What lies ahead for social media in 2018

Daniel Gilbert, chief executive, Brainlabs
Daniel Gilbert, chief executive, Brainlabs

There will be two major battles fought by social media in 2018, but which side will emerge victorious?

What happened in 2017? More like what didn’t happen. Right? Seriously, though, a lot happened and I’ve condensed it into two battles. 

1. Social media vs reality 

In 2017, roughly a third of the 7.6 billion global population were social-media users, and about a quarter had Facebook accounts. This isn’t a dramatic increase from 2016, but still. Social media is big, and it’s changing the world. 

In a literal sense, augmented reality has altered the way people experience the world. Admittedly, its main manifestation in 2017 was people of all ages searching the streets for Pokémon characters, and the anti-climactic launch of Snapchat’s spectacles. But the AR/VR arms race is undoubtedly on, with Apple and Google investing furiously in this technology. 

Then there’s politics. The fall-out from the US election, Brexit and a UK general election all shaped 2017 and those huge events were, in turn, shaped by social media. In total, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spent $81m on Facebook advertising alone; in the UK, Labour’s better-than-expected results were largely credited to its social-media savviness. For some observers, social media has become the most influential factor in political decision-making. 

2. Social media vs the news 

Global, paid social spend shot up to $41bn in 2017. It was less than $18bn only three years ago. The lion’s share of this is Facebook’s, with Twitter and LinkedIn pretty far behind, and Snapchat and Instagram with decent growth. When you add Google to the mix, there’s a lot of ad revenue that used to go to news companies that doesn’t any more. 

That’s why there has been a spate of news sites adding paywalls, and a bucketload of anti-social (media) news. "Google funds extremists", "Facebook spreads fake news", "Twitter spreads hate", "Bots ruin elections", "YouTube damages brands", and so on. It’s hard to know who to trust these days: the vilified or the vilifiers. 

The platform/publisher debate has been heated to say the least, and shows no signs of cooling. But the business model is well established: create a social-media platform people like, and find a good way of selling ad inventory on it. This will continue, regardless of news companies’ resentment. 

So what lies ahead in 2018?

Social TV

TV is going through a transitional period at the moment, with programmatic TV on the rise and TV platforms springing up in all sorts of forms. Netflix and Amazon are challenging traditional broadcasters, but Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have also started buying, or even producing, long-form content. 

It’s all getting a bit blurry. You can buy inventory programmatically for TV on-demand platforms or over-the-top providers. Or you can advertise on YouTube channels with far greater reach than a lot of linear TV. But is video as good as TV? And what’s the difference, really, between them? Now you can also advertise  on the most-premium content via social platforms. Complicated. 

My advice is to take advantage. Upfront TV has always been over-priced, even if it is the best channel for branding. It won’t take long for the market to mature, and the live auction to get crowded. Seize the chance for some excellently priced TV inventory, courtesy of the new pretenders of social media. 

Social transparency

The General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect in May, and it will have a very positive impact on social-media advertising. You may have noticed Facebook’s commendable changes to data collection and personalised ads – that will extend across all platforms and add transparency. 

Why is this good? Every study related to consumer attitudes toward personalised ads says the same thing: if an individual is aware of how their data is collected, then they are more receptive to the ads that derive from it. 

Paid social, especially Facebook, offers incredible levels of granularity in targeting; GDPR is no threat to that. Despite the pessimism, data-sharing will continue as long as there is something to be gained from it by the user. The only change will be an uplift in engagement and conversion rates, as ad relevance and transparency improves. 

Social winners

I may as well have a punt. If I had to pick one winner for this year (other than the unstoppable Facebook), I’d probably say Instagram. Have you seen how fast its Stories features has taken off? It has 300 million daily active users (50% more than Snapchat, which is a little mean, considering Snapchat started it), and with Facebook there to help out, it would be no surprise if ad revenues boomed this year. 

So there you go. If I’m wrong – well, nobody will remember...

Daniel Gilbert is the chief executive of Brainlabs.

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