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Chris Hogg of Lotame: social media SOS – can advertisers save media plans as platforms rise and fall?

Economic uncertainty has UK advertising growth stuck in single digits, with media spending pulled back by buy-side budget squeezing. Social media has been hit particularly hard, with spend plummeting for the first time since records began in the UK market. More than inflation is at play here: ongoing brand safety concerns have made advertisers wary of social platforms, while Apple’s app tracking transparency changes have stripped their once essential targeting capabilities.

This is just the beginning of social media’s struggles to provide safe and effective advertising platforms. The Online Safety Bill is set to require social media companies to verify the age of all users, paid verification has sent Twitter into a tailspin, while Facebook has been struck with the largest GDPR fine in the history of the regulation. It seems social media is always in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Is social media dying, or transforming into something new?

Anyone who has been on the internet long enough will have lived through many periods where “the end of social media” had been declared. It’s safe to assume that current claims to this effect will also be overstated, but it’s clear that today’s social media landscape is undergoing existential changes.

Chief amongst these is the emergence of TikTok, which has captivated Gen Z audiences and its usage is gradually spreading upwards through age demographics. TikTok has defied the wider advertising slowdown, and its success has caused Meta to replicate its infinite-scroll, vertical video focus with a push for reels on Facebook and Instagram — a move that provoked backlash from core Instagram users concerned that the app was losing its identity.

This evidence is of a wider shift from social networks to social media. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, the distinction is important for understanding Meta’s changing identity. Social networks connect friends, family, and acquaintances and provide community building tools, which powers the detailed social graphs that are rolled into targetable audiences.

Social media, as the name implies, is all about the media. While this media may be produced by people the user knows, the more typical TikTok experience is scrolling through user generated content made by influencers. There’s little actual social networking involved, and with Meta focused on chasing this model, young internet users seeking community are turning to group texts and more focused social platforms such as Reddit and Discord.

As the social element diminishes, the increasingly video-focused advertising experience on social media platforms is starting to resemble TV advertising more than it does traditional social. In fact, TikTok is now often positioned as a way of reaching Gen Z audiences who aren’t active on CTV with the same campaign. And why not? For this generation, for whom smartphones are ubiquitous but big-screen TVs are not, TikTok is television.

Look at Nando’s recent successful foray into TikTok advertising. Its glossy, high-production value video campaign directed by The End of the F***ing World creator Jonathan Entwistle is the sort of big budget effort we would expect of TV and cinema, not social media. It is not surprising, then, that TV and cinema were the other channels targeted for the campaign — TikTok has become the small-screen sidekick for big-screen creative.

Video has changed everything, and old strategies will have to be rewritten to account for social media’s changing place in the media mix. But how can advertisers find the data they need to strategise effectively?

How can social media be incorporated into an omnichannel strategy?

In the post-GDPR, post-App Tracking Transparency, and soon to be post-cookie advertising ecosystem, it can feel like data is both everywhere and nowhere. Social media platforms, brands, publishers, retailers, and just about anyone else with first-party data has been hard at work collating and monetising their owned data assets. But less attention has been put on rebuilding the connective tissue between these isolated pockets of data, leading to the fragmentation issue that keeps advertisers and data technologists up at night.

Though Apple’s tracking restrictions have narrowed the targeting capabilities of social media platforms, their troves of first-party data are still immensely valuable for brands that want to learn more about and reach current and prospective customers. The challenges are ensuring that social media campaigns are reaching an incremental audience to avoid wasted spend, and being able to accurately measure campaign performance and its true ROI compared to other channels.

This is particularly important at a time when advertising budgets are under scrutiny. Waiting for retrospective studies of social media campaigns to determine their value in omnichannel campaigns is too risky; advertisers need to be able to identify unique audiences and determine social media’s appropriate position in the sales funnel and media mix ahead of time. Platform-agnostic identifiers, data platforms, and clean rooms all offer opportunities for audience discovery independent from social media’s black boxes.

Diversification, then, is key. By spreading social media spend across multiple platforms, advertisers can create a social strategy that stays strong if one channel underperforms. Meta and TikTok may take the spotlight, but more specialised platforms such as Pinterest and LinkedIn offer avenues to reach Gen X audiences and B2B prospects respectively. Pinterest, due to its pin board nature, is particularly useful for tapping into consumers in the consideration phase as they seek inspiration for their patio renovation, kids’ room, or refreshed wardrobe.

The course then is not to abandon social media but integrate it into a wider advertising strategy that is diversified across multiple channels, spreading risk and maximising reach. Brands can’t afford a spray and pray approach, so must leverage insights that span all channels to reveal where target audiences reside and achieve incremental reach with minimal overlap.

Chris Hogg is chief revenue officer of data consultancy Lotame.

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