The first installment in Marketing Land’s series looking at how paid social marketing is evolving as user growth slows and social commerce explodes.
At this year’s F8 Developer’s Conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood on stage and announced, “The future is private.” It was a bold statement coming from the guy who has spent the past eighteen months tackling a firestorm of criticism over misusing customer data and information. Still, the intent – that Facebook is shifting its focus to private, messaging platforms – put a spotlight on a central issue social media marketers are facing: the social media landscape is changing dramatically and marketers must adapt to keep pace with evolving ad platforms.
Change isn’t coming only to Facebook. Overall social media use appears to be flattening. Bidding strategies are being realigned to fit new automated systems. And social commerce is moving to an entirely new level, with platforms building out new on-platform purchasing capabilities while brands and influencers form even tighter bonds.
It’s a whole new world for social media marketers, and keeping up with the rate of change can be exhausting. As your social media marketing resource, we want to offer more than simply reporting on the day-to-day changes. That’s why we’re introducing this series devoted to the new era of social. In the coming weeks we’ll do our best to provide a roadmap of sorts — as the roads are being built.
Where marketers fit within the “digital living room”
On more than one occasion, Mark Zuckerberg has said Facebook’s goal is to become less of a social feed and more of a “digital living room” where users gather in private channels. But, in terms of social ROI, privacy isn’t necessarily the word marketers should be focused on.
“It feels like we’re edging into a different era, but I’m not sure that it’s tied to the privacy piece,” said Aimclear’s VP of Marketing Strategy Susan Wenograd, “While that’s certainly changing things, I believe there are totally separate effects we are feeling from these platforms maturing, competition becoming much steeper, and the demand consumers have for creative that they can connect with.”
Wenograd said it’s a different world compared to a few years ago when advertisers could run with a half-baked creative idea and still generate results.
“It doesn’t work that way anymore, you have to have a pretty iron-clad marketing direction to get traction quickly so you don’t burn through all of your money,” said Wenograd, “Many brands enter paid social without one and get frustrated when they don’t get immediate returns because they’re unaware of how competitive it actually is versus a couple years ago.”
During her presentation on social ad optimization at SMX Advanced this month, Wenograd repeated these same sentiments — that, in a flooded ad market, the most successful brands will be the ones that can integrate robust paid strategies and prioritize high-quality creative.
“Agencies that can’t strategize their way out of a paper bag will fail, as they should have long ago,” Wenograd told the audience.
Peak social: Looking beyond Facebook
The heightened competition for ad inventory, as mentioned by Wenograd, coupled with the flattening of social media usage means advertisers are not likely to see the outcomes they were able to generate once upon a time.
Multiple reports tracking social media usage during the past year show growth across the social landscape is slowing:
- A March survey from Edison Research found Facebook’s usage overall has dropped from 67% to 61% during the last two years.
- Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends Report showed the number of people logging into social networks on a daily basis is decelerating, with social media usage up only 1% since last year (compared to 6% growth that happened between 2016 and 2017).
- As recently as May, eMarketer estimated that the average amount of time people will spend on Facebook this year will remain unchanged compared to 2018, and will likely drop by a full minute in 2020.
So what does this mean for marketers? In the immediate future, there is no need for drastic changes in strategy. But, advertisers need to consider the long-term implications: that finding and connecting with their audiences will involve going beyond their usual channels.
While Facebook usage is decelerating, Instagram and YouTube both experienced lifts in daily usage, according to the Mary Meeker report. Snapchat reports it reaches 75% of 13 to 34-year-olds in the U.S.
LinkedIn is also focusing on its ad platform. This year, the company’s Campaign Manager underwent a major redesign to deliver an objective-based workflow built for advertisers managing high volume campaigns. Quora is also looking to drive more ad revenue, recently introducing search-like keyword targeting, Auction Insights and retargeting capabilities for brands on the platform.
And then there’s Reddit, a social network that has long been avoided by advertisers because of its “wild west” reputation. But in March of this year, Reddit was the sixth most visited website in the U.S. according to Alexa. Last year, the company overhauled its entire website to be more enticing for brands and has steadily rolled out new ad products.
Messaging is the new medium
The shift to messaging platforms means marketers will have to pay more attention to ad opportunities on apps like Messenger, WhatsApp and Snapchat.
“With the rise of messaging over pubic social media, brands should be thinking about how to drive direct, one-to-one relationships with customers through the channels that will enable them to keep connecting with the express consent of their customers,” said Conversocial Founder and CEO Joshua March.
