2016: The year social media peaked?

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It's been an interesting 12 months for social media, writes the former CEO of Razorfish.

Algorithm changes, more ads, users spending less time on platforms, profile creation rising, and two political events played out with divisive vitriol.

Facebook admitted miscalculating their analytics, along with overestimating average video viewing time. Yet brands continued to throw more money into the fray, with little to show other than a few top level numbers.

Unsurprising reading for embattled social media cynics, but for others, 2016 should act as a reminder that social media is, arguably, the snake oil of our time.

Many agencies still peddle social buzzwords. Canvassing for "war rooms," "always-on" teams, whose sole purpose is to build engaging conversations, driving millennial advocacy, all chasing an Oreo Super Bowl moment.

That one tweet created a tidal surge of branded posts, with everyone competing to be relevant. Much like a schoolyard popularity contest; it was desperate and shortsighted.

"2016 should act as a reminder that social media is, arguably, the snake oil of our time."

The result? Social media is noisier than ever, in a world where people are as time poor as they’ve ever been. It’s a melee. And to have the slightest chance of connecting with your flailing fists, you’ll have to pay for the privilege.

There’s so much stuff that it’s impossible for consumers to cut the wheat from the chaff. Everyone is struggling to get comfortable in a world, which thrives on the uncomfortable.

News breaks, content is uploaded and the vast majority is ignored, lost below the sheer weight of posts. At best, seen in a fleeting moment, or, when the stars align, shared, only to be forgotten hours later.

Nothing lasts. If people’s time, and intellectual space is so limited on social, is it worth the investment? Either you stand out with your advertising, or you’re simply adding to the din. Making it easier to be ignored. And if you’re being ignored, there’s no point being there in the first place.

It sounds contrary, but if there was ever an opportunity to take a step back, and reassess what social media is all about, now’s the time to do it.

So, what do we know? It’s becoming less social and more media. The days of real-time marketing are over, replaced only by strategically-led marketing and, you guessed it, advertising.

Video is now the priority. And social, like television, will force brands to reach into their pockets. It’s no longer a place to craft conversations, orchestrated by segregated teams.

Look at any branded comment stream. Threads are as coherent as a Cockatoo at the controls of runaway train. You can’t tame the voice of the internet. Brexit and the presidential elections magnified social’s mob mentality.

It mattered little whether news, or content, was official, fake, or a puff of hot air to people and publishers. Clicks mattered. And those with the loudest, most memorable voice, won the battle.

There is an argument too, that it’s no longer the place for customer service.

Ever tried to reach a satisfactory level of customer care on social? Chances are you’ve been fed a stock response asking you to respond to an email address, or better still, pick up the phone and talk to someone directly. Its influence is waning, and Facebook are actively trying to combat this realization by working on chat bots to carry the burden of community management.

Of course, there’s always a defence, and social media is fun for friends and family to stay connected. Snapchat’s enormous sign up shows there is an appetite for in the moment sharing. But does it mean your brand should try and muscle in on their fun?

Arguably not. When your average 19-year-old is more concerned about crippling university debt, or landing a job, are they that interested in a Snapchat story, showing them the inner-guts of a luxury fashion event? We certainly don’t think they’ll turn into a customer over night because of it.

The solution? Modern advertising is no different from traditional advertising. The fact is, when a person is next in a buying state, they’re somewhat more likely to purchase your product if they’ve seen one of your ads, somewhere. Especially if it’s different, challenging, new, memorable.

It’s tempting to drink the Kool-aid with social media. Posting rushed content to earn instant gratification in the form of likes, comments, emojis. But is that short-term hit of attention paying off in the long-run? It’s not worth jeopardizing a hard-fought brand history to be timely on ever-evolving newsfeeds.

Disposable, instant messaging is becoming the norm. But it doesn’t mean the art of creativity and science of brand strategy should be abandoned by brands baying for attention.

If it means staying true to your values and missing out on the next generation social platform everyone’s scrambling after, so be it.

Even in the immediacy of the information age, it’s still a tale of the rabbit and the turtle. Patience pays. Social media is still here, but we should stop calling it social. It’s media space. It’s a format. It’s advertising. And it’ll do a job in 2017. But it’s not as complicated, or as important as many people, publishers and agencies will have you believe.

—Chris Mellish is the former chief executive officer of Razorfish.