Could Donald Trump’s social media platform actually work?

Could Donald Trump’s social media platform actually work?
Source: Octavio Jones, Reuters
Building a social media platform from the ground up and seeking to challenge the existing giants won’t be easy.

On March 21, Fox News reported that former President Donald Trump would be “returning to social media in two or three months.” Instead of petitioning Twitter or Facebook to reopen his accounts, though, Trump’s spokesperson, Jason Miller, explained that Trump would be building his own platform that would “completely redefine the game.”

Trump is known for his ability to self-market and has arguably built his empire on his ability to do so.

The announcement, which did not include any precise details about the proposed platform, was met with excitement by Trump’s loyal supporters and derision from his detractors.

Plenty of others were simply skeptical of the plan. Building a social media platform from the ground up and seeking to challenge the existing giants won’t be easy. Parler, the conservative alternative to Twitter, found that out the hard way.

It’s not enough to appeal to a loyal base for a social media platform to survive. Advertisers are needed as well and major advertisers are notoriously leery of controversy.

The internet is littered with failed social media platforms, including Friendster, Vine and multiple attempts by Google. Millions of dollars of investment will not guarantee success. Of course, none of those platforms had the direct support of a former president of the United States. Trump is a uniquely galvanizing figure and one who isn’t afraid to take business risks.

So far, nothing is known about what type of social media platform Trump plans to launch and whether it will be in the mold of an existing platform or something completely new. It’s not even entirely clear Trump will follow through with this idea, though Trump’s love/hate relationship with social media would appear to be a strong motivator.

If Trump is serious about launching his own social media platform, though, these are the challenges he will face.

Building a user base

When Miller told Fox News’ Media Buzz about Trump’s impending social media venture, he claimed the platform would draw in “tens of millions” of users. It’s a number in line with the former president’s performance in the 2020 election, which saw him earn 74.2 million votes. If every one of those voters signed up, it would be a remarkable starting point for a new platform.

Unfortunately, long-term success for the major social media platforms is measured in hundreds of millions, or even billions, of users – and that’s where things become more complicated.

At the end of 2020, Twitter, Trump’s former favorite social media outlet, was sitting at roughly 353 million active users, which doesn’t even put it in the top 10 of all platforms. Facebook rules supreme at 2.74 billion users. The Google-owned YouTube is second with 2.29 billion. Three other platforms owned by Facebook – WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram – round out the rest of the top five.

Tens of millions of users would be a significant starting point, no question about it. Even Parler, which experienced strong growth during Trump’s presidency and saw its user base explode immediately following the 2020 election, topped off at around eight million users before its connection to the January 6 coup attempt at the US Capitol got it blacklisted.

There is a fairly firm ceiling for platforms that market themselves as outlets for conservative users. That was something learned by both Parler and Gab, the “free speech” platform that has become a refuge for far-right extremists. Even though major platforms like Twitter and Facebook were accused of censoring conservatives, they remain popular among people across the political spectrum.

Trump is a polarizing figure in the US and therefore unlikely to expand beyond his existing base there. While the former president has fans around the world, particularly in far-right circles, Trump is not viewed favorably by many across the globe and thus it seems implausible that he has has the international clout to create a social media platform with global appeal.

Breaking into the market

One of the biggest issues facing any new social media platform is getting people’s attention. There are over 100 existing social media platforms and that doesn’t even count the niche ones like Gab and Parler. For Trump’s platform to stand out, it will need to find a way to not only differentiate itself from other new platforms, but steal away existing users of other platforms.

Certainly, the novelty of a former US president launching his own social media platform would ensure media coverage. People may sign up to the platform simply to see it. But sustained success for social media platforms requires user engagement. Successful platforms use a range of techniques to ensure users keep coming back and keep scrolling through their feeds.

Even a company as well-known and cash-rich as Google has learned that isn’t easy to accomplish. The company has attempted to break into the market with four separate platforms: Orkut, Google Buzz, Google Waves and Google Plus (or Google+). None of them are around anymore, with Google Plus shutting down in 2019. YouTube is a solid success, but that was an existing platform that Google acquired.

Making a profit

If Trump genuinely attempts to launch a social media platform, one of the biggest questions hanging over it will be profitability. As Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, noted on Twitter, “Social media runs on ads, only so many Goya & MyPillows around, if its [sic] all trolls, will get boring quick.”

Both Goya and MyPillow are companies whose owners have openly supported Trump and would presumably be willing to advertise on his hypothetical platform. Yet, while Trump has his supporters in the business community, as Fox News has learned over the years, advertisers will jump ship if there is enough pressure from the public.

(MyPillow chief executive officer Mike Lindell, who himself has faced social media bans, has said he plans to launch his own platform.)

Trump’s net worth is a matter of frequent dispute. He is reportedly a multibillionaire, though how much he is really worth is unclear and he is alleged to owe hundreds of millions of dollars to creditors. Which is to say, he may not have the personal funds available to invest in a platform in order to make it soar (much like his personal Boeing 757, which is currently grounded in New York).

Trump has a long history of failed business ventures that speak of his willingness to dip his toes into different industries. As Trump and his defenders have argued, any ambitious businessperson will have their share of bankruptcies over a long enough career, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t successful.

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