Part I: Navigating a Volatile Social Media Climate
This article is the first in a two-part series exploring ways that executive leaders can direct and manage communications teams and operations as organizations navigate a volatile time in the social media industry.
Silicon Valley is retrenching financially after many years of economic boom, preparing for a bearish market: 11,000 jobs slashed at Facebook parent Meta, 10,000 at Amazon, and about 7,500, so far, at Twitter — and the layoffs may not be done. According to Bledi Taska, Lightcast Chief Economist, “Looking at the data, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw another spike of layoffs in January.” Experts agree that what we’re seeing is a more precautionary shift by tech companies, which is very different from previous cycles of downturn, which were reactionary. “Companies responded to a once-in-one-hundred-years demand shock, and now we’re seeing things return to where they more or less were in 2019,” said Taska.
Instability at Twitter
As referenced in my last article, the current media climate — ever a transient sea of shifting forces — is metamorphosing quickly. At Twitter, there has been an almost daily distribution of policy changes tweeted to the public. Mr. Musk appears to govern according to his momentary whims, or any number of sporadic, unscientific polls published on the platform he owns. The European Commission has threatened sanctions and fines, and to ban the platform if Twitter does not abide by its content moderation rules. In the U.S., regulations for social media companies like Twitter are needed, even as Musk has taken the company private in order to retain control and avoid content restrictions.
Whether you agree with Elon Musk or not, one thing is clear: Brands are going to need to reevaluate the idea of their marketing investments in media companies like Twitter. The brand never owned the audience data to begin with, but now, there are other positioning and risk-management considerations as the climate of social media is currently being reshaped. Brand reputation becomes an important consideration on a platform that leans toward conspiracy content and opinions published on the fringe.
Explosive Growth on Tiktok
TikTok is a media phenomenon and another social platform that will take center stage in 2023. Last year, more individuals used TikTok than Google. According to an article in The Washington Post, TikTok was visited more often than Google in 2021. No app has grown faster to achieve one billion users, with more than 100 million users in the U.S. — about one third of the U.S. population. The average American viewer watches TikTok for 80 minutes a day — more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram, combined.”
The problem with TikTok resides in ongoing concerns over what the Beijing-based company, ByteDance, is doing with the data gained about a predominant population in the U.S., as well as how the platform might influence public opinion. Members of Congress insist that it could be a modern-day Trojan horse, a powerful surveillance and propaganda machine. A bipartisan bill was just introduced in the Senate that would ban TikTok from operating in the US. Representatives Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) have introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The government is already taking actions in other ways. In fact, 19 of 50 U.S. states have now at least partially blocked access on government computers to TikTok. Jamf Holding Corp., the security firm that sells software to organizations to enable filtering and security measures, said its government customers have increasingly blocked access to TikTok since the middle of this year. About 65% of attempted connections to TikTok have been blocked this month on devices managed by Jamf’s public sector customers worldwide, including school districts and various other agencies, up from 10% of connections being blocked in June, the company said.
State Attorneys General have been involved this year as well. This month, a group of 15 attorneys general wrote to Google and Apple to call on the app store owners to stop listing TikTok as being appropriate for teens, over claims about the prevalence of mature content on the app. So, action to limit or ban TikTok at a state or federal level appears imminent, assuming no agreement is reached internationally.
Flat Projections and Investor Concerns at Facebook
The visionaries and companies that gave us social media platforms appear to be shifting once more, and in a significant way. Meta’s CEO, Zuckerberg, continues to reach for a vision that may lack the innovation currently to make it a reality. Meanwhile, Apple’s iOS 14 privacy features drove Facebook’s policy changes in 2022, limiting advertisers’ ability to target audiences. Analysts estimate that this will cost Facebook $12 Billion, all while reinforcing a perception among investors that Facebook doesn’t have a growth story. An aging audience is the death knell for any media brand, and Facebook’s trajectory of growth peaked in 2021, when the company reported its first loss in monthly and daily users.
Media Outlook for 2023
Organizations and brands can expect a continued state of turbulence in the coming year. In February 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments for two internet moderation cases related to YouTube and Twitter’s content management. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act allows for online platforms to engage in good-faith content moderation while shielding them from being held responsible for their users’ posts. The Department of Justice warned the Supreme Court against an overly broad interpretation of a law shielding social media companies from liability for what users post on their platforms, a position that undermines Google’s defense in a case that could reshape the role of content moderation on digital platforms.
Advertising budgets on social platforms should be constrained in 2023. We are seeing a swirl of uncertainty in the social media market, but with disruption comes opportunity. This presents the perfect time to audit and assess, and realign and reallocate investments to optimize communications strategies to ensure alignment with the mission, vision, and multi-year enterprise strategy. Executive leaders must direct and drive their organizations to constantly review and rethink the status quo to ensure that every outreach, every digital initiative, is grounded in research and designed with the intent to deliver meaningful, substantive impact for the organization and the brand.
The current uncertainty offers leaders a chance to ask difficult questions about value and performance. You should review your communications strategy and publishing products to separate the wheat from the chaff. What is truly effective and where should you direct your teams to focus in 2023 and beyond? In my next article, I will share our counsel to clients and how nonprofit executive leaders can help navigate a volatile media climate.