Shifts in Social Media Behaviors: What’s Next?

By Katherine McIlwain

It’s been 14 years since Facebook burst onto the internet scene, forever changing the way we connect online – and, consequently, the way brands promote themselves and their offerings. But what’s next for social media platforms (and social media marketing) as consumers grow wiser to the ways in which social media impacts their brains, their opinions, and their privacy?  

In the past two weeks, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle has dominated news headlines. Naturally, Facebook users are spooked by the realization that private data may have been made available to a third party with ulterior motives. It’s been an awakening for many once-complacent Facebook users who are beginning to understand just how much of their data they surrender on a daily basis. Every post, every click, every shortcut taken by logging into an app via Facebook – tracked, recorded, and potentially used to target them in the future.

While it’s still too early to tell the extent to which the Cambridge Analytica scandal will impact Facebook’s broad user base, the #DeleteFacebook movement is gaining momentum as more and more consumers seek understanding and regulation of how Facebook profits from their data. But there’s another force at play: active monthly Facebook users dropped by 700,000 in the previous quarter—before news of the Cambridge Analytica debacle ever broke.

 

So why this mysterious shift away from a platform whose growth once seemed unstoppable?

In an age where smartphones are practically an extra limb and attention feels perpetually stretched thin, it may have to do with the fact that many consumers are making an effort to be more mindful about how they spend their time on social media.

Our brains are wired to be drawn to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the rest. Social media has significant impacts on the social reward systems of the brain – every notification we see, every “like” that appears on our lock screen, every new message we receive, administers a shot of the neurochemical dopamine, keeping us coming back to post, comment, and “like” even more. The unpredictability is key: we can’t be sure that all our online activity will garner likes (and we don’t know when, or from whom), which intensifies the power of the reward. So when your best friend says she’s “addicted to Instagram,” it might not be much of an exaggeration.

Yet, in this era rife with digital distractions, many consumers are simply growing weary of the toll they feel social media has taken on their mood, their relationships, and their concentration. According to Digiday, over a third of internet users have taken some sort of break from online activity in the past year. (Ironically, tips for a #DigitalDetox abound on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.)


What’s the impact for social platforms?

Of course, this isn’t good news for social platforms on a never-ending quest to capture and keep our attention – because the more time we spend scrolling, posting, and liking, the more valuable their advertising space becomes. Despite a loss in overall monthly users, Facebook’s advertising revenue increased 49% in 2017 as advertisers seek ways to reach the one billion people who are active on the site every month. Monthly Twitter users in the US have fallen by one million and user growth rates on Snapchat and Pinterest are showing signs of slowing, yet each of these platforms continues to bring in millions upon millions in advertising revenue every year.

Even as focus on ad dollars remains, there are some indications that these platforms are responding to shifting media behaviors. Many of these changes are driven by user experience (Better autoplay settings for video in feed! Shoppable Instagrams! More font options for Stories!), while others demonstrate a broader attempt to “get back to their roots.” In January of this year, Mark Zuckerberg announced a new change in the News Feed algorithm, citing recent feedback from the community that public content (read: paid content from brands, news articles, etc.) were “crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.” Algorithmic changes will instead prioritize content from friends and family, serving us posts that Facebook predicts we’ll be more likely to interact with.

Bad for brands shelling out money to promote Facebook ads? Yep. Their ads likely aren’t reaching as many eyeballs as they did last December. But will it be enough to galvanize Facebook’s user base and combat attrition? It’s hard to say. We’re at an interesting inflection point in the history of social media, as platforms attempt to attain and retain our attention, and consumers make a more concerted effort to be thoughtful about their usage of those platforms.

 

How should marketers react?

As these shifts continue, brands need to be more thoughtful than ever about how they promote themselves on social platforms. In this digital day and age, social media trends are cultural trends: they tell us something bigger about the state of the world and how consumers respond to it. As a result, these changing patterns merit as much consideration as the other macrotrends we might use to guide our strategies.

Our advice for marketers? Just as consumers are becoming more mindful of how they engage with social, brands should be similarly discerning about the platforms they choose to partner with. As always, don’t pursue “social for the sake of social”: focus on smart social content that works hard for your brand, and distribute it on the platforms that make the most sense for your business goals and communications objectives. Pay attention to which platforms are attentive to user feedback, since even the best content is only as strong as the platform upon which it lives. And, most of all, be mindful of the psychological forces and trends behind your audience’s changing relationship with social media – it’s a broader indicator of the ways they think, behave, and buy.

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As a senior strategist at VSA, Katherine loves tackling the business problems of brands with complex, multi-faceted portfolios. Since joining the agency i​n 2017​, she has worked with clients such as Arity, Northern Trust, and Hyatt. ​Prior to VSA, ​Katherine’s experience in brand strategy and social content planning at Ogilvy & Mather spanned clients such as Tyson Foods, BP, SC Johnson, CDW, and Grainger. Katherine can be contacted at kmcilwain@vsapartners.com.