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The first wave of social media platforms—MySpace, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat—created the landscape we all now live, work, communicate and play in. But more and more platforms have been popping up in recent years, outpacing their more established competitors in relevance and challenging the nature of how we experience social media.
“A big conversation seems to be how we’re all losing the ‘social’ in social media,” said Jamie Falkowski, chief creative officer and partner at Day One Agency. “The success of TikTok and now Reels is pushing these channels more and more into entertainment feeds rather than friend feeds. The consumer need to share and to participate still remains, and that’s one reason BeReal is piquing interest.”
Advertisers have had to keep pace with each shift—especially the ever popular pivot to video—to stay relevant and top-of-feed, but that’s becoming ever more challenging. “For brands, the need for video is not going away, but now that video has to feel made for the platform,” said Falkowski. “Unless you’ve got big paid dollars around your creative, those TVC cutdowns just aren’t going to cut it in organic.”
Following the virtual conference Ad Age Next: Social & Influencer Marketing on Sept. 13, we asked agency leaders from the Amp community to weigh in on what’s happening in the world of social media and what brands need to be tuned into over the coming year.
Gone are the days of overproduced, airbrushed and autotuned content ruling the day. For brands looking to prevail with both audiences and algorithms, the key theme is authenticity.
So, what does that mean for the content itself? “Lo-fi, mobile-shot videos are winning over audiences because they come across as more authentic in feeds than highly produced video content,” said Kate Newman, associate director of social media at Bader Rutter, who points to the recent success of BeReal, the app founded on that concept. “People want an unperfected, in-the-moment look at their friends’ lives. Brands who figure out how to tap into this trend will win.”
Popular features like “360 view” on BeReal suggest that not only content shifts but also platform and format tweaks are needed to further underscore unfiltered content. “Because anyone who has a mobile device can be a content creator, the speed and volume of social media content production needs to match consumption,” said Newman. “Agencies and clients must consider how to keep up by rethinking the scale of production crews and duration of the internal, external and legal review process to compete with creators’ lack of limitations.”
On the flipside, some brands may be going too far to come off as unfiltered, verging into social strategies that may be unsustainable, ineffectual or both. “One of the most buzzworthy trends of late is brands breaking bad to break through,” said Kevin Miner, digital strategy manager at RPA, pointing to RadioShack’s explicit Twitter account and Pabst Blue Ribbon’s “try eating ass” and Wingstop’s “fuck” tweets as examples. “We’re drowning in content, and marketers are increasingly willing to do just about anything to break through. But when brands shitpost, is the attention in service of the brand or a misguided attention hack? Of course, consumers would love for brands to take themselves less seriously, but some brands are starting to experiment with shock value over authenticity.”
Both stripped-down, BeReal-ified content and attempts to match that appeal with shock value originate from a backlash to the overproduced standard, providing insight into the direction social media may be heading.
“Pushback against the social pressure to ‘go viral’ has led to exciting new platforms like BeReal or Pinterest’s latest Shuffles feature, which allows users to be truly authentic with a closer community versus content that was designed with the hopes that millions of people would see it,” said Eileen Zhao, strategy director at Fred & Farid Los Angeles. “Finding opportunities to cater to this shifting social behavior will be key for brands as we think about influencers we could work with, favoring engagement versus follower count, niche communities versus mass appeal, etc.”
While BeReal and TikTok have arguably spurred on—or at least sped up—the rise of video, other platforms (and the generation of users behind them) are presenting a challenge to their more established counterparts. “Marketers should keep an eye on social media as an SEO tool. Gen Z utilize TikTok as a search engine, rivaling SEO king Google, and Instagram is working on following suit,” said Brettina Davis, social media specialist at Ready Set Rocket. “Social will evolve as platforms compete to dethrone YouTube and Google.”
With TikTok now counting over a billion users on the app, marketers would be wise to watch the platform as it relates to organic search. “In early August, it was reported that over 40% of the Gen Z population prefers to search for things on TikTok, not Google. While TikTok had already been working on enhancing their search capabilities, this insight seems to have expedited the process,” said Leigh-Ann Bortz, VP of Empower and director of CultureTap, the agency’s proprietary social trend identification platform, which she built. “Users on CultureTap are now reporting their content with more text overlay, and strategic keyword placement out-performs their typical trend-aligned content.”
Another platform quickly gaining speed is Whatnot, the community marketplace app geared toward fans and collectors. “I think the rise of Whatnot is a great example of how culture is reciprocal—Whatnot is basically eBay livestreamed,” said John Higgins, CEO and chief creative officer at OS Studios. He explains that apps like Whatnot were created for mainstream culture to gain access into niche culture—rather than platforms that simply allow niche culture to connect, like YouTube and Twitch. “To that end, I think we are going to see how social media starts to trend into other realms, like the metaverse,” Higgins said. “In a few years, it will be normal to metaphysically explore someone’s timeline via headset or smart device.”
We’re living in the age of the influencer, where the number of eyeballs tuned into a person’s every move offers unprecedented amounts of power across the social media spectrum. “Five years ago it would have been unheard of that Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and a slew of other influencers could cause Instagram to reverse course and slow its effort to become more like video-centric rival TikTok,” said Amy Cotteleer, chief experience officer at Duncan Channon. “Influencers have become so powerful, they not only impact what consumers want to buy, they are now, to a certain extent, controlling the way social platforms are evolving.”
