What do successful social networks have in common? What’s the key to their enormous appeal? The clue is not really in the name. Because while you used to go back to Facebook to see what your friends had done, that’s not the case with TikTok, another social network that offers dependably entertaining content of a different kind. And it’s not true of Instagram, where aspirational eye-candy is usually the name of the game.
So what is the common denominator of our best-loved social apps which span permanent and ephemeral content, friends-only closed networks and huge platforms where we follow people we’ve never met?
The first is the addictive content they offer up. We return because we want more of what we got before: tweets, posts, stories, videos. And the second is the ability of these platforms to deliver amazing, innovative, pioneering user experiences, from the news feed and the swipes, to the interactions and frictionless speed of the experience.
These are the reasons users keep coming back, and it’s why advertisers come too. They don’t care about advertising to groups of friends; they simply see huge audiences, ease of targeting and intuitive format experiences integrated well into the content, which is slick, reliable and easy to use.
As a user-first ad marketplace that brings the premium experiences of social media to the open web, when we talk about social, we don’t just mean social networks; we really mean the qualities that make social distinctive. And if we can break down those qualities, there is no real reason why publishers on the open web, with premium content and quality experiences of their own, shouldn’t draw their own share of those audiences.
Premium publishers have been rolled over by the social juggernaut in recent years, but we think they still represent a vital piece of the puzzle. There is an increasing need for innovation in the broader digital ad marketplace, and there are limits to how far social networks themselves can provide all the answers.
At an online conference we ran recently under the headline ‘Beyond Social’, the abiding consensus was that social networks, while offering enormous reach, are not necessarily the easiest places for brands to innovate.
“I think social has kind of become TV in some respects, where it's all about massive reach,” suggested Patrick Zinga, Digital Strategy and Planning Lead at media agency Starcom. “It is what you use as your main go-to media, [but then you use other media to] add and move forward – more towards innovation and larger partnerships, as opposed to focusing on a basic reach plan.”
The user-generated aspects of social networks, too, are a concern for brands who are drawn to their turbo-charged, precision environments, but could probably do without the more chilling possibilities of unsuitable content.
This is where publishers can really score. Newsworks research shows that users are 50 per cent more likely to engage with adverts in high-quality environments. If publishers can match their content and their loyal readers with seamless ad experiences, they can complete the set of winning social attributes.
Our own priority over the past two years has been to create social-style ads, in both format and functionality. We make them as slick and fast as anything you would find on Instagram by using Accelerated Mobile Pages – a standardised, fast-loading web format created by Google and used by millions of publishers around the world. And we locate them in premium editorial contexts, enabling advertisers to reach the audiences of the world’s best – and most dependable – publishers.
Social networks have been left to create the innovation engine that drives digital marketing, and they have certainly innovated. But brands and publishers now need to do the same. The standard of creativity in advertising, as Patrick noted at our conference, has dwindled under social. Outside social, advertising innovation has suffered too, and that represents an existential danger for advertisers.
“Innovation is necessary, because if you don't innovate at a regular cadence, you will end up with what developers call technical debt,” said dentsu X Managing Partner, Strategy, Phillip Dyte. “So sure, you might think, that brand is a mug for doing that, it clearly didn't work. But if you don't [innovate] enough then suddenly you'll turn around and realise that everyone else is ahead of you and you don't know how to catch up.”
We think the world beyond social can be hugely enriched by the gains social has made in online user experience. But if publishers and brands can take charge this time, they will both reap a greater share of the benefits.