Why True Engagement is the future of social media

Social Media
true engagement

For some time now, social media has been immersed in a whirlwind of constant change. Fake news, privacy crisis, polarisation and new digital audiences are just a few threats to the balance of the social ecosystem, something which seemed impossible just a few years ago. Although many thought social media would be a story of constant growth, the truth is its saturation point is fast approaching, and soon there won’t be enough room for everyone, especially not for those not willing to reinvent. 

Social media strategies have been on marketers’ agendas for the past decade. Numbers speak for themselves: according to the CMO Survey, social media expenditure has grown by 4.3 points in the last five years, and expectations are even better for the next five. However, despite being a hugely profitable and key sector —even more so given the current context of superdigitalisation powered by COVID-19— market saturation and the evolution of digital platforms have pushed the social environment further and further away from being a space to truly connect with audiences.

There is an explanation for this: social media is also going through its own particular product lifecycle. We can see this evolution in the relationship between brands’ presence on social media (CMO Survey, 2021) and users’ engagement with those brands (SocialInsider, 2021):

The main takeaway is that, after more than a decade of continuous growth, the sector has reached its maturity stage. Too many brands are competing for users’ attention, while the users themselves have become less and less interested in engaging with them across social spheres. 

The snowball will keep growing until we reach an inflection point, the so-called shake-out, where only differentiated brands will be able to survive decline in user trust. 

At Good Rebels, we know it’s not always easy to spot the warning signs indicating that things are about to change. That’s why we have identified three trends that indicate we might be on the verge of a paradigm shift and need to start understanding and capitalising on social media differently: the commoditisation of likes, the shift towards interruption marketing and the decline in user credibility.

The commoditisation of likes

Digital Marketing Managers, Brand Managers, Social Media Managers, Digital Analysts; Consultants … For too long, everyone in the marketing world has maintained a whopper of a lie when interpreting the real value of  simple metrics, such as likes and clicks. Most reports still measure the impact of social media strategies and digital activations through metrics that have barely evolved over the last ten years. How did we let this happen?

Although no one dares to say it, we have been in the era of the “commoditisation of likes” for quite some time now, in which the results provided by social media platforms have quickly become vanity metrics: metrics that look good on paper but no longer provide clear value to the business —or make little effort to demonstrate they do—.

These metrics might have made sense back in 2010, when we could still talk about native advertising, attraction marketing, social media and authentic relationships with brands, but nowadays they only aggravate the problem. 

Setting objectives is helpful in guiding our strategies, but when objectives are just a number to be added up and the means becomes the end (the so-called perverse incentive), we might forget the real purpose of our strategy. In a similar way, brands have been using empty metrics as KPIs for too long, desperately seeking to measure user engagement or ‘closeness’ to the brand and its products. 

Somehow, this model became distorted when platforms became aware of just how easily they could showcase those results, and thus shifted towards an approach where vanity metrics took the main stage so they could maximise their own profitability. Nowadays, good results in reach or engagement are better explained by looking at media budgets than by the relationship between a brand and its community. And it is no longer so obvious whether that will actually increase your sales. 

Interruption marketing: followers are no longer relevant

From time to time, one of our clients still asks us how to increase the number of followers on their social platforms, and every time our answer is clear and forceful: the concept of community doesn’t really exist anymore. 

The competition between brands is endless, but as the amount of content they create grows rapidly, users’ attention remains limited.  This mismatch has forced platforms to further prioritise which content should be shown by their algorithms: that of advertisers or that which users actually follow. 

In the battle for reach, the clear winners have obviously been those advertisers with higher investments. They are the ones feeding the system and thus sustaining social media platforms, although the truth is that, to some extent, we are all guilty.  In contrast, organic reach is in the doldrums. For example, on Facebook, it is estimated that the posts a brand makes on its wall only reach 5.20% of its followers. Thus, it becomes clear that increasing our “community” nowadays is costly and inefficient, and it’s not easy to justify its ROI.

A higher volume of advertising content inevitably leads to disengagement with users (although some may argue this is only true in the case of bad advertising). It’s hard for users to retain messages, build trust or organically engage with a brand. 

Long gone are the days when activating social platforms was an Inbound Marketing strategy, aimed at generating a loyal community with a content strategy that promoted our services and brand messages only occasionally.  But this was already experienced by the .coms almost two decades ago with the subsequent rise of Search Engine Marketing. 

All of these interruption strategies are accelerating the inevitable attrition of social channels and the loss of trust in brand produced content. 

