The Huge Shift in Social Media Use & It's Impact on Brands

There’s a fundamental and big shift underway in how consumers are using social media. For marketers this will present a new set of challenges in how to engage their market. For the social networks it creates a challenge of how to enable marketers to reach that audience. None of these shifts spell a death spiral for the major social networks, but it could impact their value in the digital sphere.

The Shift From Open to Closed
Perhaps the fastest growing social media channel today is SnapChat. It started out largely as a youth-driven app. But as with Facebook and Twitter, an older demographic eventually slipped in. At Well Researched (a division of The Well), we estimate that the age range in SnapChat has gone from 90% under 25 to about 75% under 25.

Facebook is shifting emphasis to Messenger, bringing bots and AI into that channel. Apple is opening up iMessenger to developers. Instagram and Twitter are trying to reinvent their relevance, although Instagram is still powerful.

Consumers are drifting away from largely “open” social networks into tighter, more “controlled” networks that focus on more immediate social circles. That “connect with the whole world” rush of the early social media years is now over. Consumers complain of being bombarded with marketing messages, brands trying to connect but failing to be authentic. Then there’s all the trolls. And the depressing news of the world. Our view is that this has combined to a point that this shift is underway.

Old Social Networks Are New Again
Our research also found (in Canada at least) that there is a move by consumers to one of the oldest online social network formats - the forum. With Reddit leading the charge. There are many thousands of forums and they’ve been around since the early 1980’s in the form of Bulletin Boards then .alt newsgroups. This is where marketers have never really been able to penetrate and when they have, they’ve been resoundingly shut down.

Too Much Marketing Noise
As brands began to realize the power of engaging social media and that they had to, so began the roaring thunderstorm of marketing noise. At first, consumers welcomed brands. They felt engaged, that a brand “cared” and in large part it was an attempt by brands to change and engage. But brands rushed to create content. The noise became too much and consumers are retreating to where they feel brands are less present. 

Social Networks Become News Feeds
Facebook has received much criticism for it’s newsfeed. Google+ has struggled with displaying content streams. LinkedIn is suffering the Tragedy of the Commons where people are starting to share baby stories and pet pics and the value of the business content is declining.

A New Balance Will Be Needed
Facebook understands this shift very well, hence their focus on Messenger and WhatsApp. SnapChat is yet to truly figure out it’s monetization strategy, but then so is Twitter. Consumers may have thought brands would become something different in social media, but they didn’t. The message remains controlled, measured and inauthentic.

Maybe that’s just the way it is. A brand can never truly be one-to-one. It will always be one-to-many. Consumers know this. Social media engagement will need a rethink by marketers. For consumers, they’re talking with their pinkies. Content consumption is changing. Brands will need to find a new balance.

Social Media are not dead, not by a long shot, but a fundamental shift is underway. It’s starting. New apps may come along. Facebook may not fizzle like MySpace, but it will desperately need those emerging markets as developed markets shift the way they engage.

Our research backs this up. We will be releasing more insights in the coming weeks.

In the meantime…what do you think?

Article by Giles Crouch