Some of the most successful tech startups of the past five years have been built around a simple core constraint.
Twitter’s 140 character limit, Snapchat’s self-deleting photos or Vine’s six second videos, are all at the very heart of what the product is, and why it succeeds.
This idea of constraining users has also been packaged into other simple products, such as Tinder having a 500 character profile restriction, or taken to the experimental extreme, as with Yo!’s one word messaging app.
And a new startup from the UK called Natter wants to bring this minimalist philosophy to social networking – but rather than giving its users 140 characters like Twitter, limiting them even further, to just three words.
Natter is a feed-based social network that lets users post short three word updates – in addition to a hashtag, photo or hyperlink – and chat to other users by @ing them.
You can search by hashtags or keywords, and the “explore” tab lets you see the trending and popular posts on Natter.
The range of things people post varies from check-in style “at the pub” statuses, to people using the three word constraint as a kind of game, to try and encapsulate their thoughts with a degree of “eloquence and beauty”.
The idea behind this short form social network comes from tech entrepreneur Neil Stanley, an ex-Goldman Sachs executive director who has made his name over the past ten years in the online dating industry, as one of White Label Dating’s most successful partners.
Stanley came up with the idea for Natter in August 2014 – he believes inspired by a party game he played that was based around short phrases – after which his Bath-based team and Ukrainian developers built the desktop and mobile platform, launching an early version in December that year.
Almost a year later, with Natter showing strong signs of growth – having completed “stage one” of building a social network and securing another round of funding – we spoke to Stanley about his ambitions for Natter, their plan for “stage two” growth, and why Natter can succeed in the shadow of other social giants.
Stanley says that after its initial launch in December, the early version of the Natter platform had a lot of bugs and “constantly crashed”, but was still getting good traction, helped in part by being featured on BBC Click with Kate Russell.
This appearance also had a very unexpected effect, as Natter was simultaneously featured on BBC Persian Click, and the site became overwhelmed with users from Iran, almost causing Natter’s “servers to melt”.
One of the main reasons for this surge is because Twitter is blocked in Iran, so its citizens jumped on the chance to explore an unblocked social network.
To deal with this thriving market, Natter had to implement a tag, to compartmentalise all the farsi posts which suddenly flooded the platform.
After this, the team’s task was to complete “stage one” of building a social network, which Natter’s CEO characterises as “going from a cold start, from absolutely nothing, to an active network that is busy.”
And despite some “low moments” on the entrepreneurial rollercoaster, through a combination of social media marketing, gamification features and user acquisition via ad networks, a year on, Stanley believes they have “categorically done that”.
Part of this was down to important product updates the team added, Stanley said: “The really big thing we’ve done in 2015, since we had the first lot of funding in the Spring, is to add pictures and hyperlinks. Which might sound really easy, but what we didn’t want to do was make Natter just another confusing muddle, like certain other social networks.”
With this influx of images, Natter also added an Instagram-style picture aggregation tab, where you can explore all the trending pictures users have posted.
And with these changes in place, the community started to grow.
Natter has now seen over 40,000 people sign up, has around 4,500 monthly active users (mostly from the UK and US), and has just secured another round of funding from a tech VC called Downing.
The London-based VC firm was part of an initial round in Spring – which was joined by an angel investor – and having seen the company’s progress, pitched in another £250,000 in September.
Stanley said the firm was impressed by the engagement stats and the community that Natter had built, saying: “They can see we’ve gone past the cold start, we’ve gone from 0 to 1, and we’ve got a community of people nattering all day long.
“You can log in at four in the morning and there are people posting stuff. There is culture of niceness and friendliness and welcoming on Natter, that you don’t get on other social networks.
“And it’s going somewhere, we’re just trying to work out where.”
Where is the next question, and Stanley said the Natter team is currently engaged in an open debate about whether the three word limit, which isn’t something that is “rigorously enforced”, should be lifted.
“Natter isn’t today what we thought it would be when we first launched. We thought it would be succinct three word posts, in this enigmatic short style,” Stanley said.
“What it’s actually turned into is a community of people who engage and support one another using short expressions, but those short expressions aren’t necessarily just three words, because people use hyphens and hashtags.”
One train of thought is that the product should be taken “where the users and community wants it to go”, while obviously keeping true to its streamlined short form USP.
As with online dating, where the mainstream market is controlled by a few large players, new social networks face enormous competition from monoliths like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
And just as dating services can undercut their untouchable competition by offering a niche or specialist service, new social networks must also carve out worth by giving customers something new, and a different experience from what is currently available.
This is what Natter thinks it can do, providing a much more close-knit and community-orientated experience for its users, one that is based around a niche proposition – keeping your thoughts succinct.
But to carve out a sustainable space in the market, Stanley says they must complete the vital “stage two” of building a social network – driving a “naturally upwards sloping engagement and acquisition graph”, by aggressively pushing viral growth.
Tasked with achieving this goal is Alex Marshall, Natter’s 21-year-old head of marketing, whose job is to do “anything we can to improve the virality of Natter”.
A big part of this is honing Natter’s gamification aspect, called Kudos, and tying this into user acquisition by rewarding and encouraging current users to invite their friends and contacts.
Kudos is a point-based system, which Natter users get by receiving likes on their posts – one kudos point for every like.
They can see how many kudos points they’ve received for each post, and all members get placed on a global leaderboard, with each Natter user getting a worldwide ranking.
What Marshall plans to do is to push user acquisition by rewarding members with kudos points for inviting their friends via SMS or Facebook, a strategy that was in part inspired by Double’s talk at the GDI Innovation Conference.
The reason for this, Marshall says, is that one of the biggest complaints of users who leave Natter is that although they enjoy using the platform, their “friends aren’t on there”.
To push this aspect of Natter, the team also added a friends leaderboard, so they can compete against their contacts for kudos points.
Last month, the microblogging platform also included new badges and titles, which users achieve by reaching certain benchmarks: “If a user reaches 1,000 kudos points they get a star and title, if they get 10,000 kudos points they become a superstar, and at 50,000 they are royalty”, Marshall said.
These growth hacks are being implemented in conjunction with current social media marketing strategies, the addition of unlockable badges (for things like posting at certain times of the day), Facebook apps, and ad campaigns.
And should this go to plan, it’s on to stage three, which Stanley says “will follow if you get stage two right”.
This is monetisation, either through acquisition or generating revenue with advertising and premium features.
Whether it gets there, of course, is yet to be seen, but the Natter team believe that a startup like theirs stands a chance, by approaching the market with a niche proposition.
One of the reasons it can do that, Stanley said, is because Natter compliments the age, an age where “people are increasingly short of attention.”
“So for us, we think that getting these little bite-sized pieces of social information, which are in even smaller bites than Twitter, is a logical thing at this point in time.”
But will Natter’s core constraint, which turns social networking into a kind of mental game, resonate with enough consumers to let the social network thrive? Time will tell.
Download Natter on iOS and Android, and visit their site here.