I must admit at the outset that I am new to social media, having been raised on a diet of traditional media as staples during my entire long career in advertising in India. That said, I have learnt a few things about the digital medium during a few freelance writing assignments from old Ogilvy colleagues some years ago, and have observed plenty in the past three to five years that I have been on social media myself. My presence on social media is limited to LinkedIn and Twitter, though, and mostly to sharing my blog posts.
The idea for this piece was triggered by an article of Scott Galloway, professor of Marketing at NYU Stern School of Business that I happened to see and comment on, on LinkedIn, in which he shared his thoughts about Elon Musk acquiring a significant 9.2% stake in Twitter and whether Twitter should shift to a subscription-based model in order to improve its financial performance and to make the social network more useful for serious users. In my comment, I said I don’t think shifting to subscriptions alone will solve Twitter’s problems. Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc are not based on subscriptions, yet they don’t seem to have Twitter’s problem of not being able to raise enough advertising revenue or generate as much profits. I couldn’t find anything on Twitter’s annual earnings for 2021 when I searched online (probably due to mischief by Google), but the company missed earnings estimates for Q4 of 2021 according to this CNBC article, yet announced a US $ 4 billion share buyback. Facebook is reported to be facing trouble dealing with Apple’s new privacy feature.
Twitter is reported to be trying something called Twitter Blue as a premium, subscription-based account, but I am not sure how far they have progressed on it. If they need to have both subscription as well as advertising-based models, that too is possible. However, the problem isn’t there. It’s in what I have been writing about for a while now on my blog, that social media advertising in its current form doesn’t help to build brands. Perhaps advertisers are slowly coming around to accepting that, and have reduced their digital marketing budgets. Perhaps the Twitter algos are not as effective as the ones on Facebook or Instagram.
From what I have observed on Twitter, it is a medium to be able to share your thoughts, views, ideas and opinions on issues that matter and are being discussed on the platform. In that sense, I find Twitter to serve content that is much more newsy and current than say, LinkedIn. Because of the kind of people who are on Twitter, from political leaders and corporate honchos to media and communications folks, economists and industry bodies, publications, channels and celebrities, and because it is a public communications platform, much more than, say, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn are, the main aim seems to be to follow people, and in the process grow your own following, as it were!
This is where the big mismatch is. The platform is one for sharing your opinions, but the method of engagement is to follow people. Instead, if Twitter followed a format like any publication or channel that is based on news and views, they would attract people based on their interests. It would automatically follow that people are on Twitter to air their views, news and opinions, on subjects or areas of interest to them, and in the process would interact with other people with similar interests and exchange thoughts or ideas. On LinkedIn, this problem is taken care of, by having to indicate your industry when joining and setting up your profile. Therefore, most posts served to you are based on your specific industry, and in addition, you get to see and interact with posts from your connections, even if they are from a different field.
With what I am suggesting, the primary mode of engagement on Twitter becomes news and updates on subjects of interest, and following people becomes the secondary mode of engagement. This leads to the next change that Twitter ought to consider. If areas of interest are what Tweeple follow, then Twitter must also reduce the power and agency of the algos and return more of it to users. This applies equally to all social media platforms, where algos were invested with so much power right from the start in order to follow, track and harvest data on users, based on their interactions, and browsing activity.
This is where the advertising-based model of social media has also gone horribly wrong, in that the platforms devised the algos, the network, the works, and then went to advertisers and said, advertise with us because we have a wealth of data on consumers to offer you. From earnings reports too, it is quite evident that they see users and customers as monetizable daily active users, and nothing more. In the process they also lobbied hard with lawmakers in the US to not be regulated as regular media organizations, which in fact they are, when you consider that they all follow an advertising-led business model.
I don’t use social media very much, like I said, except to share my blog posts, see a few posts that are on my home page, comment, like or share maybe and then exit. Even in that short space of time, I notice how certain kinds of posts, or posts from certain people are constantly being pushed into my LinkedIn or Twitter feed. This is not just the work of algos, I suspect mischief by unprofessional PR agency idiot bosses who have been running amuck all over media and my life and work and cannot and will not leave me alone. And months may go by when I see no posts at all from some other people who I also follow, on Twitter and LinkedIn. I have written before on my blog on how I discovered fake posts, fake accounts and comments on LinkedIn; I have also seen how certain posts that I have commented on, vanish like Houdini!
