Inside the cost of social fragmentation

This story is part of an eight-article editorial series that explores the ramifications of a fragmented social marketplace. More from the series →

We’re three months into the year and the social media landscape already welcomed two new entrants: Twitter alternative T2 and personalized news app Artifact. In 2022, it was decentralized social media platform Mastodon, anti-filter app BeReal and social audio app Clubhouse that were making headlines.

The market can be fickle as fortunes rise and fall — apps with hype cycles so grand marketers consider investing in teams to build out content for them only for that app to lose steam in a matter of months. As brands and agencies navigate the terrain to find users, placing bets to be rewarded as first movers, it can be expensive and time consuming with no guarantee of reward.

“If you have enough time, enough creativity [and] enough people power to do all the platforms, that’s fine, but most people don’t have that staff,” said Gary J. Nix, Chief Strategy Officer at digital agency the Brandarchist. “Determine where you want to be and determine how you want to invest your time, so you can concentrate and do what you need to do on the platforms instead of trying to spread yourself thin.”

In other words, marketers who don’t have blank checks have to be increasingly strategic in terms of not only social channels and target audience, but also company hires and tools. This is especially true as the social universe expands and the opportunities to meaningfully connect with consumers — or simply add to the noise — proliferate.

The average time spent with digital media — which, to be fair, also includes smart TVs and gaming consoles — hit an all-time high of eight hours and 14 minutes in 2022. And that is projected to grow by nine additional minutes in 2023, per Insider Intelligence research. That means the opportunity for brands is greater than it ever has been before — and it’s only growing. But so, too, are the associated costs.

One brand that requested anonymity estimated it has increased spend on creative services by about 30% year over year, which was largely due to increased needs for social. It has also increased the number of licenses on social media management tool Sprout Social because it has increasingly become a team effort to manage these channels.

As Nix put it, the need to increase resources for social is happening because social media is finally getting the respect it deserves.

“People were looking at it as a form of quick reach,” he said. “This is not a reach game … if people don’t care about what you have to say, you get nothing. People are putting more money into creating better quality content.”

And when brands invest in content consumers care about, there are better ROI results.

The cost of so many channels

At the same time, as fragmentation continues, brands will have to be even more specific with their targeting, which will increase costs further. Even now, Nix argued brands “are not doing enough to really identify who their audience is.”

Instead, they need to drill down into what kind of a person they are — including details like psychographics and culture. Then, they must invest in content creation partners and determine the right channels and cadence.

The number of channels a brand uses will also impact how many content creators it hires. Nix estimates five people “may be enough for one channel,” but one to three staffers to manage a network like YouTube is “not nearly enough” for a brand that wants to constantly be creating.

For its part, e-commerce platform Pacvue has been investing more in video creative for most of its social channels.

“The genesis of new social channels like TikTok have been additive to not replacing, legacy channels like Facebook and Twitter,” said Adam Hutchinson, director of marketing at Pacvue. “As such, our social media team has had to adapt and find new ways to replicate and scale content across channels to cover an increasingly disparate and omnichannel experience.”

Pacvue has also added a full-time content creator for influencer- and user-generated content on TikTok and Instagram Reels.

“This is a unique role that encompasses research, production, acting and editing in order to get the brand circulating on the different channels’ algorithms for trending sounds and concepts,” added Cassandra Craven, director of social media at Pacvue.

For fast food chain Taco Bell, there’s been an added challenge for strategists and creatives to flex between being generalists or channel experts as emerging platforms gain popularity and consumers identify through the associated communities.

“In the end, it’s the nuances seen through the likes of Discord, Instagram or TikTok communities that will dictate the support and management,” said Nicole Weltman, head of social at Taco Bell. “And the costs will certainly reflect that. Not only in content but also with influencers because you want to ensure you have a relatable and natural connection to the different sub-communities and niches relevant to you, on a wider number of platforms than ever before.”

The cost-effective (temporary) alternative

There is a workaround — at least for now. Noting content is “very expensive,” Claudia Ratterman, a director analyst at research firm Gartner, advised clients take advantage of user-generated content — and to think about content more broadly.

“Instead of thinking about TikTok, for example, think about a short-form video strategy,” she added. “Yes, you’re going to have to adjust your short-form video to whichever platform you’re using … see what works for you and continue to optimize that way.”

James Creech, svp of strategy at social analytics firm Brandwatch, agreed social no longer requires content to be personalized to each platform.

“Content formats are increasingly becoming standardized. And so you can take the same creative that you use on TikTok and use it on YouTube Shorts and Facebook Reels and Spotlight on Snapchat,” he said. “So I think you can probably get a little bit more mileage out of content.”

The rise of AI could help

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence tools are coming down the pike to change the game further as the number of consumer touchpoints proliferates and the demand on brands to deliver relevant content and experiences intensifies.

“AI has supercharged people’s creative output [and] saved designers, storyboard artists, videographers, everybody else, a lot of time and helped them focus more on the creative passion,” Creech said.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Jason Alan Snyder, Global Chief Technology Officer at experiential agency Momentum, pointed to a burgeoning phenomenon in which a single consumer identity is tied to multiple personalities that exist across different social channels — and these personalities can be radically different.

On top of that, these personalities will eventually expand into the Web 3 space via gaming platforms and emerging tech, which will offer even more addressable opportunities.

“The challenge is you may have a professional personality, and you may have a gaming personality that’s not even human — it could be a dragon or something — and then you may have your social profile, which you expose to groups of people, and you may have a family profile that you expose to other groups of people,” Snyder said. 

For a brand to be contextually relevant to all of these personalities in all of these channels, it will have to invest in a whole new technology stack, including machine learning and AI tools to generate, automate and augment content.

“There’s going to be significant investment at some point if you haven’t already been investing over time to incorporate these sorts of tools, technologies and people who understand how to use them into the stack,” Snyder added. 

But, he noted, it’s not a matter of a per-unit cost or simply adding something new to the production cycle.

“It’s about redefining the production cycle and rethinking the signal intelligence that comes in to distribute and connect with people in a meaningful way across their personalities and against that single identity,” Snyder said.

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