When social media as we know it first emerged in the early 2000s, several platforms were vying for users. Out of this initial crew, we saw a few channels dominate and prove their longevity, resulting in a relatively stable period during the 2010s. Think Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and WeChat, platforms that now exceed 1 billion users globally, followed by other well-known players like Twitter and Snapchat.
Most of these platforms have a stable user base and a well-established ad offering that make them viable channels for people and brands. People gain access to community or content and brands win access to potential customers.
During the pandemic in 2020, a new social media platform flourished in popularity as a serious contender to the ‘old guard’ channels. The popularity of TikTok opened up opportunities for other social media sites to evolve and capitalise on new user behaviours that are emerging around content and community.
These include interest-based sites that enable users to engage over a specific interest like books (Goodreads), music (Spotify) or video games (Twitch). Content creation platforms have grown beyond TikTok to include Clubhouse, Poparazzi and BeRea. Finally, new message-based networks have flourished. Signal and Viber allow users to create chat groups and share content more privately than competitors Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger.
This re-fragmentation increases the complexity of social media for brands and agencies, and requires fundamentally different strategies when it comes to content, paid media and distribution.
However, both brands and consumers are poised to benefit from the variety and adoption of additional social media platforms. Consumers benefit because they have access to communities that support their interests, whether that’s musicians and artists or cooking and cryptocurrency. For brands, these niche platforms create greater precision on how they reach and engage with their potential consumers, as well as diversifying their marketing efforts to balance short- and long-term effects.
Brands wishing to navigate the new social space first require a deep understanding of their customers, including their interests and the platforms that they prefer. To achieve this level of detail they must have access to first-party data that provides these insights and can be analysed and segmented.
The second is that brands must produce content bespoke for these platforms. Each site has its own characteristics and community – and, within that, its own culture. Adopting these platforms as a brand requires adhering to three key parameters: context (knowing who is on that platform and what they are looking for from the community and from brands); customisation (which formats need to be selected specific to that platform to maximise the value from your investment); and authenticity (creative that looks out of place or ads that feel irrelevant will negatively affect your brand).
The third point is that brands need to distribute their message in ways that are appropriate to that platform; whether it’s through ads, influencers, branded content profiles or publishers. Many of these emerging platforms may have a limited or even ad-free offering, and to ignore them because of it could be at your peril.
The final consideration is measurement. More niche platforms will perform differently from high-reach channels, and we cannot hold them to the same standard. We should leverage holistic analysis when examining performance and impact. For example, investing in a platform where your highest lifetime value (LTV) customers are might have high costs but should be amortised over the lifetime of that cohort.
As important as it is to adjust to this fragmented social space, it is also vitally important for brands to be responsive to further change and for agencies to help navigate unknown territory. For example, more niche platforms can result in a greater polarisation of users, and it may be harmful for brands to appear alongside such content. We should also expect consolidation and be ready to explore what that means in terms of measurement and targeting while seeing some niche sites become more general. Finally, be prepared to see a reversal in adoption and time spent on social media in the post-pandemic era, and look for ways to bridge online and offline experiences. One thing is for sure, social media is an ever-changing ecosystem that offers unparalleled ways of bringing people and brands closer together.