The Gist

  • Social media marketing is evolving. Brands need to keep pace, even with economic challenges and overstretched social teams.
  • Vanity metrics and low ROI won’t hold up for much longer. It’s time for brands to rebalance the role of social media in their marketing strategy.
  • New opportunities are emerging. Brands are exploring the intersection of social commerce and influencer marketing to amplify content and generate revenues. 

While social media is undoubtedly a crucial piece of brand marketing, building a social-media-dependent marketing strategy is akin to building your house on rented land. In the recent past, brands such as Tesla, Lush, Bottega Veneta and pub chain Wetherspoons, all large brands, have claimed to have gone “off” social media. And while that doesn’t quite mark a trend, it’s a timely reminder for all brands to reconsider the role and relevance of social media in their strategy. 

Here’s why.

In many ways, mainstream social media is becoming increasingly noisy, cluttered and distracting. As brand content becomes more performative, audiences seek more authenticity and transparency. In general, there is a higher awareness of issues around personal data — and lower trust in the credibility and accuracy of anything on social media. Creating content that can stand out is more expensive because audiences expect slicker productions. And yet, most content on social has the shelf life of an avocado. 

Walled gardens are making it harder and more expensive for advertisers to access audience data, and organic content is at the mercy of obtuse and unpredictable algorithms, not to mention owners. Brands have less control over negativity, political narratives and regulatory agendas. And AI is making content creation both easier and more difficult. 

That is a lot going on! The challenge, said Meg Casebolt, founder of Love at First Search, is that social media is becoming just too unstable to be the primary marketing strategy, especially for smaller brands. 

But that’s not all. Younger audiences — the largest consumer base for the next several decades — are tuning out of “mainstream” social platforms, preferring instead a more fragmented and private portfolio of social channels and messaging apps. In 2022, while TikTok, Snapchat and Insta made the Top 3, none enjoyed more than 30% of mindshare. 

Gen Z approaches product discovery and brand engagement differently. They don’t want to be marketed and sold to, preferring instead to be involved and participate as brand co-creators, not just passive consumers. This means brands need to create more ad-free, intimate, and community-focused conversations on the various platforms that audiences are on. Super commercial splashes on mainstream social media may just not land. 

Related Article: Why Ecommerce Needs to Evolve for Gen Z

Moving On: Conscious Uncoupling, or an Outright Separation?

No doubt what’s worked in the past is not going to work anymore. But leaving social media would be a knee-jerk reaction. With 90% of the US population on social media, brands cannot “just leave.” In fact, 96% of business leaders say investments in social media continue to be a must. 

Instead, brands, large or small, have to be smart about where and how they spend their time and resources based on consumer behavior, said Jen Spencer, CEO of digital agency SmartBug Media. With an average of 32% of marketing budgets spent on social media, brands are refocusing their social media strategy to adjust for current realities and reengineer why and how they use social media to achieve not just engagement, but also ROI and revenues in a stressed economic environment.

In this context, two of the best opportunities lie in social selling and influencer marketing. Let’s take a closer look.

Related Article: How Social Media Marketing Has Changed This Year

Social Selling 

Most brands see a lot of engagement, but sales are driven by social commerce, visual search and referrals, said Spencer. Lush, a handmade cosmetics company, made the decision to exit social, said Europe-based social media consultant and industry insider Matt Navarra. To leave Meta-owned channels and TikTok would likely have had a significant commercial impact in terms of product discovery, customer service, and general advertising reach and engagement. However, it was a hit the company was willing to take because the move aligns with who it is as a brand and may even strengthen its appeal. 

It’s worth noting, however, that though Lush’s recent campaigns have encouraged customers to “be somewhere else,” the group, which suffered losses of $54 million in FY21, scored a pre-tax profit of $34.8 million in FY 2022. One factor could be its doubling down on digital website and app sales. 

Payment options — not social media icons — line the edges of Lush’s website footer.

Influencer Marketing

Bottega Veneta, an Italian brand specializing in leather handbags and ready-to-wear fashion, may have gone off social media too, but it, like Lush, has doubled down on social media influencer marketing, said Trista Walker, certified customer experience professional (CCXP), president and CEO at creative agency Baldwin & Obenauf, Inc. There are two advantages to this strategy, she said. First, a wide net of influencers does the heavy lifting of keeping up with trends and staying on top of trending channels and platforms, as well as content creation. Second, this creates a layer of brand safety by allowing brands to be one step removed from the platforms directly. “For instance, one of our Fortune 100 clients went dark on Facebook for over a year due to brand safety concerns in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica issue and related concerns,” said Walker.

Social media is here to stay, but with usage fragmenting ever more, brands could explore new ways to leverage influencer marketing, said Navarra. After all, while there are over 128 social media platforms in 2023, not counting private social networks and chat apps, close to 50% of companies report having only between two-to-five people working on social media. 

Gen Z audiences — about 61 million users in the US alone — are spreading themselves across many more than three-to-four platforms at any one time. They are more likely to use multiple smaller, less-known social media channels at various stages of life for various purposes. 

Brands, Navarra suggested, need to make their content super sharable to these multiple platforms. Two opportunities that add a new dimension to influencer and ambassador-led marketing, he suggested, are user-generated content and employee-led content on social media. As AI-created content takes over social feeds, brands could leverage their human side by mobilizing employees and customers themselves to build a meaningful, trusted social media presence. 

On the other hand, Spencer also sees the use of interactive chatbots on social media as an opportunity to create highly personalized experiences. Brands should think about how to align chatbot-powered interactive social experiences at scale, with authentic human (influencer and employee) powered initiatives that drive trust and credibility.

The Hamster Wheel Isn’t Slowing Down

There seems to be no end in sight for the text, audio, video and soon, AR/VR content-creation hamster wheel that social media has become. The number of channels and platforms will increase, usage will fragment more and trends will continue to change faster than any social media team can keep up. 

One smart way to combine the power of influencer marketing with social commerce, said Spencer, is livestreaming sales events with influencers and ambassadors. Perhaps even employees. This is a revenue-focused trend that will grow in 2023. 

A better understanding of how people search and discover products on social media will also help grow social commerce by revealing new opportunities to leverage influencers. It will also be interesting to see if visual product search and social shopping — already a big deal in Asia — will also grow in Western markets, added Navarra.

Social media isn’t dying, and neither is consumer interest in it. Rather than cutting back, investing in a flexible, responsive influencer marketing strategy, combined with the right social selling strategy could be the key to staying relevant in the social media kaleidoscope.