From pokes to profit: how Facebook transformed social media marketing

From pokes to profit: how Facebook transformed social media marketing

The platform will mark 20 years this weekend.

When Mark Zuckerberg and his coding cohort launched Facebook from their Harvard dorm in 2004, they set out with a simple goal: create a website to help people stay connected.

The social media platform is preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary next month and a quick glance at its timeline shows the milestones it has achieved in delivering on its promise. From pokes and likes to Messenger and Marketplace – there's no shortage of innovative tools and features designed to bring its two billion-strong community together.

This penchant for community clearly struck a chord with the brains behind future social media activations. Twitter and TikTok made their names on a foundation of connection. Platforms such as BeReal have taken this a step further, leveraging their human involvement and influence as a bargaining chip for differentiation.

Over the past two decades, social media has become entrenched in our daily lives, making daily social connection a hybrid experience that's both online and off. While their accessibility and flexibility have made social media platforms a marketing goldmine for advertisers, success is far from assured unless they truly understand how to create and tap in to connection that lasts beyond a scroll – and that starts by aligning with like-minded influencers and content creators to achieve, what we have coined True Human Influence.

If we acknowledge Facebook as the pioneer in the social space and disruptor of the digital advertising world, then what can we learn from this successful platform?

Being the genuine article

Authenticity has traditionally been the golden ticket to boosting sales and revenue. So it's no surprise that more than 70% of consumers acknowledge that they spend more with authentic brands. This trend became even more pronounced last year, with Merriam-Webster crowning "authenticity" as its Word of the Year 2023. But social media is putting this to the test.

Inauthentic content has seen its stock rise rapidly over the past few years – and this poses a challenge for consumers. Namely, how can they discern between what's real and what's fake? AI has also pushed this conundrum even further with AI-powered influencers cropping up increasingly frequently. AI model Aitana Lopez may be little more than a collection of ones and zeroes, but that hasn't stopped her from amassing more than 200,000 Instagram followers. H&M's campaign featuring Kuki – another AI chatbot – reached 11x more people compared with a traditional ad, hence the argument for integrating them into advertising strategies.

On the face of it, virtual influencers can be a key driver for immediate success, with an ability to broaden campaign reach and additional control for brands an added bonus. However, creator partnerships aren't based on bolstering a campaign's clicks. These are powerful alliances that use unique personalities and voices to generate emotional connections and foster affinity with communities. Let's not forget, true human influence that leaves an impression beyond a social feed is the key to increased purchasing intent.

This is where real, human influencers come into their own. Rather than dismissing content creators as expensive, advertisers should see them as disruptors of the industry in their own right and devise ways to let them operate in harmony with emerging technology. Across the ad industry, AI can truly be the ultimate enabler.

Same same, but is it different?

Facebook's time at the top of the social pyramid has been marked by constant innovation, ensuring it could keep up with evolving societal and cultural demands. And this speed and nimbleness has not gone unnoticed, particularly by its closest rival.

TikTok's 1.7 billion active users make it second only to Facebook, with forecasts predicting that this will reach 2.1 billion in 2025. Yet, for all this success, the platform has its own set of challenges to overcome in 2024 as it enters its maturity.

TikTok has made a name for itself by being home to groundbreaking content and user-friendly discovery. It came of age when everyone was looking for joyful connections and community during the pandemic – but as influencer marketing ad spend looks set to exceed $1.3bn this year, brands will be putting the platform and its influencers under more pressure to drive conversion rates this year.

Up to this point, TikTok has straddled the tightrope between delivering an enjoyable user experience and monetisation, and creators have felt free to play and innovate. So as spending reaches record heights, it is crucial that it strikes the right balance and avoid succumbing to enshittification or platform decay.

These questions don't just apply to TikTok itself; the ramifications extend to the creators who have built a platform on their personalities. While adhering to the algorithmic formula will undoubtedly help creators crop up on more screens, it's their creativity that will attract the eyes that matter – that being from both advertisers and customers.

Time for a status update

As Facebook prepares to release the balloons on its own timeline, it's hard not to get caught up in the nostalgia. After all, this platform has been at the heart of our daily routine for two decades. But for all its shiny new toys, one ingredient has kept Facebook a staple of social strategies: its ability to prioritise true human connection.

Facebook's commitment to connection – and that of every social media platform – will be tested through 2024 and beyond. The rise of AI, coupled with the proliferation of apps and alternatives, poses even further questions to advertisers' social plans. But if they want to continue riding the wave, investing in community building and forging positive relationships with influencers is the perfect stepping stone.

Ben Jeffries is chief executive and co-founder of Influencer

Image credit: GettyImages/Matt Cardy

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