It’s the end of 2022, and the social media business is wild. Twitter competitors are popping up from nowhere, Facebook is out of ideas, and TikTok might get banned in the US. Marketers rely on the platforms to share organic content and use paid promotion. It seems a good time to take stock of where things stand before getting into 2023.
This article is not meant to give advice or predictions. There will be some speculation, but the real purpose is to act as a time capsule. We could be at an inflection point, and I want a chance to spell out my thinking at this moment so I can look back to see what I got right, what I got wrong, and what I missed.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room…
When I started working on this article, Elon Musk was running a poll asking whether he should step down as head of Twitter. He went on to lose the vote and announced he is looking for a replacement. It is hard to tell if he will hand over control or if this is another act in the Twitter show. Musk has been actively cultivating drama to drive usage. While entertaining, it is hard to imagine this can continue indefinitely.
Going through a play-by-play of Twitter drama from the last two months is impossible. Since Musk took over the platform, it has been a roller coaster of mismanagement, bigotry, and theatrics, where decisions are made and reversed in mere hours. To sum things up in brief: everyone other than dedicated Musk fans are unhappy with the platform’s trajectory.
While it is tough to get a reliable picture of how things are going on inside Twitter, we know that advertising on the platform has dropped. Musk has also complained that there is a massive hole in the balance sheet, one that Twitter Blue subscriptions seem unlikely to patch. How long is Elon willing to fund the company out of his own pocket?
Tesla has also become a social media company by proxy. Musk is the CEO of both companies (for now), so when he makes an ass of himself by being transphobic, propagating conspiracies, and associating with right-wing shitheads, he is damaging both companies’ brands. Brands are not as precious and fragile as some think, but this man is having a go at it! Twitter is a much smaller company than Tesla but has an oversized cultural impact, meaning Tesla’s image is harmed because of Musk’s antics.
Twitter is also tied to Tesla via Elon’s bank account – as Twitter loses money, he needs to sell Tesla stocks, which means public perception of Twitter will impact Tesla’s share price. Overall, Tesla’s value will be down about 70% in 2022.
Overall, I think there are three possible outcomes for Twitter by this time next year, each of which is about equally likely:
- Twitter still exists in roughly its current form, but everything about it is slightly worse
- Twitter functionally becomes a subscription service, where most of the remaining active users are Elon fanboys
- Twitter no longer exists, or it does not meaningfully resemble pre-2022 Twitter
These are intentionally vague because I have no clue what will happen next.
Metaverse Social Isn’t Happening
Speaking of stock flops, Meta has dropped 65% this year. Were it not for the dramafest over at Twitter, we would be discussing the future of Facebook, Instagram, and “the metaverse.”
Look at this Google trends data for the term “metaverse.”
Search volume is now under 20% of the peak in early 2022. If there was a time for the metaverse to “catch on,” it was exactly a year ago. It didn’t happen, so now what?
One thing I want to admit: Zuckerberg is partially correct. The age of social media is in decline, and internet privacy is a growing concern. A company like Meta must find a new strategy to continue to grow.
I don’t know what the direction should be, but the metaverse is not it. “Horizon Worlds,” Meta’s flagship product, is hemorrhaging players from its tiny user base.
I need a moment to roundhouse dunk on the web3/crypto/NFT crowd. You lost. The skeptics were right – there are no practical applications for these technologies, the mainstream is not accepting them, and there are plenty of scams. Public trust in these technologies will likely be further eroded after the FTX scandal. I understand these technologies are only tangentially related, but does the average person know that?
Zuckerberg has been so distracted trying to make Web3 happen that Facebook has done nothing interesting for years. I personally despise the website, so I don’t use it, but it seems I’m not alone. The daily usage time for Americans is slipping. Worldwide growth in monthly active users has stalled at about 2.9 billion. Obviously, that number is crazy – few companies can claim a user base of almost 3 billion – but the trends here look bad.
Instagram has had several rounds of drama of its own. The app is going through a mid-life crisis, as it seems worried about continuing to attract youth to the platform. Instagram’s TikTokification has backfired, with several high-profile influencers criticizing the changes to the social network. This article from the Atlantic does an excellent job of summarizing the problems.
Social Media Explosion
This weakness in existing social media platforms has created an opportunity for new companies to pop up. Mastodon, Post, and Hive seem to have sprung up overnight, and Spill is aiming to launch in early 2023. While it is easy to forget, there was also a separate batch of social networks started by conservatives in the last couple of years, such as Truth and Parler.
I could run down a list of features for each platform, but I don’t think there is a point. All offer some combination of text, image, audio, and video posts that are served in a Twitter-like feed. The main distinction seems to be the approach to moderation. Where is the innovation?
Contrast that with TikTok. I’m not sure when these features were introduced, but by the time I learned about the platform in 2019-2020, here were some of the defining characteristics:
- Vertical-first and mobile-first
- Browsing through videos was fast and fluid
- A wicked algorithm that learned your interests quickly
- Shortform video – I think 15 seconds was the limit at first
- You could sample music, which was great for clever dance routines
- Built-in tools that allow anyone to create from anywhere
That is interesting and bold! It wasn’t for everyone, but if you wanted to be a popular teenager in 2019, TikTok was the place to be. It was for someone, and I can see that by looking at the features. These new platforms mainly feel like Frankenstein copycats with no clear identity.
