined to report daily or monthly users. Instead, it lists its number of members as around three-quarters of a billion. However, it’s difficult to say just how many of these members are active.
LinkedIn, however, is a buzzing and vibrant social media platform. It’s very business-focused, and any well-known brand or company has a presence on the app. While it began as a business networking app, it has evolved dramatically over the years, with blogs, videos, groups, job listings, etc. just some of the activities helping drive adoption.
Many businesses use LinkedIn to market and advertise for one big reason: the clientele on the platform are some of the most successful and affluent of any social media platform. Additionally, it’s seen as an excellent option for B2B marketing and lead generation.
LinkedIn App Features:
- Excellent business groups
- High-calibre of active business professionals
- Video, blogs, and messaging
- Ideal for lead generation
- Excellent advertising options like LinkedIn product pages
MAU: 689 million
TikTok launched in 2017 but has become a top-rated social media app in a short space of time. In ways, it picked up where the discontinued short video app Vine left off.
Short video sharing apps are popular with teenagers and Gen Zs. Many social media apps like Instagram and YouTube have offered users the ability to produce short videos like TikTok. However, they haven’t been able entirely to capture the short video market share.
TikTok was the #1 downloaded app in 2020. It has enormous popularity among younger users because of its suitability to share bite-sized videos. Users spend around 45 minutes on TikTok per day, and it’s fast becoming American teenagers’ favourite social media platform, coming second only to Snapchat.
TikTok is grabbing and keeping attention with its 15-seconds max videos in a world of short attention spans.
TikTok App Features:
- Video uploading
- Video editing tools
- Live streaming and reaction videos
- Q.R. scanner
- Lip Syncing and music duet mode
- Hashtag challenges
MAU: 600 million
Just like TikTok, Douyin is made by Chinese developer ByteDance. In fact, it’s the Chinese version of the popular short video social media app. However, Douyin has a lot more features than TikTok.
For starters, the “Mission for All” feature allows users to reward their favourite content creators and also features a ranking system to help users find popular creators. Additionally, Douyin’s eCommerce connectivity is strong: it was the first app to link from video to Taobao/Tmall — which is similar to the Chinese eBay.
Because Douyin is the more advanced version of TikTok, it offers users a preview of the app’s direction. It seems that eCommerce connectivity is going to be a big part of both apps’ future.
Douyin App Features:
- Reward creators
- Direct links to Taobao and other eCommerce sites
- Longer videos
- Live Streaming
MAU: 595 million
QQ was designed as an alternative to the Israeli app ICQ in 1999. Today, it is China’s second most popular messaging app.
Like WeChat, QQ is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent. However, WeChat has become the most popular app in recent years, and QQ has lost market dominance.
QQ has tonnes of cool features like voice and text messaging, translation, video calls, excellent groups, and lots of expansions for music, shopping, and games.
The QQ audience skews younger than WeChat. So, despite it losing users over the years, it’s still highly relevant.
Douyin App Features:
- Multiple language compatibility
- Automatic translation
- Excellent groups
- A comprehensive social component that allows people to make connections
- Comes with lots of apps.
Innovative Social Media Apps in 2021
MAU: 10 million
Clubhouse was one of the most talked-about apps since its launch in 2020. There are several factors at play that explain why it became such a huge success. One of the biggest of them all was exclusivity. After Clubhouse launched, you were only available to join by invite. As a result, it featured many luminaries and well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Alexis Ohanian, Sam Altman and Andreessen Horowitz.
Like most good apps, Clubhouse is pretty simple. In ways, it capitalises on people’s love of podcasts but adds a twist. It uses the dynamic of a party or a clubhouse, where there are lots of different discussions on a wide variety of subjects happening in different rooms. Users can jump around and listen — or contribute — to these audio discussions.
It is very networking-focused, with many entrepreneurs and founders giving talks, advice, and opinions. Part networking, part conference, part panel discussion, it stepped into the void caused by COVID-19, allowing people to connect, share ideas, meet new people, and pitch ideas.
One of the best features is that social rooms have moderators. These users are there to keep the peace and keep discussions clean. Expect similar versions of the app to appear soon.
Clubhouse App Features:
- User profiles
- Moderation of discussions
- Allows users to share audio via email and other social media platforms
MAU: 1.6 million
Peanut is a social network app for motherhood. It helps women at every stage of motherhood: from trying to conceive, during pregnancy and during motherhood itself. It launched in 2017 and has become very popular because it allows users to forge solid and supportive relationships.
Peanut is an excellent example of an app serving a section of society with a mix of valuable content and community building. New mothers can find information quickly, while those struggling through hard times can find sympathetic and supportive ears to help them through their difficulties.
