New forms of social platforms present a new set of challenges for brands – and they can’t afford to duck them
For the best part of a decade, our online social lives have been defined by a handful of giant networks: Facebook, Twitter and (for professional and high-net-worth audiences) LinkedIn. Marketing strategies have therefore focused on capturing attention and driving engagement through these channels. With their mass reach and openness to advertising, they had appeared to make the task of engaging audiences on social media relatively straightforward. But things are changing – and changing fast. As far as marketers are concerned, our social lives are becoming a lot more complicated.
It’s not that the social giants are in decline. Their numbers of active users continue to increase, with 30% of global internet users heading onto Facebook every day. But they no longer define our digital social lives in the way that they once did. The average 16-24-year-old now uses at least five different social platforms each week. And many of the interactions that matter most to them take place on new types of platform, with less obvious roles for brands. This represents a challenge for marketers, but it’s also an important, and very timely, opportunity.
The daily use of mainstream social media is rising at 6% a year – but use of Instant Messaging (IM) platforms is increasing at double that rate. More than half of global internet users are using messaging apps on a daily basis – and this is pushing platforms such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Snapchat and LINE towards the centre of social experiences. Messaging use may lag behind in the US and UK (35% and 39% respectively), but it dominates in emerging and fast-growth markets from Brazil (73%) to Malaysia (77%) and China (69%). And it’s not just IM that is expanding the social media universe. From Instagram to Vine, people are engaging on a far broader range of platforms that reflect their different needs and interests through very different social experiences.
It’s significant that Facebook itself has moved swiftly into these new social spaces: WhatsApp (owned by Facebook since late 2014) and Facebook Messenger are currently the two largest messaging platforms on earth. Facebook owns Instagram as well. The world’s largest social media player recognises that people are no longer satisfied with expressing themselves in just one way, on one type of network.
Look closely at the IM phenomenon and you’ll find a broad range of user experiences from stripped down to content-rich, but all have the same fundamental appeal at their core. IM enables real-time interaction within small, specific groups that can form, break up and re-form endlessly. Conversations are free to fade over time (the importance of which explains the intense debate about just how long Snapchat conversations are stored for). IM is more intimate, more responsive and less permanent. And it reflects more intuitively the way people have traditionally interacted with one another.
The return of nuanced private lives
To marketers, the sudden fragmentation of the social media landscape can seem disruptive and surprising. But in the context of human relationships, the shift isn’t really that surprising at all. If anything, it’s the last 10 years that have been abnormal.
In the offline world, there are certain, very specific situations in which being included in a large crowd is an important part of the experience: shopping in a marketplace, watching a football match, engaging in a pilgrimage or, on a smaller scale, enjoying a large dinner with extended family. But these situations are relatively rare. The vast majority of our lives aren’t spent shouting personal messages over the heads of very large crowds of people; they are lived more privately, built on interactions with far smaller groups that we shuffle between according to circumstance and need.
Living out more of our life online – but on different terms
The shift towards IM suggests that people want to move more of these offline experiences onto digital platforms; they are just not comfortable moving them onto the likes of Facebook. Messaging apps provide them with opportunities to reflect a more nuanced social reality in the online space. And as those messaging platforms build richer functionality around core messaging, there are more compelling reasons to do so. Users of LINE, which first launched as an emergency response to the Japanese earthquake of 2011, can now play games together, generate and share content, stream music and watch TV – all of which can be plugged seamlessly into their interactions.
More consumers carrying out more of their social lives online ought to represent a significant opportunity for marketers. However, there’s a challenge. The way that brands interact with consumers on Facebook, for example, is partly why large-scale open networks are deemed inappropriate for the more private and personal aspects of people’s lives. Facebook feels like the virtual equivalent of the marketplace, an environment in which we must be happy to be distracted by a host of different voices and different propositions calling for our attention; messaging platforms do not.
Time for a holistic social media strategy
There is still an important role for the marketplace in people’s lives – a space where we seek out new forms of stimulation and can quickly gain a wider sense of what’s going on in the world. Within our newly complicated social lives, the giant, open networks that provide this experience are the natural home for scalable, awareness-building, amplification and engagement campaigns. However, when connected consumers move onto IM platforms, they no longer welcome distractions in the same way. WhatsApp’s ‘no ads’ policy is a significant part of its appeal – and brands must proceed with caution even on platforms that are more open to marketing. People resent unsolicited brand messaging popping into the same space that they use to chat confidentially to close friends and family. When they do invite brands to engage with them, they expect them to behave in a manner that reflects this context. This means that marketers must play by a new set of rules if they want to thrive. We’ve been accustomed to seeing social media as one element within an integrated marketing strategy. Now we need to take a more granular view of the social media space itself – and start adopting integrated social media strategies that reflect the roles that different platforms play.
Getting in touch with humanity
The new rules are defined by the nature of messaging platforms themselves. These platforms deal in human experiences that are intimate, intuitive and relevant to the moment. Success for brands will similarly depend on a more human approach: facilitating dialogue and connection, replying to comments in a way that is worthy of that dialogue, caring about the moments that matter to the audience, and delivering content that is genuinely relevant to those moments. The most successful brands know that such relevance can come through providing tangible value that enhances or simplifies life – but also through the emotional connection that is formed when they align themselves with the right format and tone of voice for a platform.
Taco Bell’s use of Snapchat excels in establishing such a human connection. It embraces risk, experiments with different approaches – and earns respect from consumers for avoiding a bland, corporate tone of voice. Its choice of influencers to enlist for the brand has been appropriate as well: focusing on YouTube and other social media celebrities who have credibility on the platform, rather than conventional star power. The six-second DIY videos posted on Vine by the US home improvement store Lowe’s similarly mixed tangible value with emotional engagement by working within the format of the platform. The result? Lowe’s ninety Vine videos delivered over 33 million views.
Sharing counts more when it’s personal
As social platforms become more personal, the credibility added when content is shared becomes all the more valuable. WeChat Moments, which builds a broader social media experience onto WeChat’s IM platform, provides a powerful amplification opportunity for brands, with any content that a user engages with hugely more likely to appear in the feeds of their friends. The power of personalisation can also be seen in the influence of Instagram, which has grown in value as an earned media opportunity for brands. Instagram provides another environment where sharing amongst a more select network delivers powerful benefits. It was recently claimed (in research commissioned by an Instagram influencer app, Takumi) that 68% of 18-24-year-olds were more likely to purchase an item if someone they followed on Instagram shared it.
Why a more complex social world has more opportunity
Finding the right strategy for more intimate social platforms will become increasingly important as those platforms take on a broader range of roles in consumer lives. Users of WeChat can already browse and buy products (with 10 million WeChat stores opening in the last year alone), order taxis, apply for loans and keep track of their fitness. Facebook Messenger’s AI-powered virtual assistant, launched in September, prompts users with suggestions for where to eat, where to visit and what to buy. As social media becomes more varied, more versatile and more personalised, consumers are far more likely to trust the right social channel to guide their choices. As these new social channels become more sophisticated and seamless, people could increasingly make the journey from awareness through to purchase without ever leaving the platform they are on. Making themselves a part of this environment will require brands to invest in customised approaches, explore more partnerships, be more human and less guarded in their approach, and take more risks. But all the indications are that such effort will be worth it. Our online social lives may be becoming more complex – but adapting to that complexity will be increasingly rewarding.