It’s cliche to cite internet technology as a catalyst of unprecedented change in our lifetime, but, frankly, when it comes to the evolution of social media and social media marketing, internet technology is nothing less than a catalyst of unprecedented change in our lifetime.
In some ways, it’s impossible to untangle the birth of social media from the advent of the internet. Tim Berners-Lee, an inventor of the World Wide Web, describes the early conception of the internet in terms that could easily describe any social media platform:
”The original idea of the web was that it should be a collaborative space where you can communicate through sharing information.”
It certainly sounds like social media, though substitute “collaborative” for “collective goofing off,” and the picture becomes clear.
As IT tech advanced, bringing in the age of home computers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, people began to view the internet in more social terms; if everyone was using it, after all, couldn’t it be used to connect everyone?
In this article, I’ll be exploring the history of social media marketing, looking at the primary player and significant events that shaped its evolution and occasional reinvention. I’ll be looking at organic and paid social media strategies to illustrate trends in social media marketing.
Social Media’s Early Age (1997-2007)
Friendster, MySpace, SixDegrees, the early social media era, is best known for its short-lived fads and numerous flops.
The first real social media platform, Six Degrees, is a perfect representation of early social platforms. Launched in 1997, the platform was built around the six degrees of separation concept, utilizing what’s come to be known as the “Web of Contacts” social platform model.
Users listed friends, both on the site and externally, and could send messages and post bulletin boards to any user that was either one, two, or three separated from those on their friend list.
SixDegrees grew to 3.5 million by 1999, after which it was sold to YouthStream Media Networks in 1999 for $125 million. Growth hit the ceiling due to the-then limited number of web users, and early web infrastructure struggled to sustain the platform’s complexity, shuttering in 2000.
The next platform, Friendster, arrived in 2001, the same year that SixDegrees collapsed. Pioneering the “circle of friends” social model, used later by MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn, Friendster further innovated by introducing status updates and direct messages, with the latter limited to “friends of friends of friends.”
And while Friendster is currently a tech punchline, these innovations proved enormously successful, drawing in 3 million users within its first three months and closing out its first year with four million. Frequent leadership changes, technical and operational challenges, and newer platforms’ arrival led to its downfall.
Founded in 2005, MySpace quickly picks up Friendster’s slack with customizable profiles that let users show off pictures, music, and videos. MySpace’s publicly searchable profiles—in contrast to Friendster’s private pages—helped its exponential growth. Reaching 25 million users by the end of its first year, by 2006, MySpace became the most visited site on the web.
By 2008, it was overtaken by a young upstart that would go onto define social media and social media marketing. Over the next three years, Myspace would lose an average of 40 million unique views each month.
The Golden Age of Social Media (2006-2012)
Many of today’s most popular social media platforms had their start in the mid-aughts, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Pinterest. This ‘golden age’ was transformative, changing social media marketing from an unknown to a vital practice.
This period marked a significant breaking point away from the social networks of the past. Whereas early platforms placed all of their emphasis on user growth, the social networks of the mid-2000 struck gold by strutting their platform to offer a compelling social experience to users on one end and extremely competitive marketing tools on the other.
What Facebook Learned From Failures of Platforms Past
Facebook is perhaps the most illustrative example of how social media and social media marketing evolved in the industry’s golden era.
At first, early social media platforms were tied to the early utopic dreams of web communication: a revolutionary means of connecting strangers worldwide.
And while networks like Friendster and Myspace had tens, and eventually hundreds, of millions of registered users, the bonds between users weren’t particularly strong. Users had few connections and, as such, felt a looser affiliation with the networks. This ensured that once users began to flee, they fled in droves, leaving behind virtual ghost towns.
Facebook changed all that. The idea: online communities can only thrive between people with genuine social bonds, and proving that online communities could survive, and thrive, by serving both users and advertisers (More on its ad platform later).
Among the most impactful innovations was the requirement that users display their real name instead of the anonymous pseudonyms that dominated prior—which played a large part in fostering greater social cohesion. Facebook’s platform was built around daily interactions with users’ closest real-life connections, in addition to an expanding circle of acquaintances. They focused on increasing user engagement and continuous platform updates instead of the single-minded focus on user growth that was a hallmark of the first dot com boom.
