Social media has been on an uneasy trajectory over the past few years. One of rising popularity and suspicion; its dominant cultural, social, and political position suspending it on a mountaintop of scrutiny. Platforms and those that seek to misuse them are under the radar. To survive, change is necessary.
It is a trajectory that peaked this year. The truth of our social media habits – and what many already suspected – has been revealed in scrutinising light. Mainly by the documentary Social Dilemma, but only by other prominent voices decrying the ill-effects of social media platforms and their underlying algorithms. In a brief space of time, the oft quoted ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product’ has gone from a revolutionary realisation to a banal observation. That audiences’ attentions are harvested and maximised, indifferent to individual and societal-health repercussions, is an obvious truth. What’s changed is the popular awareness of that truth.
Exposés like Social Dilemma for many induce a sense of fatalism. Social media is integral to our modern world. It underpins our advertising economy. It is the means through which we connect and share information and, though sometimes a voice for the disreputable, is more often than not a voice for good. But to fix social media doesn’t mean to eradicate it from our lives. It means to address the problems inherent to these platforms, and the false economies that underpin them: the pursuit of growth through maximising (or coercively manipulating) audiences’ attention and time, heedless of the detriment.
Social media’s future will be different from its past. Different, but not gone; social media is still likely to play a fundamental role in digital communication strategies.
Before platforms change, however, audiences will. Apathy and disengagement often begin with suspicion; the implicit contract between audiences and social media platforms is being examined. Under threat are the assumptions of audience behaviour. With greater awareness of how their attention is cajoled, audiences are now more wary, scrutinising and exacting. Before they’re led down the corridors, they’ve already seen the signs.
The transition will take time. Addictive cycles are hard to break. But once awareness exists, ignorance cannot be reclaimed. The proverbial box is open to both the delights and distractions of social media, its undeniable good and unignorable evil.
Platforms are already responding. Millions of accounts are deleted per day; accounts deemed responsible for spreading misinformation or fermenting hate. Last month Twitter made the unprecedented move of banning a U.S. President (which, whatever your views, marks a drastic change in approach). In 2018 Mark Zuckerberg announced changes to Facebook’s News Feed and how news is aggregated. The intention was for audiences to see more from their friends and family, and less from brands and businesses outside their network. Privacy concerns have also hit the mainstream. Since Facebook revealed a change in WhatsApp’s terms and conditions last year, users have flocked to Telegram: a privacy-focused alternative. Audiences are responding, with greater awareness of the problems and greater ability to choose solutions that reflect their values.
What will change (and what do these changes mean for digital communicators)?
The perception of social media for many has changed from that of helpful friend to necessary evil. We’re now seeing a necessary buy-back of trust from the main social media platforms. This forces brands to monitor their position, and find new ways to engage with their audiences. Broad-sweep marketing no longer works. Like fish cajoled into clusters, audiences have grown critically aware of a large net hurtling towards them.
Past studies have revealed business leaders’ uncertainty of the value of their social media activity. ROI remains difficult to exact; not all ROI, such as brand impact and awareness, is measurable, and much of the activity leads to slow-burning results such as increased brand awareness and reception.
Still, the relationship between businesses and social media can prove problematic, with trust in its investment thwarted by uncertainty in results. Should past behaviours be continued, this is unlikely to change. Revising those behaviours, however, and heeding broader change to guide strategic decisions can at least lead to better targeting, clearer ROI and less reliance on mass-but-inconclusive engagement.
Points of influence: engagement and story-based marketing
Both millennials and Gen Z have grown resistant to targeted brand marketing. Digital marketers now need to treat their audience as more than a demographic. Rather than swathe marketing – costly spray-and-pray approaches – the best strategy creates and engages niche communities. Overall digital communication strategy must then be examined not for any specific metrics, but for all available metrics: engagements across channels, channel growth, surveys, brand and product feedback, brand integration and awareness assessments, etc. Nurturing a community can grow your brand but lack clear causality; the connection between what was done and what happened is nuance and indirect, and requires more considered analysis than straight comparisons allow. The small milestones must be noted, and a long-term view adopted.
Audiences want to hear from (and buy from) brands they’re already engaged with. Digital marketers must learn to sell the brand before the product, to engage before they convert. This begins with meaningful connection, better conversation and content and a more authentic brand identity. The issue with targeting large audience segments is that it’s impossible to be a brand for everyone. Targeting has its place, but targeting large, disengaged segments can result in negative attention as well as positive attention – and each has a cumulative effect.
Target existing niche communities. Communities in which your product and brand are already welcome. Once you’ve identified these communities, sell the story, the solution, not the product. Not your company’s story – never that – but their story: their pain points and journey, and your product positioned as their aid, guide or saviour.
The future of social media is more deliberate and intentional, and requires digital marketers to be equally so. It requires more thorough analysis, empathy and awareness of the communities you’re looking to engage with, and the apathy that may be felt by those communities. Working with influencers helps to achieve community engagement, but it isn’t the only way. Authentic voices, honest conversations and more purposeful, story-driven content starts with you.
To ward off further scrutiny, social media platforms must stop taking users’ attention and complicity for granted, to treat those it depends upon as more than digits to be processed by algorithms. The same is true of brands. We, as audiences, as humans, want to be understood, and have our time, attention and health valued and appreciated. Do this, and you’re already on your way to a future-proof digital communication strategy.