March notes how, not too long ago, brands were focused on building mobile apps to enable direct connections with their customers. Companies spent millions of dollars on mobile app initiatives only to find customers were not interested in downloading or using the app.
“With messaging, brands can deliver interactive functionality to every single customer without needing to download anything,” said March.
Facebook is doing all it can to assist advertisers in this area with its plan to integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger. The apps will remain as stand-alone networks, but be built on a unified underlying message infrastructure with interoperability that allows users to send and receive messages between platforms.
“Messaging channels give you a way to proactively market to the consumers that have opted-in on that platform – Messenger, WhatsApp, etc. – and it helps companies sustain the customer lifecycle,” said March.
Social commerce gaining more traction
If messaging is the new medium, social commerce is the breakout star of it all. Social platforms are building out new e-commerce features, aiming to keep consumers in the app throughout the entire customer journey from product discovery to purchase.
“2019 could, in many ways, be the breakthrough year for social commerce, when we finally start to see it coming into its full potential,” said Nyha Shree, CMO at Jumper.ai, “While platform native features will offer enhanced discovery and reduced friction, brands need to simultaneously think of the customer experience. This will define how well their social commerce strategies convert discovery into purchases and purchased into loyalty.”
And it’s not just about product discovery and purchase capabilities. Shree is quick to point out the need for advertisers to distinguish their brands by offering unique customer experiences via social channels.
“Brands like Disney and Threads [an e-commerce fashion company] are already pioneering this by utilizing conversational chatbots in the checkout process, mimicking a sales associate and helping to maintain brand personality,” said Shree.
Facebook’s foray into on-platform purchasing has been limited to Marketplace, but Instagram is making strides with its new Checkout feature that offers in-app purchasing capabilities. The platform first rolled it out for a limited group of brands, and has since expanded Checkout to a number of influencers on the app who work with the brands.
Snapchat recently launched in-app stores for five of its Official Accounts, including Kyle Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics account and Kim Kardashian West’s KKW Beauty account.
Pinterest is also aiming to position itself as a social commerce leader. Prior to going public this year, the company recruited Walmart’s CTO to be its head of engineering, and has been gradually rolling out e-commerce initiatives.
Machine learning-powered campaign optimization
Big changes are taking place at the micro-level of campaign management as well, with new campaign management processes and a wider selection of social ad formats — particularly around Story ads on Facebook.
This year, Facebook announced it was transitioning advertisers to a campaign budget optimization process that removes the ability to control budgets at the ad set level. (Starting in September, Facebook will migrate new and existing ad campaigns to its automated campaign budget allocation system that optimizes a campaign’s budget across the advertiser’s ad sets.)
“At first, I was happy to hear it, but I’m less excited now that I’ve seen it firsthand,” said Wenograd, “I find it frequently doesn’t optimize to the highest-performer, forcing us to create single ad-set campaign set ups.”
Wenograd said she has seen e-commerce clients have instances where Facebook’s automated budget optimization feature gives the spend to the lowest-cost per purchase, but not the best ROAS. She believes the platform has a way to go before she would recommend it as a default for advertisers.
“I truly feel they should have left it an option you could use or not use – I don’t see this as a benefit to advertisers the way it currently performs,” said Wenograd.
Wenograd’s team is a big believer that advertisers must consider the entire customer journey when determining a bidding model – an effort that takes a lot of time and a lot of data to decipher.
“We don’t have the data like we do in paid search to make purely match-based decisions,” said Wenograd about paid social strategies, “There are algorithmic decisions that happen behind the curtain that affect what we’re shown, and bidding plays a part in that. Often we won’t know what part until we try something other than auto-bid, and the results vary greatly.”
Wenograd said marketers are in the nascent stages of reevaluating how they make bidding decisions compared to what they’ve done in the past.
“The platforms only focus on their slice of the pie, so what seems logical to bid for the results you want in the next 24-hours may differ from what you’d bid if you’re going for a longer-term brand awareness,” said Wenograd.
Investing in long-term results
What do these ad platform modifications mean for social media marketers in terms of ROI? Brands will be forced to take a more comprehensive view of their social ad strategy now that paid social has moved far beyond one-off campaigns that promise short-term results.
As Wenograd made clear from the SMX Advanced stage, if brands want to thrive in this new era of social advertising, they will have to recognize conversions as only one piece of the puzzle and, instead, take a big-picture view by building qualified audiences via cross-channel data and high-quality content.