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As X’s turbulence continues, can alternative social platforms catch marketers’ attention?

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For as many jokes that were made about X (formerly Twitter)’s proverbial funeral when Elon Musk bought the platform, the bird app has yet to see the final nail in its coffin.

Back in 2022, on the heels of the platform’s fallout in the Musk era, a number of competitors sprung up, looking to cash in on the platform’s fledging audience. Initially, there was significant momentum built around decentralized social media platforms like Bluesky, created by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Mastodon. Threads, Meta’s direct response to X’s flailing, was said to be the app that would outright kill X.

Back then, marketers weren’t sold, saying that no other platform could recreate the monoculture moments and town square nature that Twitter instilled in users. Today, that still stands as part of the media mix, useful for social listening and organic strategy, especially around live, mass-watched events like the Super Bowl, Olympics or major award shows.

“I still think Twitter, or I guess X, is still predominantly the organic social tool when it comes to text-based social at this point, even with all their issues, from an ad perspective,” said Jacob Wallach, founder and CEO of Social4TheWin, a social media consultancy.

X’s U.S. ad revenue are expected to fall this year, according to eMarketer, who predicts the platform will see $1.04 billion in ad revenue, slightly down from $1.06 billion in 2023..

Brand safety has perhaps been the biggest battle X has faced, in which a slew of advertisers either paused ad spend or abandoned the platform altogether as organic users. For example, Toyota, Coca-Cola, Apple and Starbucks have ceased organic activity on the platform back last year. But it’s been an inconsistent strategy; brands like McDonald’s, Netflix and Hyundai have maintained or organic posts. The latter of which paused ad spend on the platform after a sponsored post was spotted next to antisemitic content.

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The text-based app’s fallout created “rife territory for somebody to come through and really reshape the category,” said Daale Carter, managing director at Energy BBDO, referring to the real time, organic, town square nature of the app, referring to the potential for new innovation in the text-based social media space. But instead, marketers’ and users’ interest in text-based social has all but flatlined, shifting instead to short-form videos on Instagram Reels and TikTok.

“[The alternative platforms] all were borne out of the opportunity. What I’m not seeing play out is that opportunity being really maximized and converted in a way that is meaningful from an advertising perspective,” Carter added, referring to the lack of ad opportunities. Their lack of scale hasn’t exactly made the alternative platforms the go-to for social listening either.

These alternative platforms pale in comparison to X in terms of user base. Mastodon reported more than a million users this year. Bluesky touts more than 4 million users, now that the once invite-only app has opened to the public to add more than 1 million new users to its existing 3 million. Meanwhile, both combined are eclipsed by Threads’ 130 million monthly active users. X reports 550 million monthly users, but recent headlines have reported that the platform is struggling to keep users.

For all the hype around those alternatives platforms at their respective launches, Carter said she hasn’t heard any clients name Bluesky or Mastodon as platforms worth exploring. Notably, these platforms don’t have ads yet, making them a tough sell against tertiary, yet more established, text-friendly platforms like Reddit or LinkedIn.

Perhaps the exception to the rule here is Threads. Backed by its parent company Meta, the text-based platform imported audiences from Instagram to help speed up the adoption process. As early as the second half of this year, Threads is expected to launch ads, which could give it a bigger market share in the text-based social media stratosphere. 

Out of the competitor platforms, Threads is the only one to have made it to the editorial plan for campaign activations, playing a role similar to X, according to Cristina Lawrence, evp of consumer and content experience at Razorfish marketing agency. 

“We’re still testing the platform out. We’re still waiting to see where it’s going to obviously go and grow in terms of the types of products that they start to offer and build into the platform,” she said, later adding that it’s too early to say what the effects of Threads’ ads will be.

X is still touted as a useful reservoir of consumer data by some experts, given the quantity of text posts on the platform. API access (free of charge, prior to 2023) and the ease of scanning text posts. Meaning that ignoring the platform means forgoing consumer insights not easily replicated elsewhere, said Stephanie Schafer, president of agency The Social Lights. “If we lose Twitter as brands, we lose a lot of the natural language insights,” she added.

In theory, the same should be true of alternative platforms. Gareth Harrison, senior strategist at U.K. agency SocialChain, said that despite the smaller audiences found on alternative platforms, their higher engagement means there’s a rationale for paying attention to conversations there. “Are they more likely to use the channel more than the general population? If they are, you’ve probably got a nice community you can speak to there,” he said.

Depending on the client, Harrison said SocialChain does monitor Threads, but due to its closed API, it’s an afterthought next to other sources such as TikTok comments, Reddit and Twitter.

Despite Threads’ growing audience, We Are Social, one of the industry’s largest social specialist agencies, doesn’t yet use Threads, Bluesky, Mastodon or Spill to keep tabs on audiences, according to Paul Greenwood, global head of research & insight at We Are Social. 

Spill, which was co-founded by former Twitter employee Alphonzo Terrell, also has ads. Since its launch last summer, advertisers like Lionsgate, BET Networks, BET+, Variety and others have leveraged the platform’s ad units.

At best, X hasn’t seen its final days yet, neither from a paid or organic perspective, sources told Digiday. At worst, the competitors have created fragmentation in the marketplace, thwarting what was left of monocultural moments. The fragmentation will certainly stifle the text-based social landscape, but it will force a new playbook for marketers.

“It is a fragmented space at the moment and there are actually many town squares where people are collecting and going really deep into the content of the topics that matter to them,” said Lawrence.

Carter added that because of how successful X was in created organic brand presences and a way to host two-way conversations with shoppers, agencies would be remiss in not at least exploring the text-based alternatives as a way to maintain organic, direct relationships with audiences, similar to the environment X allowed for.

“Any advertiser or agency should stay ahead of how that continues to evolve, but advertisers become gun shy places that aren’t yet proven out,” she said. “Honestly, stepping out on a limb and trying something that doesn’t feel proven out might yield some different results.” 

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