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Social Media Marketing

Social is lost to preachers, drunks and mad dogs. We need another town square


By Nick Lewis, Head of social/content strategy

March 19, 2024 | 8 min read

Social media is becoming less hospitable with every passing day. VCCP’s Nick Lewis believes normal people are leaving for smaller, more intimate spaces, leaving brands alone with the cursed remnants.

A small barking dog

Social media has long been dubbed the proverbial town square, a pseudo-public space for you to express yourself, engage in civic discourse and flog your wares to passers-by.

Initially, we flocked to these community spaces. You knew what you were going to come across, see your mates, catch the latest ‘local’ news. But then the social feeds expanded, and the platforms shifted to be less about who you know and more about what you might like or even, in some cases, hate *more on that later*.

The game is somewhat up. Years later, we’re moving our conversations away from the town square to our favorite local pubs - cozier, somewhat quieter enclaves truly catering to your interests. And if we push the town square analogy further, our new destinations are away from the high street, which is rightly causing anxiety among marketers.

How do I connect with my target audience if I’m not allowed in?

Cannes Lions last year released its Communities Report, their State of Creativity study highlighting that 65% of brands were planning to increase their investment into community this year. It’s a long shot from the large investment we’ve seen in social since Facebook launched 20 years ago with a humble goal to connect students before growing to “help you connect and share with the people in your life” and then a place for the whole planet to come together. Then it became Meta as it and other legacy social platforms moved away from this simple, almost idealist early ambition. Suddenly, your feed shifted towards more monetizable content intended to keep you scrolling for longer.

And now? The town square has been left to the street preachers, drunken brawlers, and mad dogs barking at their own reflection. Remember Twitter? Now, the toxicity of platforms and the partisan political environment isn’t exactly turning people off social media; it’s moving them into quieter enclaves of interest. A cozy corner to whittle away the time. They are finding their crew and coalescing around what they love.

Snap’s recent repositioning of Snapchat, moving the brand away from social media to innovative communications tools, is a response to this. ‘Less Social Media, More Snapchat’ is a provocative statement and a landmark moment that really captures a broader feeling among social media users. They’ve seen their feeds change considerably, and many miss what came before.

The TikTokification of everything is apparent, but while the legacy social platforms are pivoting in this way, TikTok has never tried to be anything other than vertical TV programmed by you. And that’s an enjoyable, weird and wonderful experience for the most part. A swipe-up has replaced the flicking of remotes, from MTV Cribs to Friends reruns and Top Gear adventures; a lot of what we’re watching today isn’t entirely different from the early 2000s linear experience. Now, brands are afforded an opportunity to be the ad-break in that experience, but more excitingly, they are a channel in their own right to entertain the masses.

But while TikTok replaces TV channel surfing, we do still want to connect. And it isn’t scratching that itch to reach family, friends, and culture more broadly. We still want to be in the supporters club, the fanzine, the small bar with the up-and-coming band. We’re following creators as they move to new venues. One such new venue is ‘Metalabel’; a space for releasing, selling and exhibiting creative work and is built by the co-founders of Kickstarter, Etsy and others who were behind a number of innovative tools from the last 10 years. Metalabel presents a vision for a new model for creative work that tackles the anxiety creatives face in finding their audience.

For the artists and makers, they’ve realized for their art to win, they need to build deeper relationships not only mass broadcast - much like the old school record labels of before who had to take a DIY approach to fan building. It’s too tiresome today to play the algorithm game, and it’s too distracting to be a content marketer first and an artist second. And without paid media, who is seeing it anyway? The value of a community member is increasing; commercially, their loyalty results in more purchases, and their advocacy spreads awareness. It’s better to speak to the few who really care and build your own tribe than churn away in the ether.

As the artists, comedians, and podcasters shift, we do too. WhatsApp, Telegram, Discord, Twitch streams, gaming worlds, Facebook Groups, Substack, Patreons, and even OnlyFans. Places largely free of advertising, and ultimately, we’re willing to pay to keep it that way.

Advertisers will miss the town square, even a wild one

This is creating a new frontier for marketing departments and a mild sense of panic - what’s our community proposition, how do we build our own community, and which communities are right for us?

While passion brands, lifestyle companies, and entertainment entities build in the new frontier of community, some digital, some traditional - for many of us working with service providers, FMCG or QSR, this provides a new opportunity to get back to creating genuine value with our marketing. Unifying the PR, CRM, and sponsorship departments - it all connects to ensure more meaningful experiences that enable people to opt in and sign up. Or simply, we take our messaging in conscious ways to where relevant communities are and, hopefully, improve their experience. We’re almost the subsidiser of their entry price. We should be into that.

But what does this mean for our pages, feeds, and organic social? Well, that 10-hour approval process for the meme that might cut through is probably not worth the effort.

So where do we go?

Fewer, bigger, better. Paid, Sure. Look at ELF Cosmetics making whole cinematic universes, look to Apple’s extended YouTube films, and Nike’s fitness how-to’s. Genuine content that people want, that’s a bigger budget and more ambitious, but designed for the linear social experience we’re now accustomed to.

Beyond this, we can talk to the Gymshark models of community-led brands and the Peloton fitness support groups rooted in passion. But when it comes to cleaning detergent or cereal bars, do people really want to “be a member”? Maybe not, but it does now start to shift our gaze back toward owned platforms and what we can do with our first-party data.

Innovative newsletter approaches, more compelling brand editorial, or making our .com more useful to our customers. We need to meet our consumers where they are spending time with their community. What are the interests and passions which overlap with your brand and purpose? How can you support them and incentivize them to choose you? The Stanley cup viral madness was born out of a little community on the web with immense power; ‘Mom Bloggers’ kick-started the renewed interest in the brand. And a bit of accidental arson.

So find your pocket, your space of interest, support and champion it; it’s not necessarily an owned space or a town square. Not any more. But why whittle the hours for small impacts when we can champion the communities already making massive changes to how we connect, share and coalesce around the things we love?

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