In the past 20 years, social media has emerged as one of the most pervasive and influential forces in society.
As of March 31, 2019, Facebook alone reported having 1.56 billion daily active users. By 2022, the total number of social media users is expected to grow to 3.29 billion, representing about 42 percent of the global population. Those legions of users are not just visiting social media platforms to stay in touch with friends and family. Social media has become a digital commons where people and corporations share ideas, sell their wares, make political arguments, and even start revolutions.
Social media has become a vital marketing and communications channel for businesses, organizations and institutions alike, including those in the political sphere.
In “The Future of Social Media in Marketing,” a paper forthcoming in The Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Tuck assistant professor Lauren Grewal examines social media from the perspective of a marketer, discussing nine themes that will arise in the short, medium, and long terms. To craft this conceptual/theoretical paper, Grewal and her co-authors Gil Appel (Marshall School of Business), Rhonda Hadi (Saïd Business School), and Andrew T. Stephen (Saïd Business School) had conversations with executives from a wide range of companies and examined recent research in the fields of digital and social media marketing to understand what we do and don’t yet know. “It is important to consider the future of social media in the context of consumer behavior and marketing,” they write, “since social media has become a vital marketing and communications channel for businesses, organizations and institutions alike, including those in the political sphere.”
While all nine themes are important in their own right, we challenged Grewal to choose the three most relevant social media considerations for 2020, a year when a presidential election will take center stage, and when people will continue to make sense of the costs and benefits of our hyper-connected and tracked world.
Theme 1: Social Media as a Political Tool
Barack Obama in 2008 was the first presidential candidate to leverage social media to help win an election, using it to connect with voters and urge them to get out to the ballot box. Two years later, social media was a critical driver of the Arab Spring. During the 2016 presidential election, social media was used—by legitimate and illegitimate actors—to influence voters’ opinions in ways that have caused concerns for their effects on democracy. Now, social media remains in the spotlight as a new presidential election is taking place and people are skeptical of the truth and authenticity of political speech on the internet. Twitter recently announced it would not sell political advertisements because it couldn’t verify their truthfulness, but Facebook declined to take that step.
“Platforms’ decisions are going to significantly impact our coming election,” Grewal says. “Social media platforms like Facebook have a lot of power here, and for those that choose to show political ads, not being able to fully understand the algorithms behind the ads, and who sees what—it could exacerbate the echo chamber effect, wherein people only see content they agree with or believe to be true, even when it’s not. The ramifications of what type of information is offered, and how it’s shown to various people, could be huge.”
Theme 2: Privacy Concerns
Consumers are increasingly concerned that companies are buying, selling, and using their personal data. In her paper, Grewal cites one study showing that “nearly 40 percent of digitally connected individuals admitted to deleting at least one social media account due to fears of their personal data being mishandled,” and that “nearly half of the surveyed consumers believed brands to be complicit in negative aspects of content on social media such as hate speech, inappropriate content, or fake news.” The takeaway for businesses is that they must hold social media platforms accountable, work hard to develop transparent policies for consumer data, and take steps to rebuild consumer trust.
Theme 3: Combatting Loneliness and Isolation
It’s reasonable to assume that hyper-connectivity to others via the internet would engender feelings of belonging and community. And yet, over the last 50 years in the U.S., rates of loneliness and isolation have doubled, and Generation Z (those born between 1996 and 2010) is considered the loneliest generation in history.
If it’s used too much to avoid negative aspects of life, things may eventually become worse as everything will eventually come to a head.
“The role of social media in this ‘loneliness epidemic’ is being hotly debated,” the authors write. The research results are mixed. At the extreme end of the social media use spectrum, people report higher perceived isolation, loneliness and depression. On the other hand, social media can have positive benefits, such as developing socialization skills, providing access to information resources, and giving people the opportunity to meet likeminded friends who might live far away.
“This is a difficult area, because the same thing can be a positive or a negative, depending on how it’s used,” Grewal says. “If you’re using social media as a release or an escape, that can be a good thing depending on a person’s situation. But on the other side, if it’s used too much to avoid negative aspects of life, things may eventually become worse as everything will eventually come to a head.”