Social media companies don’t want to be ‘social media’ any more
“Less social media. More Snapchat.”
That is the tagline of Snap’s latest marketing campaign. Launched last Friday, activity includes a TV spot shown during the Grammy Awards, OOH placements in major UK and US cities, a full-page ad in The New York Times and amplifications across Reddit, Meta and YouTube — and seeks to highlight how Snapchat sees itself as less toxic than its competitors.
The extended TV ad accuses other sites of incentivising performativity and fraudulence through users chasing “like” counts. “More likes. Less love,” the spot offers.
Snapchat, according to the company, was built “as an alternative to social media” that was “never designed to amass huge ‘friend’ networks, compete for likes [or] offer an endless scroll of perfectly produced and carefully curated content”.
Almost borrowing a line from a direct competitor, the marketing campaign’s press release states: “[Snapchat] was designed to be a place where you could be real.”
Such a strategy has grown the company to 414m global daily active users and $1.36bn in revenue, according to Snap’s latest results, although it is still not profitable (net loss for Q4 totalled $248.2m). Shares fell over 30% in reaction to the news, although Snap’s share price had shown strong growth during 2023.
Euphemisms for ‘social’
The campaign is not offering a unique message. BeReal, founded in 2020, also targets users weary of the performative nature of social media. Of course, there isn’t much money to be found in users sending daily selfies of real-life mundanities, with the platform now welcoming influencers and brands in a bid to drive revenue.
But the mission has been around for some time to make social media a more positive or “authentic” space.
On The Media Leader Podcast, Paul Peterman, Reddit’s senior managing director, large customer sales, North America, described his company’s product as a “community of communities”.
Peterman explained how Reddit, which was founded in 2005, views itself differently: “If traditional social media is people you know really well talking about things that you may not care that much about, then community is people that maybe you don’t know talking about things you care deeply about.”
TikTok has previously expressed a similar sentiment, with executives uttering the word “community” dozens of times at its For You Summit in October 2023. UK and Ireland general manager Kris Boger has also declined to use the term “social media” to describe TikTok, preferring to think of it as an “entertainment platform”.
“From a media and advertising perspective, that creates an opportunity for us to bring joy into mobile advertising,” he told The Media Leader editor-in-chief Omar Oakes at The Year Ahead 2024 event.
Getting in on the critique
The implication is that social media has a branding problem.
Following years of scandals — including Cambridge Analytica, the suicide of Molly Russell, Francis Haugen’s testimony against Facebook and Instagram and the increasing prevalence of child sexual abuse material — and widespread concern about the mental health impact of social media use, social media companies are distancing themselves from the label.
When US senator Lindsey Graham said “You have blood on your hands. You have a product that’s killing people“, it was clear the term “social media” has long had negative connotations.
What is new is that social media companies themselves are now joining in the critique by targeting their competitors as being “the problem”.
Words versus actions
As each social app or site has sought to compete for attention, they have become similar by copying each other’s features.
Snapchat’s core feature may be sending selfies and chats to friends, but it also launched a TikTok- and Instagram Reels-esque feature, Spotlight, in November 2020. To say the app was “never designed […] to offer an endless scroll of perfectly produced and carefully curated content” could come across as disingenuous.
Social media companies can say they provide a positive and trustworthy digital environment, but it is much harder to create one in practice. They have long been accused of failing to put their money where their mouth is on issues such as child safety.
Whether or not this has impacted advertisers’ desire to spend on their platforms is more of an open question. Ad revenue on Elon Musk-owned X (formerly Twitter) has nosedived since he bought the company and gutted its trust and safety team. On the other hand, Meta just had an extraordinarily impressive quarter, growing total ad revenue by 23.8% even as CEO Mark Zuckerberg was getting lambasted by US lawmakers for creating a harmful online space.
Overall, social media adspend in the UK has increased from £744m in 2014 to a forecast £8.15bn in 2024, according to figures from the Advertising Association and Warc, amounting to a projected 21.3% share of total adspend this year.
Agency attendees at November’s Conscious Thinking Live event in London expressed difficulty in trying to convince brands against advertising on social media platforms that have struggled with instituting online safety policies.
One agency buyer explained to The Media Leader how some brands’ executives have preferences for spending on social media platforms, despite being offered evidence showing certain social environments are not brand safe nor effective at fulfilling key performance indicators. “At the end of the day, if a client wants to advertise on a platform, we will buy it for them,” admitted one attendee.
There is room for reconsideration, however. Richard Kirk, chief strategy officer at WPP agency EssenceMediacom, said on The Media Leader Podcast recently: “The trend has been to grow spend in environments like the social feed and search results, both of which are excellent channels for various reasons. But if you think about it from the point of view of ‘What is the decision to appear in this place saying about my brand?’ it becomes a little harder to explain.”
All that said, Snap is arguably ahead of the curve. The company came out in support of the Kids Online Safety Act in the US and there is some data to suggest that it offers a more positive media environment for advertisers. According to Kantar Media’s TGI Global Quick View 2024 report, Snapchat users are 54% more likely than the average social media user to like or follow brands and celebrities, compared with 41% for TikTok and just 18% for Facebook.
Marketing campaigns and new terminology may be effective at adapting to negative press (see Facebook’s rebrand to Meta for one such example), but companies simply saying they aren’t “social media” when they provide a social, digital, mediated experience amounts mostly to noise. The focus must instead be on getting their houses in order.