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Social media isn’t (just) an advertising channel

Social media isn’t (just) an advertising channel

Marketers and agencies see social through the lens of ‘advertising’. But it stops advertisers from being part of the broader conversation around social media’s impact.

It has been a long-term critique of advertising that there is a disparity in thought between marketers and consumers.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of social media. The industry views social media as a low-attention environment. In contrast, societal conversations often revolve around the highly immersive and, some might say, addictive nature of social platforms.

In other words, while society discusses social media’s transformative potential, for good or bad, marketers still question its effectiveness.

Why do these different conversations coexist? It’s the result of the industry’s limited perspective. We increasingly see everything through the lens of “advertising”. This disconnect can have far-reaching consequences. It stops advertisers from being part of the broader conversation around social media’s impact.

Specifically, this must go beyond brand safety. Advertisers have a responsibility to contribute to the discussion regarding the potential pitfalls of these platforms, such as misinformation, polarisation and algorithmic manipulation, and leverage their expertise for the greater good of brands and society.

With this in mind, let’s look at some of the marketing effectiveness disconnects.

From social as a channel to social as a context

Social media is not really an advertising channel at all. It is a space that people increasingly live in. People are working in social, they’re dating in social, they’re using social to buy, communicate and manage their mental and physical health. This means the experiences they have in social are rich, exciting and important to them.

If people are documenting and sharing their most important things in social, then brands must match these rich and powerful experiences.

When advertising looks at buying attention, it sees people’s lives and content as “clutter” to cut through. We must shift our mindset from cutting through clutter to attracting attention.

From broadcast distribution to network effects

So there must be another way to find a successful role in this space. It starts by understanding that social is built on network principles, where success is determined by adding value. If you’re not adding value, you’re polluting the network.

This presents an opportunity for brands willing to shift from thinking about social as an advertising channel to a dynamic context.

The experiences people have in the social space are rich, exciting and powerful. Advertisers can tap into this power if they align their strategies to work with people’s experiences and motivations to create value. In doing so, brands can create a sustainable competitive advantage by continuously enhancing the ways they meet their customers’ needs.

At the same time, when we view brands as being part of a network, we understand that the integrity of the network are not solely the responsibility of a single entity. It is incumbent on all participants within the network to uphold its integrity by consistently adding value.

Value creation becomes the currency that fuels growth, fosters trust and helps form the network’s broader positive impact.

From buying demographics to connecting to motivations

It starts by understanding motivations that play out in social as content and interactions. By delving into the underlying drivers that influence people’s choices and behaviours, marketers can create content that becomes a conversation, a solution or an inspiration.

Whether it’s the pursuit of personal fulfilment, the desire for convenience or the need for social connection, tailoring content (including ads) to address these motivations not only attracts attention but also fosters a sense of relatability and authenticity.

Targeting people’s motivations represents a more equitable approach to delivering content and messaging. Unlike traditional demographic-based targeting, which can perpetuate stereotypes and inadvertently discriminate against certain groups, understanding and appealing to motivations aligns marketing strategies with the diverse needs of individuals.

From reach or relevance to reach plus relevance

In this transition from demographic-based targeting to focusing on individuals’ interests and behaviours, marketers are able to tap into a combination of high audience reach and relevance. Not only does this allow brands to align their content with what their audience is passionate about, it also acknowledges the critical role of relevancy in driving social sharing.

When content is emotionally, contextually or functionally relevant, users are more inclined to share it with their networks, triggering a cascading effect that fuels the platform’s algorithm. This, in turn, generates high levels of reach and scale.

In an era when relevance is the catalyst for engagement, this type of contextual targeting is as an effective strategy for captivating audiences, fostering connections and sparking the sharing dynamics that amplify brand impact.

Social is not just another advertising channel; it’s a dynamic, connected ecosystem. Success requires brands to think beyond advertising and embrace the many methods of connecting with people.

So, let’s set aside the advertising hat and look for other methods of connection that will help brands thrive in the ever-evolving world of social.

Ric Hayes is group strategy director at SocialChain

Emily McKinley, Media Channel Manager Paid Social, FGH, on 30 Jan 2024
“'understanding motivations that play out in social' is this best done with a social listening tool, are there are any good free listening tools - or alternative methods that could help shape this type of content please?”

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