The walled gardens of social media have dominated the digital marketing landscape for nearly a decade. With massive audiences, data-driven advertising and content-rich formats, advertisers have gone from dipping their toes to throwing their budgets into the wells of Silicon Valley.
But in 2022, the so-called “headwinds” of privacy and economic uncertainty — combined with more competition and an evolving user base — have created a new set of challenges for the giants and the marketers that fund them.
Throughout 2022, major platforms have each had both collective and unique challenges. Along with increased pressure from legislation, regulations, investigations and lawsuits against tech giants, smaller startups and advertisers themselves, Apple’s app-tracking changes have cut into tech giants’ bottom lines and weakened targeting and measurement capabilities. Meanwhile, competition from rivals like TikTok and Twitter’s disarray under the ownership of Elon Musk contributed to the industry’s existential dilemma about where to appear and what to avoid.
“I wouldn’t want to be in the seat of a buyer right now,” said Ryan Anthony, CEO and co-founder of Dirt, a marketing neuroscience startup. “I can’t think of a single advertiser that hasn’t had to blow up their [lifetime value] models this year because of privacy.”
The tumultuous year has left marketers, agency executives, analysts and other experts rethinking everything from data practices to content strategies to e-commerce efforts. TikTok’s rise, younger users’ demands, a growing creator economy and brand safety issues have all further complicated the already complex landscape and prompted some companies to re-consider their usual tactics.
At the center of much of this discussion sits the importance of data. A survey of 6,000 marketing leaders conducted this summer by Salesforce found that 75% still rely at least partially on third-party data, but 68% said they plan to move toward first-party data. Meanwhile, 51% said their measures to protect consumer privacy go beyond regulatory requirements and industry standards, down from 61% last year.
“There might be a little bit of a gap year happening as marketers have been retooling around first-party data to be able to create the right context and the right targeting on those platforms,” said Jay Wilder, vice president of product marketing for Salesforce’s marketing cloud. “Some of that is also shifting audiences from one platform to another, and marketers are going to be catching up with that.”
The year of copycats
Social advertising still has the biggest budget allocation at 10.1%, down from 11.3% in 2021, according to Gartner research. But the massive audiences, evolving content formats and expanded ad tools across TikTok and Pinterest are still attracting advertisers of varying types.
Facebook, YouTube and Instagram have all been all racing to keep up with TikTok, which has led to a year of the platforms copying each others’ formats to try to keep users in their apps. And in September, Snap announced a major restructuring plan to refocus on Snapchat’s key differentiators including community growth and augmented reality.
“As TikTok and Instagram compete for audiences’ attention, the content differences between the two will continue to blur,” said Claudia Ratterman, director analyst at Gartner Marketing.
Some brands have found success with organic reach on TikTok after years of diminishment on Facebook and Instagram. Other companies have been moving beyond just social ads when it works with creators. For example, the online learning platform Skillshare has been using its own platforms and also wherever its teachers own audiences, which has led to it spending less now on influencer marketing now than two years ago.
“In theory, YouTube should be our biggest competitor, but it’s been our biggest promotor,” said Skillshare CEO Matt Cooper. “I know if one of our teachers is promoting their Skillshare class on YouTube or in their newsletter, we know they’re reaching people rather than bots.”
Creators, computers, and social beyond the content
The growth of video led marketers not just to think about what their creative assets look like, but also how to make more of it. User-generated content, the creator economy and artificial intelligence such as generative AI have all been a part of marketers’ content strategies in 2022 and will likely be an even higher priority in 2023.
“TikTok transformed social media advertising from brand-first to creator-led,” said Kelsey Chickering, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.
Content has been front and center, but how social networks are using it is also evolving in unexpected ways. Younger people have been using TikTok’s search engine to find information and research products, but some researchers have also found concerning and potentially dangerous misinformation in the results. (TikTok’s capabilities even have execs at Google — the ranking king of search — suggesting it might soon face more competition.) Elsewhere, people are also using Reddit to get advice from fellow Redditers or adding the word “Reddit” to search queries to uncover relevant results.
