Over the years, social media has inundated our daily lives. Whether it’s to connect with friends and family across the world or keep up with your favorite brands, the many uses of social platforms have grown alongside its explosive popularity.
In a recent episode of TPT Digital’s podcast, Off the Clock, social media was the topic of discussion. Senior Director Shane Madden and Buzzer’s Whit Harwood sat down with social media expert Tom Ovenden. They discussed social media as both a branding platform and a political platform and what the future of social looks like.
Shane: Can you tell us more about you, Tom?
Tom: Thanks for the invitation and great to join you guys! I have been working within social media and content for just over 10 years now across a number of sectors and industries, but always with a focus on brand and community management.
Shane: Awesome! So where do you see social media heading? Firstly, from a brand perspective, but also then from an average consumer's perspective.
Tom: What makes social media and the ecosystem around it so fascinating is it's expanding in every direction at once.
I think whilst we look at social media as a kind of blanket term, I feel like we're starting to see more intricacies and specialties within that ecosystem. I think when you're looking at this from a very general point of view, one thing everyone would like to see more of is just transparency and clarity within the industry. Whether that's necessarily the way it’s heading is another question.
We're seeing social media develop more alongside technology. We're seeing technology develop alongside social media. So it’s a really interesting space on the whole, but also one that's quite hard to keep your finger on the pulse.
Shane: Whit, I have one for you. Given your experience in media, does it make sense to put the likes of Twitter or Facebook behind a paywall?
Whit: When you're looking at social media, you're really talking about whether it’s consolidated social media. From the Facebook and Twitter perspective, it's something that was created for the sake of connecting with people and expressing opinions.
For Facebook, they're going much more horizontal in terms of layering social media and communication on top of existing products and features. You're going to see this across a ton of different spaces. Not just against these native social apps, but you're going to see different spaces start to layer on what we would consider native social features.
So tying it back to your question of putting Twitter behind a paywall, unless there's something else there other than information, you're inherently decreasing the addressable market. You’re restricting news information, which works on some levels, but the promise of Twitter is that you actually have it. It means something different to everyone based on their algorithm, based on who they follow. And you're essentially cutting off any growth prospects by doing that, because it's hard to convey the value of something if someone doesn't already have it.
From a monetization standpoint, would I pay 10 bucks a month for Twitter? Yeah—probably because I'm an addict and I use it six times a day. But if Twitter were to do that without any kind of free function, they’re basically saying, “now we're trying to monetize everybody” within that user base. Could that work? Sure.
I look for things that work on two different planes. With Twitter, it's news and connection. With Facebook, it's connection and consumption. Instagram, it’s consumption and commerce. TikTok will eventually be there as well. But once you start to see these platforms go single plane—once they just exist in one primary part of the atmosphere—it’s not necessarily a failed social platform, but it is something certainly that has reached its promise as a medium.
Where you have long-form information, it's a bit of a connection, but it really just operates in one plane, and therefore is not really that successful. If Twitter were to truly look to monetize itself, they would cut their addressable market. And also, I think they would not have the opportunity, at least as they're presently constructed, to expand and exist in multiple planes.
They set up something like a pay tier model whereby if you're Kim Kardashian, you pay a nominal thousand dollars a month, or if you've got more than 4 million followers, you pay 500 bucks a month, and then it's free for any user like you and me—unless you've got more than a thousand followers.
Shane: Right! But do you think there's the option to develop a multi-priced tiered model?
Whit: Well, you would also have to look at it from the revenue standpoint, too. If you're charging the Kardashians a thousand bucks a month, they are certainly making much more than that per month on that platform. So you would also have to increase the number of monetization tools that you have for influencers.
But right now, if anything, the written word is actually driving polarization. Video is driving commerce, and in some ways, static photos and images are driving connection.
Shane: What do you think of Twitter and/or another kind of social media platform acquiring a property like CNN? Do you think that's on the cards for 2021?
Whit: It's interesting because Twitter has tried video before, and it hasn't necessarily been a vehicle for them to grow. If anything, it's been cutting on-demand video and splicing it and distributing it on that platform. I'd love to hear what Tom has had in his experience from a native social posting perspective, but I think Twitter is certainly known for live events. Everyone has their phone up when they're watching a game or when they're watching the election. They need to get real-time analysis.
