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Mastodon hits 1m monthly users amid Twitter upheaval, but experts doubt brands will follow

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By Kendra Clark | Senior Reporter

November 8, 2022 | 8 min read

For advertisers, a decentralized network like Mastodon poses similar brand safety concerns to those they’ve expressed with a Musk-helmed Twitter.

Mastodon logo on iPhone screen

Mastodon is seeing an influx of user sign-ups in the wake of Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter – but it may not last / Adobe Stock

Decentralized social network Mastodon yesterday announced it has reached 1 million monthly active users.

The free, open-source site, which enables users to build their own servers, has seen growing traction in the wake of Elon Musk’s controversial takeover of Twitter; Mastodon’s chief executive officer Eugen Rochko said in a post that it has gained over 489,000 new users since Musk’s acquisition was completed on October 27.

Musk appeared to respond to the news with a string of derisive tweets about the platform before deleting them yesterday. Then, Monday evening, he asserted in a tweet that Twitter usage is at an all-time high, followed by a post reading: “I just hope the servers don’t melt!”

Despite this fact, many Twitter users have said they’ll flee to other sites over concerns that Musk’s Twitter will invite an influx of misinformation and hate speech, combined with platform changes such as the billionaire’s recent decision to allow any user to become verified with an $8 monthly subscription.

Meanwhile, the tumult at Twitter has spooked advertisers too. Concerns over brand safety and suitability have seen major brands including General Motors, Pfizer and Volkswagen pause their ad spend on the platform. Top advertising agency networks and holding companies such as IPG and Havas have advised that all clients temporarily stop advertising on Twitter. Though Musk has been holding widely-publicized talks with top advertisers in efforts to assuage their concerns, his own tweets have pitted advertisers as “activists” trying to hamper free speech.

Without advertisers, Twitter could be in real, long-term trouble. As it stands, advertising accounts for approximately 90% of the platform’s revenue. Even with Musk’s new plans for subscription-based user tiers, revenue stands to take a hit.

Is Mastodon really a ‘viable alternative?’

Mastodon, which on its blog has said it hopes to be a “viable alternative to Twitter,” could prove a veritable opponent to Twitter for users. But for brands, it’s a different story, according to experts.

For one, Mastodon doesn’t allow paid advertising. It’s set up as a decentralized network in which users can develop their own custom servers, which function a bit like semi-private communities of users. Some have compared the platform to Discord. While it promises flexibility and egalitarian, free access to users, brands can’t simply deploy paid content.

More broadly speaking, the infrastructure of the platform isn’t built for advertising or branded content. Mastodon’s decentralized nature means that, as Chris Gulczynski, chief executive of web3 content platform Niche, puts it: “What it lacks is an ecosystem.” Gulczynski believes that the platform is more “tech for sale” than a true social network. “There’s no penetration point for advertisers to get into these chat servers. There’s no ecosystem around these networks, no opportunity for an advertiser to qualify the audience or any natural entry points.”

The sentiment is echoed by other experts such as Eric Dahan, TikTok marketing partner and chief executive of creator marketing agency Open Influence. “Mastodon is a federated platform rather than a social platform. For brands, this means that they have to both identify the communities they want to engage on the platform and then find a way to insert themselves into the conversation organically,” he says. “This is easier said than done, making it harder for brands to scale up their marketing easily.”

And while brands, in theory, could build their own servers or get into user-generated servers and post their own content, experts believe the risk may not be worth the reward. “Brand safety is ... a big concern,” points out Jasmine Enberg, a principal analyst at Insider Intelligence’s eMarketer specializing in social media.

Since Mastodon is a network of decentralized servers, each server can create its own rules and regulations, which are only enforced within the closed bubble of the server. This kind of governance structure would seem to introduce the same brand safety concerns that advertisers are currently worried about on Twitter.

Lack of familiarity isn’t working in its favor

Perhaps more importantly, says Enberg, “Mastodon is an unfamiliar platform, and its reach is still very small compared with established digital platforms.” For Twitter advertisers, who Enberg says “primarily use the platform for upper- to mid-funnel marketing goals and tend to be more risk-averse than performance advertisers focused on sales and conversions,” the appeal just isn’t there. “Any organic posting on the platform would be an experimental play for brands, and not a high priority right now.”

For all of these reasons, experts aren’t confident that brands advertising on Twitter will reallocate ad spend to Mastodon or similar decentralized networks. In today’s climate, says Enberg, they simply can’t afford to do so. “Given the current state of the macroeconomic environment, the pullback from Twitter will either equate to lost ad dollars, or spending will be redirected to platforms with strong performance advertising options like Meta or Google. Advertisers are tightening their digital ad budgets, and every dollar spent needs to be justified.”

In fact, some don’t even think that Mastodon is poised to become a major player for users either. “If Mastadon has been around since 2018 and is just now crossing 1 million [monthly active] users, that means it hasn’t found market fit, and all the recent attention is probably due to good PR,” says Gulczynski. “It’s a passing flare-up for them, unfortunately. If they had a product that could hold a mass audience it would have done so by now. I don’t think they’ll find mass adoption from the average Twitter or Meta user, because the consumer product isn’t sticky enough, the barriers to entry are high and it doesn’t showcase the real consumer benefits of decentralized networks.”

Gulczynski and others believe, however, that the Mastodon migration evidences a larger trend: that both users and advertisers are prioritizing higher-value connections over mass reach. “We see it with all the legacy platforms,” he says. “The move to Mastodon represents an opportunity to fill that need.”

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