“While people may be shifting away from mind-making impulse buys, they’re doing research,” said Timo Pelz, Reddit’s vice president of business marketing. “They’re still spending. They’re just very thoughtful about how they do it and they need to justify their purchases more. A lot of places you go today will just advertise at you.”
Liz Cole, head of social at VMLY&R, said the continued overlapping of platforms and their capabilities have also evolved platforms from separate islands to collectively become part of the social web as a whole. The way she sees it, platforms’ users are in many ways all part of the same audience, which requires content that transcends platforms. The changes are also evolving how agencies are planning content.
“Instead of thumb-stopping where you try to get people to be interested in content when they weren’t, we’re wondering whether to make content for people who are looking for content,” Cole said.
Elon Musk, Twitter and the ‘blue bird in the room’
When it comes to how platforms have changed marketing in 2022, perhaps the biggest shakeup is also the most recent. Since Elon Musk acquired Twitter two months ago, many marketers have grappled with pausing advertising with the platform, how to handle organic content or whether to leave the beleaguered blue bird entirely. On the other hand, some still seem to like it even in the new era.
The true impact of Musk’s ownership on Twitter and its advertisers might be murky for a while, but some say the upheaval will collectively cost the company tens of millions in lost ad revenue.
It’s not just about the ads. Many companies use Twitter for customer service channels, social listening, announcements or other efforts that either isn’t as feasible on rival platforms or even the same fit elsewhere. The dynamics have also created a catch-22 situation for brands.
“You can no longer even just advertise on Twitter,” said Gali Arnon, chief marketing officer at Fiverr. “By even advertising on Twitter, that’s taking a stand. Whether you are removing your ads, that also says something about you as a brand. We actually hear from customers that either like or don’t like the fact that we are actually still on Twitter, but the funny thing is those customers are complaining on Twitter.”
The widening cracks in social media’s legacy walled gardens have also made room for brands looking to find fresh ways to grow new audiences and foster conversations with consumers. Beth Tripaldi, vice president of connections strategy at Huge, said some brands have begun shifting budgets into “really unique pockets” such as Reddit and Discord. (Discord doesn’t allow ads, but many brands have formed their own servers as a way to connect directly with fans.) Although breaking larger audiences into niche communities can be challenging compared to traditional social media marketing, she thinks it also comes with new creative opportunities.
“Those that are actually driving the conversations around it aren’t really empowered or set up in order to scale from that,” Tripaldi said. “That’s where brands can come in. They can really be more facilitators that can help with adding value.”
Marketers’ efforts to integrate online shopping strategies with their social media strategies have also led to the growth of “social commerce.” Facebook and TikTok have been testing live video shopping, Pinterest is building out new and long-awaited tools and even Musk said he’d like to make Twitter more of a commerce platform.
For the e-commerce platform MikMak, social commerce traffic was 19% higher in 2022 than it was in 2021. And from January through November of this year, MikMak’s social commerce traffic based on purchase intent clicks grew by 531%. Where the traffic is happening is also shifting. For example, TikTok was seventh in 2021 when it came to the total share of social commerce traffic, but in 2022 it was third. (Facebook accounted for 56% of the share in 2022, followed by 32% on Instagram, 3.6% on YouTube and 2.3% on Snap, 1.3% on Pinterest, and .15% on Twitter.)
Rachel Tipograph, founder and CEO of MikMak, credited a number of factors to altering the landscape including the rise of retail media networks, weakening ad attribution and the convergence of brand and performance marketing. It’s been especially challenging for companies that rely on driving traffic from a social app to a retail app because most people have opted out of tracking on Apple devices. Although attribution has been harder in some places — including certain apps and specific categories such as groceries — Tipograph said MikMak still has seen strong results for others such as product categories people research more such as toys and electronics.
“It’s not because of technology. It’s because companies don’t want to play nice with each other,” Tipgraph said. “Apple woke up in 2019, realized people were building multi-billion dollar business in their hardware and wanted a piece of the pie. They’ve effectively undone ad-tech as we know it.”