The loss of credibility affects both brands and third-parties

Digital media has always been somehow distant from users. Although they allow brands to reach a massive audience, the relationship with customers is never as deep as in more traditional touchpoints, such as retail shops. A legit trade-off, but something we must keep in mind when working in the digital channel. 

In this regard, content marketing strategies have come into play to help build brands, although not always from brands’ social media profiles but from branded content. For years, continuous, relevant content creation has been key to building long-term trust with users —one of the main assets of social media. Nowadays, however, the channel is reaching its saturation point and credibility is increasingly scarce, whether these strategies are carried out through own or third-party content. 

The same is true for influencer marketing, where excessive brand presence has led to a decrease in engagement. When an individual conveys too many brand messages, users tend to perceive them as repetitive or dishonest, and often end up ignoring them or actively rejecting them. 

Perverse incentives, interruption marketing, loss of credibility… In the context of superdigitalisation and the rise of digital connections, it seems as if brands were in a rush to activate their social media strategies, but the truth is many have forgotten the true purpose of the social channel. However, the global pandemic might be a turning point, an opportunity to reconnect with the end user and put them in the center of our social media strategies, once and for all. 

COVID-19 and new digital users

Before the pandemic, back at the end of 2018, a drop in the average engagement rate of brands became visible. At the same time, the percentage of the population using social networks decreased for the first time. Perhaps these were the first signs of saturation that we wanted to ignore. Until, unexpectedly in 2020, these metrics rebounded as a result of the pandemic, which would condition the next steps of digitalisation.

This is why, in order to understand what motivates users to interact with brands on social media, we must first ask ourselves: what led them to reconnect with brands on the social channel during the COVID-19 pandemic? These learnings will be crucial in challenging the attrition curve and trying to reinvent the value offered to the end user. 

Let’s first take a look at Twitch and TikTok, the two platforms that boomed during the pandemic and that are very different from Facebook’s or Instagram’s public wall. 

With TikTok, active sharing is making a comeback. This platform has debunked the myth that digital consumption tended to be passive: users were just bored with existing content. To share content on TikTok, users have to create their own content, thus generating active micro-communities. What’s the main insight? Users are eager to interact, it was brands who were not able to engage them. 

In the case of Twitch, we must first understand its differences with other streaming platforms such as IG Live or Youtube. Twitch is based on a system of subscription, reward and collaboration aimed at making users feel part of a community. In fact, in order to feel closer to Twitchers, followers often pay creators to access premium, exclusive content. This trend is also present in platforms like Patreon, thus highlighting that users are seeking a human relationship that allows them to build their own real communities. 

In this line, back in February 2020 HBR published an article about the Era of Antisocial Social Media, in which Sara Wilson claimed users were tired of creating isolated identities online: what they really wanted was to create real connections that went beyond likes. This is how the concept of digital campfire was born: a term to designate spaces for real connection based on private spaces, micro-communities and common experiences. 

Welcome to the era of True Engagement 

In the end, it turns out the solution was way more obvious than it seemed: the value of social media is still in its social component. Although we may have forgotten the meaning the term “social” used to have before Twitter and Facebook capitalized on it, the answer has always been in front of us, and users keep demanding it even if the system cannot provide it anymore. 

If you have come this far, you would agree with us that the current erosion of social media calls for an urgent need to refocus most of our current strategies. The pandemic has shaped new digital consumption habits and changed customers’ expectations with regards to both the user experience and the relationship with brands. But it has also highlighted the need to go back to basics and don’t forget our origins. 

For some time now, at Good Rebels we have been arguing that engagement is dead. It is time to talk about True Engagement and create authentic connections with users. 

Social media allows us to meet objectives we can also meet through other channels, such as awareness, consideration and acquisition.  But the unique, differentiating feature of social media is that it allows us to build bi-directional conversations, co-create content together with our stakeholders and create spaces for trust and joint learning. And if we make good use of it, its value will always be priceless for any marketing department. 

This is why, with the objective of leading change, we have developed a new social media methodology that will put the focus of all our strategies on True Engagement. In order to generate purposeful, unforgettable, shared experiences we will need to go back to the essence of social media and think beyond clicks and likes. This will allow us to reach our end users, who do indeed act, participate, comment, ask, explore, chat, seek human relationships and engage with brands and their products. 

Although we will need to rethink our dashboards to measure these kinds of interactions, as well as to get rid of elements that no longer bring value to us or our clients, these new methodology will allow you to develop unforgettable experiences on social media. 

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