The result is a shift in the primary function of social media, from expression of culture to source of culture, explained Amy Worley, global chief connections officer at VMLY&R. “Tweet threads become movies; TikTok musicians become our biggest pop stars; Instagram influencers become talk show hosts. More and more culture will start on social,” said Worley, who also emphasized the power in those numbers. “Social media will continue to grow as a force for like-minded groups to come together, organize and mobilize, both in ‘real life’—political rallies and the return of flash mobs—as well as to joining forces online to effect change.”
In addition to cultural pull, the realm of influencer marketing has become a financial force—to the tune of nearly $14 billion. “The creator economy, and specifically how creators and micro-influencers continue to build value for their own audiences/channels and partnerships with brands, is worth watching,” said Jonah Ballow, founder and head of content strategy and production at Heartlent Group. “E-commerce through social media platforms is an essential part of the experience. The platforms, along with brands, will need to evolve their approach when trying to reach consumers. With platforms attempting to make the process frictionless, brands must develop smart tactics to create a significant sales pipeline. Consumers will not only want to make purchases on social media platforms but also receive reliable, real-time customer service.”
Some predict that platforms will also be working harder to keep influencers on their apps. “We’re going to see platforms continue to find new ways to compensate creators. YouTube has always led this charge through their partner program, and now Meta and TikTok are trying to keep up with their creator funds and bonus programs,” said Amber Burns, public relations supervisor at Allen & Gerritsen. “Platforms will have to make it more advantageous for creators to make content on their channels rather than channels the creator owns, like subscription newsletters.”
Finally, some leaders anticipate a maturing influencer marketing industry itself, moving in the direction of quantifiable results like brands expect from traditional forms of advertising. “Influencer marketing continues to be widely accepted as a critical marketing tool, but the inability to accurately predict and measure ROI sidelines brands from interacting with influencers and creators,” said Chris Jacks, director of growth strategy at HireInfluence. “As we continue to pioneer methods to illustrate and document campaign ROI and attribution, we believe that influencer marketing will become not only accessible but fundamental to brands’ marketing efforts, regardless of company size or budget.”
It’s hard to predict what social media will look like in five or 10 years, but a few things feel certain—like the continual search for the new and novel. “As technology advances and each generation clings to their version of an ‘exclusive’ place to spend time, new experiences will emerge,” said Sam Zises, CEO at [L]earned Media. “While social commerce is not new, we believe that advances in VR, AR and the metaverse, including digital and crypto currencies and more seamless banking, will open the floodgates and create an entirely new generation of consumers who’ll consider browsing a traditional e-commerce website as ancient and boring.”
Another constant is social’s core function. “Social media will always be about three things: community, creators and commerce,” said Kenny Gold, managing director and head of social, content and influencer at Deloitte Digital. “The relationships we build and the people we engage with will always lead to an exchange of something—goods, content, insight, etc.”
Gold predicts a few key evolutions, however. “Now, creators are seen as participants, but as these channels evolve, creators will become a part of the very fabric and draw of the channel, as a feature. This will create an ever deeper need to drive co-creation,” he said. “Also, when industry leaders talk about social media, they won’t just focus on traditional two-way conversation channels but more broadly, as any channel that allows communities to develop or creators to make content—any exchange of value will be widely accepted as social media.”
Others predict a further democratization of the market and greater segmentation with more players continuing to enter the market. “The social media landscape will continue to become more fragmented and specialized based on new entrants, community interests and varying levels of participation,” said Amy Luca, senior VP of social, Americas region, at Media.Monks. “Unfortunately, we only have a finite number of hours in a day, and we are very close to maximum saturation—consumers will be more selective on where they spend their time. The competition for platforms and brands to earn our attention will become even more challenging. We are entering a social media and metaverse landscape like the one described by Bruce Springsteen in the ’90s when he said the saturation point of cable television amounted to ’57 channels and nothing on.’” Luca notes that platforms will also need evolve to find their places within metaverse worlds like Decentraland and The Sandbox.
One thing that may work in favor of both brands and platforms is the adaptability of younger generations. “As these new social platforms come online, they will have the advantage of marketing themselves to new, younger generations that have always lived in a world of social media (unlike boomers, Gen Xers and many millennials). The cost to attract Gen Z and younger to a new social media platform will be less than switching over a boomer or millennial,” said Patrick Armitage, director of digital strategy at RPA. “We’re going to see younger generations be more comfortable moving from platform to platform to serve their different needs, niches, and interests.”
Armitage also anticipates a decline in the established platforms, making way for new players and leading to even more disruption, change and growth. “The social media oligarchy—i.e., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.—will hold less sway in the years ahead,” said Armitage. “We will see more platforms proliferate and change the meaning of the word ‘social’ as we know it.”
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Ashley Joseph is a writer, editor and content strategist based in Montreal, and has been a Contributing Editor for Studio 30 covering stories from the Ad Age Amp community since 2018. She also writes about food, travel and beauty when not developing content for brands.
Ad Age Studio 30 is the creative content arm of Ad Age. Built on the same bedrock of journalistic integrity, Ad Age Studio 30 specializes in multichannel membership content for Ad Age subscribers, as well as custom and sponsored content that resonates with our audience. To partner with Ad Age Studio 30, email James Palma at [email protected].