I don't know if I necessarily see the use case for having Twitter open full time for something like a news service, such as CNN. One interesting proxy here is Cheddar, which was launched four or five years ago. It was primarily using social platforms for distribution. Sure, they got to scale, but they also exited and ultimately moved to the traditional distribution model. Cheddar is now on all of the primary cable platforms.
Is there a way to grow using Twitter? Potentially. But I don't think people necessarily go to that platform to consume long-form video.
Whit: Tom, what have you seen in the digital video space as it relates to Twitter specifically, but then also how video consumption changes across platforms?
Tom: I don’t personally see Twitter as a video platform; I believe it’s a text-first platform that can obviously be incredibly polarizing at times but also incredibly powerful.
We’ve seen platforms like TikTok blow up over the last few years, which is obviously a video-first platform. But with this emergence comes a young and new user base. So TikTok is not only helping brands find and engage with new audiences, but it’s also helping those same brands create new video assets tied to the understanding of what kind of content is resonating with both their audience and also the wider platform user base as a whole.
Taking a step back and looking more at the digital video space, for me, it’s all about understanding not only what audience you have on each platform, but ultimately why they are there.
For TikTok, it’s knowing that people are going there primarily for short-form videos. People want that quick, exciting, engaging content that is tied into the slick UX and UI of the platform.
If you want to watch something that is longer form, more in-depth, or generally higher production value, you’re going to YouTube. Maybe you’ll even go straight to somewhere like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Whit: So I have a follow-up question with that too: the two platforms that are inherently considered the most polarizing are Twitter and Facebook, right. You just alluded to it. They've also been around the longest relative to Instagram or TikTok. So is polarization something that comes from the written word or do you think polarization comes from time? As these platforms age, they inherently get older, and so does their audience, but does that mean that they also get more polarized?
Tom: I think my understanding or my thinking behind it is that we see a huge amount of polarization across Facebook and Twitter. As you said, those are two platforms that have been around the longest, therefore user saturation is higher. You're not getting as many people signing up to TikTok—although lockdown and COVID has probably changed that. But, ultimately, Twitter and Facebook are the real pioneers of the social media space.
What’s interesting is Twitter gives people more opportunity to put out their own opinions without fear of reprisal. This is due to a multitude of factors and the ability for users to sit behind anonymous accounts without any personal information attached.
Facebook does the same, but I think that's also just the theme of social media as a whole—providing people the ability to say things without the consequences.
I've read and heard some really interesting stuff around this. There has always been an element of when people enter the digital realm, they can anonymize themselves and remove the fear of having to deal with the full consequences of their statements or actions.
At the same time, some would argue this could be seen as a good thing because you're seeing people truly speak their mind, whether it's a positive or a negative. The tough thing to say is whether this is an honest commentary from the general population or skewed due to the anonymous and at-times poisonous nature of social media.
Shane: Where do you see TikTok going for brands? Do you think they remain at eight seconds, which is extremely short form? Do you think they’ll optimize?
Tom: I think what's interesting about TikTok is you're seeing a lot of brands starting to utilize the platform very well. They’re putting the focus back towards the individuals, the creators, the influencers, rather than the brands themselves. So I think you're getting a much more genuine platform of individuals rather than overly scripted, fake promotions and adverts.
Whilst Instagram is great for some of that stuff, we've all seen the “influencer pranks” that you look at and you can see straight through.
I think what’s interesting about TikTok is that they’re trying to push away from purely brand-focused stuff. Don’t get me wrong, there's a lot of branded stuff on there, but it's also really putting the control back into an individual's hands, rather than kind of having these overly complicated brand and influencer deals.
It’s interesting because all the platforms are developing new ways to drop in advertisements. Facebook has increased the number of ways that brands and users can monetize on their platform, but the way TikTok is doing it seems to be more fitting with their general feel and experience when using the platform.