Facebook’s locus on user-generated content, sharing, and the newly-invented news feed created a sort of virtual commons, creating a feedback loop that attracted users to the platform and kept them engaged. Twitter would pick up on this trend the same year, offering a chronological news feed of followers’ interactions.
No one knew it yet, but this laid a perfect foundation for social media’s transition into a lucrative marketing tool, owing to the platform’s revolutionary degree of engagement and user trust.
Facebook Opens the Floodgates to Marketers and Advertisers
The early tech scene’s distrust of advertising, which many feared would alienate users, provided a massive opportunity for Facebook, the first social platform to offer an ad marketplace.
One year after its public opening, in 2007, Facebook changed social media marketing forever.
Facebook launched a revolutionary self-service ad platform, Facebook Ads, which was as elegantly designed and easy to use as the end-user experience. Now, any company could purchase advertising space—in the form of banner space on the far right side of the newsfeed.
Many did, in great numbers bringing in $150 million in ad revenue.
Further development of the ads platform created targeted ads based on a few basic demographic data fields. And on top of that, Facebook introduced business pages, provided a free means of advertising for brands.
Marketers quickly adopted a playbook based on the combination of free business pages and paid ads. First, a business page would be set up for free, with ads used to acquire more followers, thus creating a larger audience for free posts. Once marketers understood the lifetime value of a new user and use that to budget a reasonable cost for new followers, they could effectively scale campaigns.
This strategy soon became dominant, until later platform changes in 2014.
These early adopters of Facebook’s new ad platform experienced outsized wins. Improvements in user targeting helped lower many companies’ new follower acquisition cost, and the advertising audience itself proved to be highly engaged, creating higher lifetime customer values, which allowed marketers to increase their CPA thresholds further.
Social ads proved particularly useful as well. Today marketers would describe the format as ‘native,’ appearing in the same context as user-generated content. This innovation proved to be more authentic and relevant to users and offered significantly greater engagement than banner ads, thanks to the added social proof. Their ability to be shared helped spread them more widely.
After experiencing their first profitable month, in Sep 2009, the pace of new features increased, bringing a mobile app and sponsored ads in 2011 and mobile ads and retargeting in 2012. Facebook’s frequent improvements kept them helped spur a social media marketing arms race.
This increased competition helped spur better and more lucrative tools. LinkedIn had already beat Facebook to the punch with their LinkedIn targeted display ads in 2005 and direct ads in 2008. Twitter would later launch promoted ads and accounts in 2010
No company would match Facebook at its peak. But the story of their early contribution, and that of Twitter, doesn’t end there.
Organic Social Takes Form: Every Company Is A Media Company
Organic social media marketing evolved out of Facebook’s business pages and the popularization of Twitter (Founded in 2006).
The beginning of organic social coincided with the Great Recession, providing a much needed shot in the arm for publishers struggling with the lower value of digital advertising, and helped businesses of all kinds find audiences for free.
This native marketing medium helped brands convey authenticity, led to a brand new style of messaging, made PR more accessible and personable, and helped elevate the voices of fans expressing enthusiasm for their favorite brands.
The added reach provided by organic marketing proved vital. Day-to-day posts increased engagement with users, priming them for later purchase, helped draw in new fans, and could, on occasion, provide a waterfall of viral awareness.
Beyond increasing reach, organic social provided several useful functions, like:
- Increasing brand awareness
- Generate leads and
- Boosting conversions
- Nurture customers relationships
- Keeping tabs on competing brands
What’s more, this organic reach proved highly useful to the organization’s evolving content marking practices, providing a platform to promote digital content freely, gain user feedback, and leverage a viral reachable to impact the bottom line meaningfully.
The evolution of organic strategy, though, only tells half the story. The language, branding, and tone of social media were honed on the minimalistic micro-blogging platform, Twitter.
Shifting the Tone of Marketing from Promotional to Personable and ‘Authentic’
While Twitter only found middling success in paid advertising, its most lasting impact lay in transforming just about every company into a media company.
If Facebook changed the internet through a closed-loop advertising marketplace and a more “social” social architecture, Twitter’s facilitating of individual and mass-scale communication fundamentally changed global communication. What’s more, going on to revolutionizing how marketers engaged with consumers and directly sell them goods and services.
“Twitter is closer to the Global Village than the internet was envisioned to be. If something happens in the world-regardless of whether it is banal or profound—someone will tweet about it,” according to Dhiraj Murthy.
