New forms of social platforms present a new set of challenges for brands – and they can’t afford to duck them

For the best part of a decade, our online social lives have been defined by a handful of giant networks: Facebook, Twitter and (for professional and high-net-worth audiences) LinkedIn. Marketing strategies have therefore focused on capturing attention and driving engagement through these channels. With their mass reach and openness to advertising, they had appeared to make the task of engaging audiences on social media relatively straightforward. But things are changing – and changing fast. As far as marketers are concerned, our social lives are becoming a lot more complicated.

It’s not that the social giants are in decline. Their numbers of active users continue to increase, with 30% of global internet users heading onto Facebook every day. But they no longer define our digital social lives in the way that they once did. The average 16-24-year-old now uses at least five different social platforms each week. And many of the interactions that matter most to them take place on new types of platform, with less obvious roles for brands. This represents a challenge for marketers, but it’s also an important, and very timely, opportunity.

The daily use of mainstream social media is rising at 6% a year – but use of Instant Messaging (IM) platforms is increasing at double that rate. More than half of global internet users are using messaging apps on a daily basis – and this is pushing platforms such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Snapchat and LINE towards the centre of social experiences. Messaging use may lag behind in the US and UK (35% and 39% respectively), but it dominates in emerging and fast-growth markets from Brazil (73%) to Malaysia (77%) and China (69%). And it’s not just IM that is expanding the social media universe. From Instagram to Vine, people are engaging on a far broader range of platforms that reflect their different needs and interests through very different social experiences.

It’s significant that Facebook itself has moved swiftly into these new social spaces: WhatsApp (owned by Facebook since late 2014) and Facebook Messenger are currently the two largest messaging platforms on earth. Facebook owns Instagram as well. The world’s largest social media player recognises that people are no longer satisfied with expressing themselves in just one way, on one type of network.

Look closely at the IM phenomenon and you’ll find a broad range of user experiences from stripped down to content-rich, but all have the same fundamental appeal at their core. IM enables real-time interaction within small, specific groups that can form, break up and re-form endlessly. Conversations are free to fade over time (the importance of which explains the intense debate about just how long Snapchat conversations are stored for). IM is more intimate, more responsive and less permanent. And it reflects more intuitively the way people have traditionally interacted with one another.

 

The return of nuanced private lives

To marketers, the sudden fragmentation of the social media landscape can seem disruptive and surprising. But in the context of human relationships, the shift isn’t really that surprising at all. If anything, it’s the last 10 years that have been abnormal.

In the offline world, there are certain, very specific situations in which being included in a large crowd is an important part of the experience: shopping in a marketplace, watching a football match, engaging in a pilgrimage or, on a smaller scale, enjoying a large dinner with extended family. But these situations are relatively rare. The vast majority of our lives aren’t spent shouting personal messages over the heads of very large crowds of people; they are lived more privately, built on interactions with far smaller groups that we shuffle between according to circumstance and need.

 

Living out more of our life online – but on different terms

The shift towards IM suggests that people want to move more of these offline experiences onto digital platforms; they are just not comfortable moving them onto the likes of Facebook. Messaging apps provide them with opportunities to reflect a more nuanced social reality in the online space. And as those messaging platforms build richer functionality around core messaging, there are more compelling reasons to do so. Users of LINE, which first launched as an emergency response to the Japanese earthquake of 2011, can now play games together, generate and share content, stream music and watch TV – all of which can be


Anjali Puri is Global Head of TNS Qualitative. Anjali is responsible for developing TNS’s qualitative offer, providing clients with cross-cultural insights, and leading new thinking, particularly in the areas of consumer choices, behaviour change and social media.


Zoë Lawrence is Digital Director, TNS Asia Pacific. A member of the APAC digital board, Zoe has been involved in shaping TNS’s thought leadership around the connected consumer since 2010.