Where next for social media?

Social media article WSD

For World Social Media Day, Vanessa Newkirk assesses how far we’ve come and what the future entails in this challenging space.

I consider myself a digital native: I rushed to build a Myspace page and can remember when Facebook first started selling ads.

As for World Social Media Day, which takes place on June 30th, well, that I was less aware about. But the 2021 edition had me reflecting on how things have changed and, more importantly, where they are heading.

Social media today isn’t what it was 15, 10 or even five years ago. It’s moved beyond just a means of “connecting with people we know” to platforms that more broadly impact and influence our lives around everything - from world politics and government policy to cultural movements and finance.

The hashtag has become the prefix for many social movements e.g. #MeToo, exemplifying the power of this medium when it comes to driving influence. It has also created a pressure to regulate, moves that will almost certainly restrict how advertisers can target and what content can be promoted.

Social media today is like a massive entertainment platform. It’s the “modern-day TV”. From food to fashion, lifestyle and comedy, content is served in snackable, bite-sized pieces thanks to algorithms that are designed to anticipate your tastes.

Its role will only get bigger. Already we’ve seen evolution from cable subscriptions to “create your own bundled entertainment package” (SVOD) through the likes of Disney+ and Peacock. I expect that with increased consumer appetite for entertainment, wherever and whenever, combined with the ease and low/no cost of distribution via social media, we will continue to see share of viewership shift to these platforms.

There will be increasing competition amongst creators and creative brands to garner those eyeballs. Social media platforms have always provided a space for people to create but they have also made it easier for you to support your favourite creators as well. Twitter introduced new monetisation models for creators, including SuperFollows, that give extra levels of access and content from your favourite people, while TipJar lets creators earn money directly from their biggest supporters.

All of this content – whether creator, influencer or brand produced – helps keep people awake until 3am at night scrolling on TikTok or Twitter and is monetized by the platforms. There is no such thing as a “free lunch” for consumers to use these platforms after all; ads pay to keep FB and TikTok free to use – although Twitter is also exploring a subscription-based model – so expect to see even more sponsored content across your news feed in the years to come.

Along with content and entertainment comes advertising and commerce. Social media platforms have recognised the power of discovery, influence and commerce mainly through shoppable advertising experiences. Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok are among the major global social platforms rolling out features that enable brands, influencers and consumers to sell more easily and buy their products – sometimes directly from the content (ad).

This means that success metrics for advertisers have changed. Social isn't about garnering likes or "going viral" anymore. Brand campaigns are enriched with premium video and custom content, integrated with influencers and creators and augmented via livestreams and shoppable experiences. This is the new cohesive brand experience and commerce strategy that brands now have to develop.

Recently, I attended a Facebook session entitled “Hello Future Conversations” looking at AR/VR: New Dimensions of Connection, which explored the integration and growth of augmented and virtual reality within social media.

Brand and consumer-designed filters (AR & VR) are already commonplace in social media, augmenting the reality around us in ways that can expand and enhance our experience with brands. We can “try” before we buy (cosmetics, fashion, home furnishings) or we can just create a virtual world experience when we can’t “be” there in person (this is already used in medicine and education.) Last year we all experienced the wonderful world of Zoom and Teams meetings, but the next evolution is holographic. That technology exists today but is yet to be adopted at a mass scale.

At its core, social media remains and will always be a space to connect with others. The challenge for brands is to find a way to create deeper connections with consumers in these spaces through brilliant insights.

While brands may have previously just looked at social media platforms as a high-reach mechanism (and they still are), it’s now important to consider the continued role of the platform within the broader consumer journey – from branding to purchase – and how the “voice” (values and purpose) of your brand on cultural issues and movements connects with your consumers along the way.

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