Recently I was asked what the biggest challenge for brands on social media will be in five years. It is a question that stuck with me, for both the inherent, puzzle-like quality of trying to figure it out, and how inadvisable it would be to forecast almost anything in 2022. I’ve been hearing about flying cars my whole life, so do I think Kitty Hawk is going to crack that nut just because Silicon Valley is behind it? I’m not holding my breath.
If you were to go back five years, would you have predicted today’s social landscape? No one could have predicted which networks or formats would rise or fall. Five years ago, Facebook was still the overall top network but was facing criticism after its April 2012 purchase of Instagram — which at $1B was deemed far too expensive. At the time, Instagram had 30 million daily active users (DAUs). Today Instagram has over 400 million DAUs and over 200 million DAUs of the Stories feature alone, a format that was not even invented until late in 2013, or added to Instagram until August 2016. Another example: Google+ launched in June of 2011, and by January 1, 2012 had amassed over 90 million users and a lot of attention. Brands in particular jumped on board, hoping to earn the search giant’s goodwill. 2017: different story.
It would have, however, been possible to predict where the industry at large was going. In 2012, only 56% of Internet users were on one or more social networks. Today that figure is 81% and will continue to climb, making social media an essential part of modern human communication. Brands will always flock to where their customers are, and so it would seem predictable that brand presence on social media was going to increase as well (with Facebook recording over 65 million business pages today).
Looking five years out, we still cannot predict which networks or formats will succeed, but a trend on the industry is making itself apparent: diversification as new social networks spin up. These smaller newcomers have a more specific purpose within the user’s life. Houseparty is an app specifically for live video chatting and co-viewing experiences. Nextdoor is a network centered around your neighborhood, connecting you with people on the same block. Yonder focuses on outdoor recreation and lifestyle, allowing for information on people and activities. None of these networks may become the elusive Facebook challenger, but with user willingness (or even desire) to test new networks, their reach can grow and we see that there is power in having focus. Houseparty hit 1.2 million DAU in November with an average engagement time of 20 minutes, while Nextdoor has over 10 million users across 100,000 neighborhoods with 70% logging in weekly. With audience data like that, and the baked-in targeting (these being niche networks), it’s no surprise brands will begin to follow and engage.
The proliferation of niche social media networks is going to present a major challenge for brands: how do you choose which networks to activate on? There is clearly a benefit for a brand like Lowe’s to have a presence on Nextdoor, allowing them to reach an audience that over-indexes on home improvement. But as the number of networks rise, how will brands organize and prioritize around the myriad of options? A common conversation we have at RED with our clients is about the level of ongoing effort required to maintain a healthy and active social footprint on one given network. Multiply that by a dozen networks and you have a very serious financial and operational commitment to consider.
So how does a brand adapt to this landscape? Simply put: brands need to get comfortable saying "no."
“No” is not usually a word in a marketer’s playbook today so we need to help prove why using it can not only be okay, but may just save the brand. Right now there is a sense that, as an established brand, you need active handles on all major networks. But that looks inward, highlighting how a brand views themselves and what type of image they want to project. We need to reorient and look outward at the customer first. We of course have to know which networks the customers are using, but just as importantly we have to understand their specific needs on that network. When we deeply understand real customer needs, we can assign corresponding business goals to each customer group on specific networks providing an authentic place for a brand to sit and actually make an impact. And because we have specific goals assigned to specific customers on specific networks, we can validate those through qualitative and quantitative data. This hard data gives brands the ability to prioritize the most effective networks, while deprioritizing other networks.
With only a select group of networks to focus on, strategy, creative development and analytics become far more streamlined. By saying “no” we’re able to stop boiling the ocean and focus on the places and people that matter most. Brands that try to take on too many networks will either drown in the sea of work, have a disjointed brand presence and strategy, or skim the surface but never create the meaningful content their fans want.
Can we really predict the future? No. But I don’t think we need to. When we continually take a customer-first approach, we adapt and change with our customers and thus the market. And in doing so, we defy predictions.
Andrew Feldman is VP of brands & campaigns at Red Interactive Agency