But this leads to the essential point – keep your eye out for social networks that introduce new features that can rally a core audience. Pay especially close attention to networks attracting teenagers who have led many of the shifts over the history of social media. Community chat-based sites such as Discord and Geneva are likely to continue to grow, though these are not really “social media” as we are familiar with, and there aren’t few opportunities for marketers to take advantage of these spaces.
Why Aren’t Tech Giants Jumping Into Social Media?
This lack of ideas might be why we are not seeing big tech brands jumping in. I saw a LinkedIn post recently that was interesting.
Tom is right – Apple, Amazon, Google, or a dozen other companies could whip up a Twitter clone/competitor in an afternoon, but that isn’t happening (as far as we know). The reason is probably some combination of the following factors:
- Government intervention – between anti-trust and privacy concerns, big tech companies do not want to provoke regulators.
- Economic worries – it doesn’t seem like a great time to invest large amounts of capital into anything risky.
- No good ideas – they don’t have a plan that could meaningfully disrupt social media in the long run.
- Institutional inertia – the existing good ideas cannot get off the ground because of internal bureaucracy.
- Do not want to disrupt existing company – it would be risky for Google to launch a social media platform that could disrupt search engines.
- No moats – every new feature in social media can get copied by everyone else (see Clubhouse as an example).
- The industry is shit – executives at large tech companies think the long-term prospects of social media, as the category is currently defined, is bad.
LinkedIn is the exception that proves the rule. LinkedIn has been around for a long time but only got traction as a social media platform during the pandemic. Of course, LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. While the company is not the monolithic titan it once was, they are still a massive operation with tremendous resources. If they wanted to turbocharge LinkedIn, they could.
How has LinkedIn taken advantage of the window of opportunity in this social media landscape? Have they rolled out new features, spent heavily on advertising, or updated the experience? Not that I can tell. This suggests that Microsoft faces one or more of these seven barriers. While LinkedIn has a lot of potential, something might be happening that is holding back the business.
I am always a bit unsatisfied talking about TikTok at the same time as other social media because that isn’t what it is. It is closer to YouTube than Facebook, which affects how the business works. But, from a marketing perspective, they are similar: a feed-based platform designed for casual use primarily on mobile devices and are funded by promoted posts.
That, and every social media platform thinks it’s TikTok. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat are all trying to be TikTok copycats. Strategically, this is silly. TikTok is excellent at being TikTok – why go head-to-head with them and everyone else in Silicon Valley? Mark Ritson had a column on the topic earlier this year, which you should check out.
Why are all the tech giants dogpiling TikTok but not Twitter? Ritson has proposed that a different game might be afoot. There has been a low-level rumble about banning TikTok over the last few months that is slowly growing in intensity. Maybe these tech giants know something we don’t? US lawmakers would be sympathetic to anti-critiques, while EU regulators might be more concerned about privacy. I sometimes wonder whether stories like the reports that TikTok spied on journalists might be part of this influence campaign.
The Future of Social Media Marketing
So, what does all this mean for social media marketing? I am not interested in making firm predictions because there is no way to know what will happen next. Instead, I want to outline some principles for the year ahead. These should be helpful for anyone, no matter what happens!
Don’t buy into the “pornography of change.” Others will tell you that Twitter is going down in flames, followed by the rest of the old guard, leading to a total reorganization of the marketing discipline. These are the same people who told you NFTs would change the world at the end of 2021. Even if change does happen, it will likely be slower and less disruptive than you think.
Network trumps features. One of the forces that will help social media companies to resist change will be network effects. Platforms are only as valuable as the people on them, so mature networks are worth more, even if they are less technically sophisticated than younger competitors. Learn more about network effects.
Pay more attention to regulation than technology. If there are dramatic changes, they will probably result from governmental action. 2023 should be the year regulators will settle the TikTok question. The FTC could also crack down on Twitter, NFT regulation could cause a problem for Meta, or anti-trust lawsuits could come for Google. Any of these would be more disruptive than tweaks to an existing network or new copycat platforms.
Be a fast follower, not an early adopter. Being first is heavily overrated. New platforms seem like an opportunity to build a following or a community – claim space, generate some early connections, then build momentum as more people join. That story sounds compelling, but I’d bet that between 0-2 of the new networks will “matter” going long. Set up a bare-bones presence on several sites, wait for a platform to build momentum, and then jump in – your risk will be limited, and your upside is still solid.
Do not build on rented land. The drama on Twitter reminds us that your social media presence could be erased overnight. Companies, especially small ones, that rely on social media to distribute organic content should diversify across platforms and invest in a website. If TikTok gets banned, that could be a massive pain for some brands.
In volatile times, you can’t rely on others to tell you what to think or do. You need to understand your company, your audience, and marketing fundamentals. Social media will still be here by the end of 2023, but it may be substantially changed. The brands that can effectively manage these changes will have a real advantage over the long term.