Don’t call them social media networking sites: Why these platforms are distancing themselves from the social media label

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The term “social media” has evolved over the years, as advertisers jumped at a chance to better target audiences, at a low cost, with measurement tools that those who dabbled in linear TV could only dream of having. Marketers moved their budgets accordingly.

And the landscape looks different even now — the channels are fragmented, making reach less defined. Misinformation has also entered the chat and some of these social media channels have had to reckon with how their feeds foster bad behavior. The platforms have also had to answer some difficult questions: How do these channels weigh the responsibility of being a publisher, without taking credit for being so? How do these channels monitor the conversations in the rooms that they created?

Whether explicitly or implicitly addressing these questions head-on, some social media channels seem to be distancing their identity from “social media networks” to play up the positive aspects of their channels for users and ad spend. Marketers’ dollars are already harder than ever to attract, and they become even more so in a difficult international news cycle and a potentially contentious U.S. presidential election.

Pinterest refers to itself as “the antidote to traditional social media,” as Bill Watkins, the platform’s chief revenue officer, told Digiday at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Snap has taken a similar approach, also labeling itself the antidote to social media in its “Less social media. More Snapchat.” campaign that launched in February.

Meanwhile, Reddit’s presence near the Croissette at Cannes Lions this year focused on its search functionality, positioning itself as a place where users find product reviews — the intersection between search and social. While not quite calling the platform the antidote to social media, Jim Squires, Reddit’s evp of business marketing and growth, actively pushed back against its characterization as a social media network, leaning further toward its search feature as a pitch to advertisers. (Take a closer look at Reddit’s plans for search ads here.)

“We don’t think of Reddit as a social network,” Squires said. “Because on social networks, you are typically connecting with an individual or an influencer or a celebrity.” He added, “On Reddit, you don’t connect to individuals, you connect to communities.”

Advertisers, however, aren’t moved by this messaging so far, and it’s yet to be determined if these platforms’ repositioning will translate into ad dollars.

“Social networks can call themselves whatever they want. Brands are still going to want to be there in order to reach those audiences,” said Sammy Rubin, vp of integrated media at digital marketing agency Wpromote. Meaning, if Reddit, Snap and Pinterest can convince advertisers that they have an engaged audience and the ad tools to get in front of that audience, advertisers will be willing to fork over those ad dollars.

Even outside of their audiences and ad tools, social media has a reputation problem. There’s Meta’s investigation over election disinformation in the EU, X (which was Twitter) has been battling to make advertisers believe it is, in fact, brand-safe, under its new ownership, and TikTok still faces a potential ban in the U.S. Ironically, TikTok didn’t acknowledge said ban at Cannes.

In some of the more recent headlines, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is calling for tobacco-style warning labels on social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Effectively, the warning would notify users about the effects the platforms can have on children’s mental health.

Regardless, social platforms pitching themselves as happy places online isn’t necessarily as enticing as the potential to convert audiences to shoppers with the help of tools that measure and track those conversions, per Rubin. Plus, every brand’s threshold for safety is different — just look at how many advertisers are still on X even after its trials and tribulations under Elon Musk’s reign.

And it’s not like any of the non-brand safe missteps within the social stratosphere have slowed social ad spend. According to eMarketer, U.S. social ad spending will grow 13.5% this year, rounding out at $82.89 billion in 2024, up from $73.04 billion in 2023. However, to keep those dollars flowing, brand safety seems to be a bigger part of the pitch to advertisers who are increasingly concerned about where their content appears. Notably, polarization has continued to mount around this November’s U.S. presidential election.

Snap acknowledges this, encouraging users to do their civic duty and vote via voter registration drives and other in-app voter engagement tools. But this is all without becoming a “political echo chamber,” as Colleen DeCourcy, chief creative officer and acting CMO of Snap, puts it.

“If I was putting my dollars anywhere where I wanted to be sure that I knew what I was going to be near, this is where I would do it,” DeCourcy added, “because we’re just not letting that stuff happen on the platform.”

Snap, at least, is vying for the same social ad dollars, as opposed to budgets slated for AI or other marketing fixtures. As to why these platforms are increasingly distancing themselves from the social media network narrative? As DeCourcy puts it, “advertising doesn’t work well in those other environments,” which seemingly differentiates Snap from its competitors.

 Krystal Scanlon contributed to this reporting.

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