Launched in 2016, Twitter’s 140-word character limit (Now doubled to 280) introduced several new elements to organic social. The minimalistic format trained brands to write with brevity and humor, humanizing brands while providing endless PR opportunities.
In short, Twitter proved to be a messaging training ground.
This was the beginning of a sea change: from publisher-created content to user- and brand-based content, from direct advertising to consumer engagement and branding. Immediate feedback, provided in hearts, retweets, and mentions, formed a social architecture that facilitated a “dialogic loop” between Twitter users and brands, a communication style unique to online communication.
Retweets allowed brands to quote their users, who would receive clear attribution and credit for a promoted tweet. Corporate accounts could promote a message while providing impactful moments observable by followers, relating personally.
This new direct form of marketing communication allows brands of any kind to adopt a new identity and immediately change consumer sentiment and perception.
Many large corporations using it tended to borrow the language and perspective of the then millennial-heavy online meme culture, adopting it as a character-based spokesperson.
Businesses made use of Twitter’s speed to great success in rapid response marketing. Marketers leveraged breaking stories, monitored cultural trends, and cleverly attached their brands to trending topics.
Twitter’s accessibility, format, app-specific features, global reach, and interconnectivity within the app have allowed it to not only change its users’ communication but altered the landscape of international communication as well.
By providing a “dialogic loop” unique to online communication, tweets more closely resemble real-life social interactions, generating higher consumer trust.
Wendy’s establishes dialogic loops primarily by using retweets and humor to connect with individuals, by engaging with other organizations positively and negatively, and by utilizing a character spokesperson.
Twitter would continue to maintain organic reach throughout its evolution; however, as social platforms crowded, paid advertising would dominate.
Modern Age (2012-2020)
Social media’s third wave of iteration and innovation was built on the successes of the golden age. Yet, the profound technological evolution of advertising and news feed algorithms marked a profound change.
The following trends define this current period:
- Content oversaturation leads to content saturation and a great emphasis on paid social.
- Increasingly sophisticated audience targeting provided better performing ads.
- Visual social platforms emerge as the wave of the future.
Overload: Social Media Content Saturation
In 2012, social media marketers used to drawing organic traffic on Facebook began to panic.
Facebook reached 1 billion users that year. Content creation was easier than ever for users and brands. This crowded space created a new problem: it’s hard to be visible at all.
The news feed changed from a reverse chronological timeline to an algorithmically-derived one––optimized for user engagement. This watered-down organic reach across the board. 2012 brought organic reach down to content published on brand pages to 16 percent. By December 2013, it declined to just 6 percent, according to an analysis from Ogilvy Consulting.
Ultimately, Facebook pitched this change to give marketers more predictable results that reached more segmented and valuable audiences. Many didn’t approve of the move to this day. However, Facebook’s claims of improved ad performance began to bear out.
Facebook’s answer to this problem proved influential and highly controversial.
This also changed the context of how businesses leveraged social media. The increased competition, along with the introduction of native ad formats and more advanced consumer data, meant that end-users changed from a general audience to a complex web of much narrower groupings, providing higher value to advertisers.
As companies began experimenting with these new ad formats,
Leveraging the social proof of Facebook’s native ads helped drive more engagement and sales, assisting brands in getting more competitive rates on ad bids.
A 2012 ComScore study found that one retailer’s Facebook fans were 27 percent more likely to purchase following a paid campaign. A Nielson analysis concluded that consumer confidence in online and mobile advertising was on the rise. Social ads endorsed by a friend led to a 55 percent higher ad recall.
This consequently encouraged marketers to adopt more targeted advertising, additionally tailored towards more specific goals.
Today, these strategies and ad tools have widely spread to other platforms and, combined with plummeting organic research, fundamentally changed social media. From a marketing platform fueled by social communication between users with deep social ties to a model driven by highly targeted paid advertising.
Targeting Gets More Advanced
The immense growth of social platforms and the increasing monetization through advertising brought another seismic change in social media marketing: advanced targeting provided by in-depth user data.
This is yet another area in which Facebook played the role of pioneer.
Early on, Facebook developed a social graph, a complex mapping of the relationships between users, which would temporarily open to app developers to encourage engagement and signups.
