Ask any brand today: what's the one place you need to be? Unequivocally, they'll tell you: on social media, of course. However, the BIGGER question is this: How much are you spending on social, and where?
This year, advertisers will spend nearly $24 billion globally on paid social advertising - a figure that has jumped 33.5 percent from 2014. And the spending spree shows no signs of slowing. By 2017, social media advertising is projected to reach close to $36 billion.
As expected, Facebook takes the lion's market share; it will grab 65 percent of all social network ad spending worldwide this year. Recent news of Facebook's $4.5 billion third-quarter revenue underscores this growth, and is a harbinger of the social network giant's continued future success.
There's no doubt brands will continue to advertise on Facebook. But not exclusively. Competitors like Snapchat are real, especially when it comes to monetizing the fastest-growing medium in digital advertising: mobile video. Indeed, all social media companies will be fighting for larger and larger slices of ad budget pie.
For the social media platforms, the opportunities for reach and revenue growth are enormous. The challenge for any social network today - not just Facebook - is scaling that growth to its full potential. This relies heavily on two things:
1.Making the right decisions and investments to increase followers and to continue to engage them
2.The ability of the company's brand, sales, and marketing teams to show advertisers they can reach the right customers in a way that's timely, relevant, and profitable
The true competitive differentiator for social media companies is users themselves. They are the key to maximizing growth. Through our years of experience working with social media companies, we have identified three distinct ways in which an active working partnership with users can strengthen social media's potential for growth.
1. Breathe "life" and expertise into sales proposals
Social media companies have mounds of user activity data at their fingertips. But will the data alone really help the sales team spark a lively conversation with advertisers? Will it inspire buyers to consider a larger spend on the IO?
Selling the value of social takes more than relying solely on users' social graphs or on the platform's ability, however sophisticated, to segment and target. Sales teams need to lead the conversation with a deep, empathetic understanding of the person the advertiser is trying to reach, and an informed point of view about why reaching these users matters to a brand's business. To do this effectively - and in a way that leaves an impression and stands out against a deluge of competitors - sales teams must marry user data with compelling narratives to shape pitches and proposals.
Users themselves can help. They can share an honest perspective about a brand and how it compares to competitors. Explain how what they see on social media influences purchase decisions. And provide an intimate view into their lives - not just their online personas - to reinforce a tangible narrative about who the brand's customers are, online and off. Armed with an arsenal of user stories, ideas, and relevant insights, sales teams can spark new ideas, encourage fresh ways of thinking, and inspire advertisers to try something new (and maybe even spend a bit more to pull it off).
Stories, for example, about how gardeners love to Instagram in the early morning when the angle of the sun is just right may persuade home and garden companies to reconsider how much they invest during May and June. Or tales from students about how they scan Facebook for ideas on where to go for spring break could entice cruise line companies to spend more in their Q1 social campaigns. When a sales team can connect these rich user stories and insights to a social platform's ability to reach users, and to the brand's advertising goals, nothing is more powerful.
2. Instruct clients on getting the most from their social strategy
For brands, there are always opportunities within the inherent fluidity of social media ... as long as brands can be relevant to the conversation and true to their marketing goals. That's easier said than done, especially when "what's trending" moves at warp speed - and any misstep by a brand feels like an intrusion on the organic conversation, hurting their reputation and, consequently, their ROI.
The relationship social media companies have with their clients can be strengthened by the value-added benefit of a closer connection to users. It keeps clients informed in real-time about the latest rules of social media engagement.
Access to a group of at-the-ready users helps answer clients' questions at a moment's notice. Or provide answers to questions that clients didn't even know to ask. Users can advise brands on how to stand out from the constant din of social chatter, leading them to new opportunities, all while offering advice on how best to proceed. And, by testing concepts and offering fast feedback, users will ensure a brand's campaign fits seamlessly into the social zeitgeist, is delightful, timely, and gets people talking, liking, and sharing.
3. Answer the question, "So who exactly are these users?"
Traditional audience demos are the ghosts of mass media's past. Social media is about connecting like-minded micro groups. And advertisers must identify and get to know these micro groups at the macro level if they have any hope of running a meaningful campaign.
Again, with users by their side, social media companies can take a scalpel to traditional brand audience segments in such a way that makes sense in the social media world.
Consider this scenario. Before the NFL season kicks off, a social media company runs a 3-month long engagement over the summer with a group of football fans. Taking a deep dive into different fan personas - that is, their game-day attitudes, motivations, behaviors, and rituals - in turn informs the social media company's sales approach ahead of the highly competitive NFL season. With a more complete understanding of fans, brands can easily tailor their social media content more tightly to them, and collaborate with micro groups to gain inspiration and ideas for new content and ways to engage throughout the season.
Common wisdom would suggest a company with access to loads of personal information on millions, or in some cases billions, of users would have no problem really "getting" all the different types of people who use their products. But, as the social media giants continue to grow, and new ones emerge, staying close to the people they serve is difficult, complicated to solve, and, with so much at stake, even more important to do. It won't be achieved through monitoring and analyzing users' feeds or crowdsourcing ideas alone. In the end, growth and success depends on one thing: making sure a company that's built on connecting people stays connected to people.