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Say hello to the latest social media site: Ello. This ad-free, invite-only platform was created in January 2014 by a group of artists and designers who were fed up with the corporate takeover of roughly every popular social network. It has been praised, bashed, and even referred to as the potential “Facebook killer”, but no one can quite predict the ultimate fate of Ello as it remains in its current open beta testing phase. Despite its uncertain future, Ello and its dignified manifesto are the latest talk of the social media town.

Coolest Kid on the Block

So, why did Ello become so popular so fast? Just like Facebook in its early days, the secret ingredient is exclusivity. You must be invited to actually create a profile, and each user only gets four precious invites to distribute once they join. At one point, early adopters were even capitalizing on the viral uptick in popularity by selling invites to Ello on eBay.

Remember that little social media network called Google+? They, too, used this virtual “velvet rope” to create buzz around their supposed Facebook alternative, and the same tech bloggers who are now deeming Google+ “dead” were once pining for an invite to the exclusive site. The overall success of Google+ is rightly still debated, but it’s fair to say that its initial popularity was an inaccurate indicator of its long-term outcome.

Of course, exclusivity isn’t the only reason people are flocking to Ello; its promise to remain ad-free and only collect anonymous information about users is a breath of fresh air to many during a time of increased privacy concerns.

The Ello Experience

ello screen shot

Personally, I was very excited to receive an invite to Ello (I work in the social media industry after all). I had put my name on the waitlist right away, and after a week had passed I started losing hope. But working in a digital marketing agency has its perks (like people who are up on all the latest internet trends) and at last, I got an invite from a colleague.

Ello is Hard to Figure Out…

And I know what I’m doing!

Ello is very intriguing at first glance: black & white, minimalist design and trendy sans-serif font. It’s apparent that its intended audience is of the hip, artsy sort. Once I moved past design and on to functionality, I was completely lost. Although Ello is pretty to look at, it’s hard to understand. Of course there is a learning curve whenever anything new comes out, so I turned to Google. My first search? “How to post on Ello.” You may be laughing, but it was apparent that I wasn’t the only one struggling with Ello’s functionality, as there are numerous blog posts written specifically on this topic. If you’re in the same boat, I found this blog post the most helpful.

I added a few co-workers along with some random users that looked interesting, and explored a bit. As far as I could tell by scrolling through my feed, Ello is more of a Tumblr (big, beautiful photos) meets Twitter (@ handles and strictly chronological feed) than a Facebook. With only 15 friends (and a mere 5 that actually followed me back), I quickly lost interest in my feed and logged out. Once the novelty of it all wore off, I found myself wondering if I would really use Ello as a staple in my day-to-day life. Sure the whole ad-free, no third-party data thing is great, but I questioned whether Ello really brought a newfound entertainment value.

Will Ello Stay Ad-Free?

So how will an ad-free social network make money? Since its launch as the “simple, beautiful, and ad-free” social network, Ello has announced their conversion to a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC). This type of business structure mirrors that of a “freemium” model where it will sell extra features to users for a small price. With this newfound structure, Ello vows to never sell user-specific data or display paid advertising.

This move seemed to give speculators reassurance that Ello would remain ad-free after all, even in the event of a future acquisition. But the fact that the creators of Ello accepted a $435,000 round of seed funding from venture capitalist firm FreshTracks Capital still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many. As Andy Baio pointed out (ironically on his Ello feed), “VCs don’t give money out of goodwill, and taking VC funding — even seed funding — creates outside pressures that shape the inevitable direction of a company”. Now, with $5.5 million more dollars in the bank thanks to a new round of venture funding in late October, the outlook for Ello is questionable.

Should Brands Adopt Ello?

The seemingly “anti-corporate” manifesto is not stopping brands from jumping on the Ello bandwagon. Brands like SONOS and Budnitz Bicycles (owned by Ello creator Paul Budnitz) were some of the first brands to create an Ello page, and earned media attention because of it. But just because these brands capitalized on being first movers in this social space doesn’t mean all brands should follow suit.

From a marketing perspective, Ello doesn’t offer much to brands aside from some potential visibility. With no option to create a brand page, companies must stick to the platform’s profile format and simply add friends (and hope some add them back in return). And then once a friend base is established, brands should expect to see little to no engagement. Over the past month Budnitz Bicycles has received 83.1K views on its 19 image-heavy posts, and only 164 comments. This means that on average, the most popular brand account on Ello receives 1 engagement for every 507 post views. Draw your own conclusions here.

Some brands that were early to the party have since realized the lack of value Ello offers to brands compared to platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

SONOS hasn’t posted a single thing on their page since being the first brand to join Ello. Netflix, even after being named one of the top 10 cool brands on Ello, has already deleted their profile. Before jumping on Ello, brand managers should consider their audience and social marketing goals. If the target audience is anyone other than Ello’s trendy niche user base, the ROI (measured in time and resources) will be less than desirable.

Facebook Versus Ello

One of the greatest aspects of Facebook is that it’s tailored to users so that they can view things most relevant to their interests in an effortless manner. Personalization is the key to Facebook’s immense success over the years, whether users realize it or not. In fact, the internet as a whole is evolving into a more personalized and tailored experience every day. Sure this involves ads, but it also includes promotions such as sponsored updates by pages or brands that you’re interested in. With its advanced granular targeting, brands are able to use Facebook to reach a highly qualified and relevant audience that tends to result in a favorable engagement rate.

Another reason why Facebook will continue to reign supreme for the time being is its 1.35 billion monthly users. When it all comes down to it, people use social media sites like Facebook to get acknowledged, stay in the loop and to simply connect with their friends. What good is a social network if the people you care about aren’t on it (or can’t get an invite)? Its massive user base is also the reason so many brands use Facebook to engage with fans. Needless to say, it will be extremely difficult for Ello to build an user base large enough to seriously compete with Facebook.

While a smattering of Facebook users and brands will flock to Ello in the coming months to get a taste of the “ad-free” network, it is unlikely to replace Facebook any time soon. Ello seems to cater to a very specific audience, as a platform made by creatives, for creatives. Personally, I think the steep initial learning curve will deny Ello the ability to retain users that are not tech-savvy. Its lack of personalization within the feed and other aspects (e.g., suggested friends, the ability to “like” a post, etc.) will also prove to be a major downfall, since it does not provide the high levels of engagement that social media giants like Facebook and Twitter are able to maintain.

Goodbye to Ello?

According to Google trends, Ello is already losing its hold on cyber-stardom. Although it provoked quite the viral uproar in September, Google shows a decrease in interest during October and into November.

In its current state, Ello’s competitive advantages don’t appear to be sustainable, and there aren’t really any compelling numbers on adoption… but it’s far too early to write it off. From an entertainment perspective, it’s still hard to say what Ello brings to the table that other social networks don’t. That being said, the social network is still in Beta and rolling out new updates and features nearly every day. Regardless of its critics and supporters, the jury is still out, and only time can reveal the long-term success or failure of Ello.

Have you tried Ello? What do you think?

Zoe Robinson

About Zoe Robinson

Zoe is a Paid Social Account Manager at Add3. Outside the office you can find her binge-watching Netflix with her cat Elf, boycotting umbrellas, or wandering around Capitol Hill petting every animal in sight. For music recommendations and random thoughts, follow her on Twitter @zoeeerobinson

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