Facebook greatly expanded its data through the invention of the Facebook Conversion Pixel, and the Website Custom Audience Pixel. These pixels, small snippets of code embedded in websites, offered marketers insights on how customers interacted once off Facebook.
All this data culminated in the creation of Facebook Lookalike Audiences.
Lookalike Audiences collects user data from a brand’s site. By calculating thousands of points of comparison between a brand’s visitors, and hundreds of millions of users on Facebook’s platform, algorithmically-matched audiences were served ads on Facebook.
Lookalike audiences became adopted as a primary tactic for Facebook ads, especially as organic reach declined. As brands looked increasingly demanded a means of scaling campaigns, Facebook began offering segmented customer lists, which divided the audience by their value and importance of a brand’s audience.
Testing new audiences and tweaking targeting became the de-facto method of Facebook marketing, replacing the organic + paid strategy of the golden age.
The extra data streams would improve Facebook’s ad optimization algorithms, moving beyond merely optimizing for ad clicks and impressions and allowing them to implement objectives to its ad-buying options. Now campaigns would be automatically optimized towards one of a few goals, like email address collection, account signups, or purchases. All this effectively allowed brands to scale their acquisition efforts even further.
Instagram’s launch of Insta Stories in 2016 is a prime example, as was the added compact of tracking conversions that occur offline. That meant retailers, restaurants, telesales operations could measure how digital ads were driving revenue, much like a digital-first business.
As LinkedIn expanded its advertising capabilities, it provided in-depth analytics that allowed digital marketers to target specific demographic groups with ads. As the platform’s basis as a professional network, it proved a lucrative grounds for building brand awareness and generating leads for B2B business.
All this growth in advertising led to crowded ad marketplaces and higher CPMs.
Visual-Based Social Media Apps Change Take Over, Ad Formats Evolve
As smartphone camera technology grew over the ’10s and brought professional-quality photography—or something very close to it—into everyday consumers’ hands, the latest generation of image and video-based social media app platforms began to take shape.
The first, most prominent, and largest remains Instagram.
Founded in 2010 and purchased by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, Instagram grew in popularity owing to a simplified, chronological news feed, free of walls of text and, for a time, any advertising. Proprietary photo filters helped bring their snapshots to life—anything from carefully arranged plates of gourmet food to candid photos and naturalistic vistas.
Instagram is perhaps best understood as the Facebook of the post-golden age of social media, bringing in a young, highly engaged, and lucrative audience.
Just as Facebook’s audience proved lightyears more engaged than average web traffic in 2007, so did Instagram’s crow prove significantly more lucrative than Facebook’s. A 2014 study effectively demonstrated Instagram’s then-unprecedented value for marketers:
- The highest conversion rate from browsers to shoppers.
- Instagram ads have helped retailers increase ad recall by 32% and brand message lift by 10%.
- Instagram’s engagement was 15 times that of Facebook.
By 2015, a Pew Research Center survey found that 32 percent of US teens would describe Instagram as their primary platform; 24 percent for Twitter; 14 percent for Facebook.
Even before the platform launched ads in 2013, its chronological news feed and emphasis on compelling images proved to be a vital source of organic traffic for a range of businesses—particularly retail, restaurants, beauty products, and arts and crafts.
The company’s explosive growth eventually oversaturated the platform with content. Much like Facebook, its organic reach rapidly sank. Research from Locowise found that follower growth slowed from 1.9 percent to .25 percent between April and September 2015—per post engagement also dropped 2.8 percent to 1.76 percent at the same time.
This change wasn’t indicative of a failing platform. Instagram ads capitalized on the extraordinarily high user engagement levels, with click-through rates reaching 1.5 percent, compared to Facebook’s .84 percent.
Taking another queue from Facebook’s playbook, Instagram developed a series of innovative ad formats that effectively captured its attention. ‘Native’ ads, in the form of sponsored posts, its initial ad offering in 2013, followed by the interactive multi-image Carousel Ads in 2015, vertical and video ads in 2016, and Instagram Stories ads, came in 2017, which emulated Snapchat’s “ephemeral” disappearing content.
The company experienced massive growth, and its ad revenue skyrocketed 20 times between 2015 ($500 million) and 2019 ($20 billion). By 2019, Instagram completed its evolution from a young upstart to an established institution, driving a full quarter of Facebook’s revenue.
