The presence of social media is so ubiquitous that news stories regarding one or all of the major platforms seem to emerge almost every week. Social has shifted drastically in just a short time to be the population’s main source for news, entertainment, and connection. And as we’ve seen recently, these changes have the power to shape the way social media is used for marketing and for pleasure. We take a look at what the past year has set in motion for social networks and what marketers need to know for the future.
Organic reach finally croaks
It may seem like ages ago, but we can still recall a time in the early days of social networking where the chronological timeline put users on an even playing field – they had an equal opportunity for their content to be discovered and shared. Marketers quickly realized this, and soon enough brands were setting up shop across major social platforms for a new and direct way to speak to their customers.
But as with all good things, this soon came to an end. As social networks decided they could offer a more tailored timeline experience, algorithms came into play that work to deliver the posts that network heads believe end users most want to see. The result is a timeline that may not show content from every user a person follows, and an environment where organic reach, especially for brands, is becoming an increasingly distant memory.
Facebook’s recent announcement that it planned to prioritize content from users’ family and friends over branded content in the newsfeed has some marketers wondering if social is still worth it. While algorithmic feeds certainly make social media marketing more difficult, all is not lost. Newer forms of content, such as live video, still present an opportunity for marketers to reach interested social audiences. But the days of relying solely on organic content to help sell your brand are over. It’s paramount that your brand has a paid social strategy in order to effectively spread your message.
Influencer marketing falls under scrutiny
Brands are becoming warier about partnering with influencers, and a recent New York Times exposé about the fake follower epidemic on social media proves that such hesitation is not unfounded. The Times revealed that everyone from actors to politicians to a Twitter board member have purchased followers on social networks in an effort to gain digital traction. An influencer’s follower count directly impacts the amount of money they make per post, and can be the difference between $1,000 and $10,000.
If so many people are doing it, how can a brand know whether a potential influencer’s followers are real or fake? Brands can do as the Times did and conduct an in-depth analysis of each user’s followers to determine when they created their accounts and when these accounts followed the potential influencer in question. While this is time-consuming, there’s simply no guarantee that an influencer’s followers are largely real otherwise.
Instead of focusing on number of followers when conducting an influencer search, it might be a better idea to focus on engagement, especially comments. While likes, retweets, and shares can still be bought and sold, analyzing the content of comments can help you determine whether a real person with something meaningful to add to the discussion is interacting with an influencer’s posts. Micro-influencers, or those with a more modest following who post about a particular niche or topic, also present another option for marketers. Regardless, expect brands to approach influencer marketing with a more critical eye from now on.
Is Instagram the new Facebook?
The Facebook algorithm change has also inspired a renewed interest in Instagram from brands. But this platform comes with its own issues – it’s still owned by Facebook, for one thing, and there have been a number of recent Facebook-like changes to the platform that have users riled. The introduction of the “Recommended for You” posts inserted into users’ feeds has drawn ire, as has the increased ad load and algorithmic timeline.
The question is will Instagram turn into another Facebook? Its parent company seems unable to help itself when it comes to improvements that supposedly benefit users. For now, the platform remains a vibrant place for the visually-inclined to create, and marketers will be pleased at the introduction of carousel ads to Instagram Stories. Only time will tell if Facebook’s constant fiddling destroys what makes Instagram unique in the first place.
Great for your mental health and for society? It depends
The study of social media’s impact on our health is relatively new, and so far, the results are inconclusive. Some studies suggest that social media usage can lead to lower self-esteem and provoke jealousy in relationships, especially amongst women. However, the jury is out as to whether social media really contributes to depression and anxiety, as some people reported feeling less stressed and less depressed when using social networks.
Whatever the case, many social network creators are speaking out against the very platforms they helped produce. The Center for Humane Technology is made up of these early social pioneers who are now warning kids and their parents about the risks of technology and how to practice better social media habits.
Social networks will be put under the microscope going forward, not just for our health, but for the power they have to shape our society, especially after the widespread Russian bot problems on Facebook, Twitter, and now Tumblr. Congress is calling upon these networks to investigate the influence of Russian bots on both the 2016 presidential elections and the rise of viral hashtags like #releasethememo. It’s unclear if this scrutiny will have a lasting impact on social networks, but the pressure is on for leaders of these companies to take more ownership over what they’ve created.
Where does this leave advertisers?
The good news is that you don’t need to shutter your brand’s social accounts just yet. Expect to spend more money on Facebook paid promotion this year – it’s still the largest social network and allows for a fair amount of flexibility with audience targeting – but consider diversifying your content strategy. Instagram remains a great medium for brands to explore and has a highly engaged user base. And despite constant talk of Twitter’s imminent demise, the platform is a good place to participate in topical conversations and events. And if you’re not actively blogging this year, start. The greatest investment marketers can make is in owned content.
To that end, marketers need to approach content with a more creative spin this year. Quality is the name of the game, and brands must offer something of value to customers if they want to achieve long-term digital success. Content such as branded podcasts, web series, or live videos all present excellent marketing opportunities. Podcast listeners have actually proven to be hyper-engaged, which makes programs like General Electric’s sci-fi serial The Message smart investments.
While social media trends may come and go, remaining agile and creative in the face of these changes is a marketer’s best hope for brand success in 2018 and beyond.
Photo credit: Randall Bruder