Whit: One of the things I always regret is not being on Twitter in 2007; I would have 10,000 followers right now. Back then, people were following everyone and anyone who was on the platform. These people now have a million followers. Do you see a first mover advantage or does the algorithm inherently keep you at arm’s length from gaining a lot of momentum?
Tom: So I think there's always a first mover advantage—you see it with every platform. But I also feel like it's a lot to do with strategy, particularly around content—trying to understand as much of the algorithm as you can, but then I also believe that nobody ever truly understands a platform’s algorithm.
What’s interesting is although TikTok offers short-form content, you know, six to 10 seconds, you can also put five-minute plus stuff on there, but it's understanding how some of the algorithm works and where you're going to see the benefits from posting long vs. short-form video.
One of the TikTok algorithm keys is “Video Completion.” For every user that watches your entire video you’ll get a 100% score, they watch it twice, 200%, three times, 300%, etc. etc. The higher you can get that score the wider the algorithm will push your content.
If you’re posting a two-minute video, the number of users that will make it to the end will inherently be pretty low. But you make your video 7–12 seconds and suddenly those completion numbers shoot up and so do all the other metrics alongside it.
It’s insights like that that allows users to gain a huge amount of engagement, views, and followers when new platforms emerge and develop over the years. The key is to try to stay ahead whilst also keeping your content entertaining and not just being created for the sake of gaming the algorithm.
Shane: The whole ecosystem of social media is probably what TV was 30–40 years ago. It’s built to create re-engagement, right? Do you find that as brands are competing against each other, they’re having to create more outrageous stunts?
Tom: Given the value that can be drawn from a successful social profile there is always going to be that natural competition between brands vying for that attention. We’ve seen some examples of brilliant viral stunts that have worked and we can probably all name a few that have been complete disasters. One thing I have enjoyed seeing is the rise of brand collaborations: brands that have historically been competitors coming together to create something truly unique whilst pooling their respective digital audiences to maximum effect.
At the same time, a viral clip has that ability to cross all genres and interests, so as long as brands believe that the elusive “viral” video is a possibility, we’re going to continue to see more outrageous stunts and videos in the years to come.
That being said, exciting content is always going to be exciting content—whether you hate it or love it, you're going to be watching it.
Shane: So where do you think Snapchat is going? And then secondary to that, Twitch, the new Amazon platform?
Tom: Snapchat is a really interesting one. One thing that I really like is their heavy AR use. We’re seeing other platforms and brands playing with this as well, but I think some of the stuff that Snapchat is doing with it is really interesting. I think the only question now is how widespread is AR adoption going to be?
And then Twitch is similarly fascinating because Amazon has created a really unique audience of very like-minded people. So ultimately, they've created one of the largest ecosystems for highly engaged users, which is in many ways the advertiser’s dream.
Shane: Yeah. What if Zuckerberg was to say to Spiegel, the CEO and founder of Snapchat, “Let's go back to that deal that I offered you years ago.” I wonder if he’d take the deal after seeing how things have panned out in this space…
Whit: I think that they're probably not only content, but excited about what they're building. I don't think that there is anyone else providing the AR experience that they're building. There are a couple of very young companies that are looking at AR shopping, but when you look at the graph of who the user base is for Snapchat, there’s a lot of engagement and consumption from a young demographic.
If you look at the graduation of that user base into a space where they're going to be spending discretionary income, in five to 10 years’ time, it’s potentially a monetized gold mine. I think they're actually graduating their user base into consumers, whilst the technology is riding along parallel with it. They're going to be able to monetize the user base that nobody else has a hold on.
The stock price has had a great year as well. So I think people are starting to recognize the level of engagement on the platform and the value of that base is extremely high.
Shane: It's built on those emotional feelings—do you guys agree?
Tom: I think I would agree in the sense that most of the social media marketing you hear about is something that evokes emotion. It’s something that ultimately a lot of people aim to do. Some people get it very wrong, some people get it very right—it's about finding that balance.
I also think we're seeing everyone doing a lot of the same. What I do believe will be really interesting is when people really differentiate from their competitors and offer their users something that no one else can.
Whit: Thank you, Tom! It’s been a blast to talk through everything social with you.
Tom: It's been an absolute pleasure guys. Thanks again for the invite.
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