Peanut App Features:
- Forums and community areas
- Deep personalisation
- Facilitates a social purpose
3) Epic Games
MAU: 31.3 million
Epic Games are known for titles like the incredibly popular Fortnite. But the reason this app makes the list is the vision of its CEO, Tim Sweeney. He believes that the future of social media won’t lie in traditional platforms. Instead, he considers immersive gaming environments with their own currencies, economies, and culture as the new frontier.
Fortnite is trying to become the first digital metaverse: A virtual space that offers more than just gaming. Fortnite has begun to move towards this utopia by offering engaging in-game experiences, like movie trailer premieres, concerts, and more. Essentially, a world inside a world.
These innovations could go beyond what the likes of Second Life achieved and create a deeply faceted community.
Epic Games App Features:
- In-game concerts
- Deeply immersive social gaming experiences
- Promotional tie ins with cultural icons like Rick and Morty or Travis Scott
MAU: 105 million
Despite Facebook’s popularity, many users are concerned about the platform’s data harvesting practices. Indeed, privacy and security have become significant issues in the world of tech, opening the door for applications like Telegram and Signal to make big moves in the world of private messaging.
Signal has been around for a while, but it emerged into the public’s consciousness in 2021 because of promotion from Elon Musk and Edward Snowden. There are a lot of benefits to Signal, especially in countries with authoritarian regimes. For example, journalists often use the app to protect anonymous sources and whistleblowers.
End-to-end encrypted messaging apps are becoming more popular. Most of the big messaging apps have the technology to do this, but conflicts with their business model mean that it is unlikely we’ll see it become standard across the sector.
Signal App Features:
- It doesn’t collect user data
- Block screenshots
- Disappearing messages
- Incognito keyboards
- Photo editor
Caffeine.tv is a streaming platform that was built by ex-Apple engineers. It allows users to create live broadcasts for their followers. Then, these live broadcasts turn up in users’ feeds where they can like, comment, add emojis etc.
But Caffeine also offers users a way to broadcast their computer or TV screens, making it an excellent option for live streamers. Just like Twitch, Caffeine has a monetisation program to help reward its broadcasters.
Caffeine is entering a market space that YouTube and Twitch dominate. But the platform has some well-known backers: 21st Century Fox and even Drake. Their vision for the app is for teenagers who want to partake in diverse streaming experiences like watching Fortnite and streams from Coachella, sneaker drops, and X-Games.
Caffeine App Features:
- Stream monetisation
- Built-in desktop streaming software
- Popular entertainment channels
- Slick interface
Ingredients of Great Social Media Apps
Now that we’ve looked at both the biggest and most creative social media apps, how can this help you develop a social media app? One of the best things to do is look at what common characteristics these apps contain and extrapolate what this tells us about user preferences.
So what are the features that stand out?
OK, they’re social media apps, so it’s obvious that networking is essential. But the perfect social media app needs to fill a niche. There are several approaches that founders can take here.
Firstly, you can go big and general. Take something like Facebook. It offers connections for everyone, from any generation.
But to find a niche, it could be tempting for developers to look into making apps that serve defined and small audiences. For example, a social media app for, let’s say, dentists. There are a few problems with this.
Firstly, there aren’t that many dentists. Secondly, if dentists want to congregate on social media, they already have Facebook, Reddit, Twitter hashtags, etc. Niche groups need a reason to move to a platform.
So keep in mind that you need to strike a balance: niche enough to stand out, but broad enough to generate users.
2) Quick, Easy Content Sharing
Content sharing is one of the biggest drivers of engagement on social media platforms. It can take many forms, like user-generated content or sharing news, articles, videos, etc.
The most prominent social media platforms have excellent ways of sharing articles. Lots of it is just small stuff like using a headline, thumbnail images, and a snippet of the article.
Any app that engages new users needs to get media integration right.
3) Facilitate Discussion
In many ways, social media platforms replace the town square (or the pub) as a place to discuss and debate things. The most-loved social media platforms do more than just aggregate news and links; they allow their users to engage with others on these topics.
There are many benefits here. For content creators, this immediate feedback allows them a more intimate relationship with their followers. For users, they can engage and learn via comments sections.
So many of the popular social media platforms understand that humans have a deep desire to communicate and be heard. Understandably some of the heaviest comment sections are for divisive issues. But many comment sections on places like Reddit and Quora are thoughtful and helpful and have replaced many niche forums that sprang up in the early 00s.
4) Video Sharing
People love video content. As smartphone screens have gotten bigger and sharper, streamable video content is proving incredibly popular. The explosion of TikTok in recent years has taught anyone who wants to make a social app a few valuable lessons.
A) In terms of virality, video is the absolute king. TikTok exploded onto the scene in large part because of the app’s dance challenges. Users could then create a short video of them making choreographed dance moves using a short snippet of a song. People loved it.