The fact that people engage with media for news, views and connections with people, and not for advertising, should hold true for social media as well. In which case, advertising for a social media platform must take into account the characteristics and peculiarities of that particular network. Twitter is perhaps the fastest way to create awareness in the social media space, the way we have known TV to work in old media. Twitter also offers the highest topicality of news and views being shared. If advertisers and advertising agencies understood this better, they would create communication that leverages this aspect of Twitter, instead of creating a generic social media campaign and merely adapting it for different platforms.
This is also the reason I would not recommend Twitter as an advertising medium to most clients, especially in premium and luxury segments. Instead, I would recommend it as a PR medium, primarily to tap into the newsy, topical aspect of Twitter. This way, companies share corporate news, product launch announcements, people movements, events, etc. on Twitter in a way that the medium is best suited for. However, PR is meant to be unpaid editorial coverage, therefore Twitter will have to devise a business account format for companies on an annual subscription basis, through which companies can share corporate and brand related news posts. Perhaps, Twitter already has a Twitter for Business account, in which case they need to promote it better among their corporate clients.
In my usage of Twitter, I also notice attempts to serve me posts supposedly based on my likes, which usually turn out to be nonsense. Then, suggestions on who to follow, who people I am following follow, etc. This kind of intrusive nonsense, created by algos must stop. This craze for growing one’s following has also led to undesirable consequences such as social media influencers, youngsters who have become social media sensations and are then courted and paid by companies to sell and endorse their products and services. This is still unregulated marketing activity and only recently has there been a recommendation that such social media influencers’ posts ought to clearly state that they are being paid for promoting the products in question and that for all practical purposes, it is an advert. I am not sure that is adequate; in my view influencer marketing doesn’t involve social media as such. It is an association between companies and celebrities where they create a new line of products, together and I have written about this on LinkedIn.
If Twitter and other social media networks minimize this mania for growing one’s following, for likes, and for posts going viral, sanity and sense might return to the digital medium. As I have said often, I do not see scope for brand-building just yet through the digital medium. It is a sales funnel at best, which suits advertisers fine I suppose, since they are mostly chasing monthly or quarterly sales targets. And with social media sites now also offering social commerce, where product sales are made through adverts directly, as on Instagram, social media will soon become a distribution channel as well. According to this CNBC article, Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is working on developing e-commerce capabilities.
As I have written before, the brand-building potential of social media lies in its ability to connect one-to-one with customers. It lies in its potential to build and strengthen relationships with consumers, i.e., it can be an effective direct marketing medium. This aspect has not been explored fully yet, and to enable this, one needs to employ the “consumer pull” aspect as opposed to the “push” tactics that social media currently uses. One way, Twitter at least can do this is to allow people to follow companies the way they do on LinkedIn, though in the case of the latter it is for professional and business reasons. People who follow companies might then be asked if they would like to receive communication from them and thus begins a direct marketing relationship. Here, I must warn companies from resorting to bombarding consumers with scores of emails every day, as that just puts customers off and gives direct marketing a bad name.
These are the different directions that social media platforms can take. Be a sales funnel and distribution channel, be a direct-marketing platform building and strengthening relationships with consumers and in the case of Twitter at least, also a PR medium. However, most important, is that social media platforms recognize and acknowledge that they are media companies and governments ought to regulate them as such. Equally important for the medium to grow, develop its own formats, its own language and idiom of communication in advertising and brand communication terms, it must clearly define its user base and profile, and must differentiate itself as a brand.
From what I have observed so far, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest appear to be the most clearly differentiated in their user profile, mode of engagement and what they promise customers. I am not sure Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are there yet, and perhaps they need to reformulate their entire strategy. Google is the behemoth, the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about; it isn’t a social media network, but it’s what makes the net work. And it rakes in the highest advertising revenues. The one controlling all the browsing and transactions on the internet. And Meta is just the latest confabulation to hit the already confused digital sphere.