B) While it might have seemed as if the video hosting platform market was somewhat saturated and challenging to break into, TikTok managed because it offered users something different. The short video format sets limits on content, meaning there is no time to mess around. This situation has fostered creativity through limitations, which has seen the best TikTok creators thrive.
Making a social media app that targets hobbies or niche interests poses an interesting dilemma. If the pursuit is underserved, it will be easier to break into. However, there might not be a customer base to make it viable.
But plenty of great apps have managed to crush it within their niche. Houzz is a good example. The app is for people who like interior design and architecture. Users can share designs, answer questions, connect with professionals or design amateurs. The retention rates for these kinds of apps is relatively high because they are built around a solid interest. For the record, Houzz has 40 million users, which is an excellent sized audience for such a narrow field.
A large part of social media apps appeal to users is their ability to facilitate making new friends. Additionally, many people also use them to meet potential partners. Again, if social media apps simulate the town square, then making romantic connections is a large part of this.
If you want to develop a social media app, this could be an area to consider. Traditional dating apps are very popular; however, many users are vocally dissatisfied with the experiences for various reasons.
As a result of these frustrations, we see all sorts of different niche dating apps. Dating apps that look to help people make connections with like-minded folks are becoming more and more popular. Apps like Dig and Tabby look to connect pet lovers, Veggly helps people find fellow vegans or vegetarians, and Stars Align allows people to match via horoscope.
Also, if you don’t fancy building a standalone dating app, you can consider including it as a feature. For example, the popular astrology app called Pattern has a dating feature built-in.
7) Hire Professionals or Find work
Another aspect of social media apps is the ability to hire professionals. There are a bunch of apps like LinkedIn that are great for professional networking. Still, some of the most exciting apps in recent years are helping connect professionals with paying customers.
It could be digital stuff like graphic design, copywriting, video editing, or it could be in-person physical work like building, mechanics, and so on.
App founders can go a few ways with this. Companies like Dribbble host digital artists portfolios but also doubles as a jobs and recruiting platform. Apps like Upwork offer a broader way for a considerable amount of digital works to be connected together.
If there had to be one defining characteristic of social media apps advancement in recent years, it must be how they facilitate eCommerce platforms. From payment processing, customer service, and showcasing products, eCommerce businesses can connect with — and socially market to — a vast audience.
WhatsApp, TikTok, Instagram and so on are all pushing this type of engagement. And because users are going through a trusted app with the infrastructure to host lots of products and process payments, Millennials are turning to this as a new way to shop.
Gaming apps are some of the most popular and downloaded apps today. However, some of the most played titles in this category belong to social gaming. These games allow users to play and compete against each other or with each other in teams.
The upside of social gaming is longer playtime and deeper engagement. For developers, this means increased advertisement revenues. Social gaming with features like in-game chat and leaderboards trend well. Additionally, integration with other social media platforms helps with user acquisition. Games like Pokemon Go and Roblox have got this aspect right.
10) Enhanced Privacy
Many users have such considerable concerns about social media apps that they refuse to use some of them. Facebook and WhatsApp have lost a significant amount of users because of the company’s data harvesting operations. Additionally, many citizens live in countries where government monitoring of social media is rampant.
Because of these issues, modern social media app users gravitate toward messaging apps with high levels of privacy, like Telegram, Signal, or Threema.
Anyone working in social media app development should consider adding privacy features where appropriate.
11) Monetisation Options for Content Creators
App founders need to find ways to compensate the high-quality creators that drive platform growth. Apps like Twitch, YouTube, and Caffeine all have monetisation programs based on the number of viewers per stream.
If you develop a social media app that generates lots of engagement, ad revenue is a fantastic way to help pay for your costs and expenses. Additionally, it can help you forge relationships with the streamers and content creators that draw users to your platform.
Inside the world of social media app design, there are lots of innovations and new trends. Ultimately, the most successful social media apps facilitate deep connections between their users. Users can make these connections through hobbies, gaming, learning skills and crafts, or other passions.
If you want to build a social media app, features that allow users to express their creativity and share their experiences or knowledge with users could be the key to success. However, to keep these valuable content creators, you’ll need to offer them a way to monetise their content.
Standing out from the crowd can be challenging, yet TikTok proved that there is always room for a social media app that does something a little different.
Ultimately, the social media apps that will cut through the noise in the future will be the ones that solve problems. Facilitating connections in an increasingly atomised and digital world is crucial. Additionally, apps that find a way to help people find work, friends, or love will always stand a chance of making a positive impact in people’s lives.
Banner image art by Alexander Shatov.
About the Author
Joseph Russell is an award-winning app designer, app strategist and founder of DreamWalk. Over his 11 year career, Joseph has helped hundreds of businesses and startup founders plan, design, develop and launch successful apps.
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