And while Instagram remains the most lucrative photo- and video-based social media platform, Snapchat, and later TikTok, may have what it takes to eclipse the photo-sharing giant.
Snapchat has already made a massive impact on social media marketing.
Launched in 2011, the platform exploded in popularity with a similarly young, hip audience. Snapchat lets users scribble, caption, and add filters to photos and videos, encouraging its users to send direct messages to friends. The ingenious twist was temporary nature “snaps,” which expire within 24 hours.
Snapchat’s lack of a news feed, combined with quickly expiring content, didn’t prove a barrier to entry for marketers, especially as the platform developed new and innovative ad formats that attracted advertisers and leveraged its unique structure.
Snap ads, sponsored lenses, and geofilters form the platform’s primary paid advertising products. Geofilters are a particularly notable invention, an ad format that functions as sponsored photo filters distributed based on users’ geographic location, often encouraging consumers to make their way to a brick-and-mortar location. Not only useful in generating brand awareness, but they’ve also been found to draw foot traffic to local brick-and-mortar businesses.
Wendy’s promoted their limited time Jalapeño Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich and drove 42,000 users to their storefronts. Since Snap Ads have a swipe-up (Click-through) rate five times higher than the average click-through rate on other social media platforms, it’s a great way to promote your brand.
Today, Snapchat boasts 238 million daily users, creates 4 billion snaps per day, and hosts 32.7 percent of marketers.
As they say, the present contains elements of the future. If there’s one rising social media star set to revolutionize the industry, it’s TikTok.
TikTok is the latest social media craze, and it’s quickly scaling into a marketing powerhouse. It’s a video-based app-based platform in which users share short videos between three and 15 seconds—and short looping videos between 3 and 60 seconds.
It’s user totals have grown eight times since early 2018, from 11 million Americans to more than 91 million. The platform’s advertising features have proven just as exciting as the social media site, which boasts the highest per-post engagement rate. Users spend at least 52 minutes daily on the application, significantly higher than the average of around 30 minutes seen on Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook.
Its self-service ad platform offers some of the most innovative native advertising formats around. “Brand takeovers” are full-screen ads that play on opening TikTok, which can be linked to a trending hashtag or may feature a call-to-action directing users to a landing page. The platform’s lens effect, similar to Instagram’s famous filters, can also be sponsored.
The company opened the platform to US advertisers in summer 2020, with it’s TikTok For Business self-service ad platform. By the year’s end, TikTok is expected to hit 500 million in revenue for the US alone (And is on track to rake in a whopping 27.2 billion in China by the year’s end, becoming the highest-earning non-game app in Apple’s App Store).
Along with Instagram, TikTok is making a big bet on augmented reality advertising. While the format is still in its infancy, there’s reason to believe it may soon dominate. Statista forecasts that the worldwide AR market will grow from roughly 3.5 billion in 2017 to more than 198 billion in 2025 (Though it’s currently expensive to produce, with a single ad costing around 5,000 to make and a sophisticated campaign amounting to as much as $100,000.)
Early results are promising. Approximately 70 percent of Snapchat’s use AR lenses daily, with 61 percent of AR admitting to sharing such ads with others. And it’s too early to make pronouncements on performance; initial results are promising. Papa John’s reached a staggering 25 percent conversion rate with their AR campaign. Shopify echoed that viewing product in AR increases conversion rates by as much as 250 percent.
Expect the future of social media marketing to move longtime trends through advancements in artificial intelligence, continued evolution and public pressure on improved community moderation, and confronting discoverability in an increasingly crowded content marketplace.
Social platforms aren’t done refining their algorithms to deal with content overwhelm. While increasingly sophisticated ad targeting has helped many cut through the noise, expect further advances in personalized content delivery and more relevant content. Content will be tailored with increasing personalization, on an individual level, based on known interests and routines.
Many organizations have started to implement AI in their social media accounts that deliver automatic responses. Text mining, the analysis of structured and unstructured data across social platforms, helps surface buyer preferences and predict their behavior.
Ad creative may also soon receive automated optimizations as machine learning algorithms are learning to parse data from images.
Finally, efforts will also go towards enhancing and improving the social environment of platforms. Hate speech, harassment, trolling, fake news; it’s all had a profound impact on users’ comfort in engaging naturalistically. Sure, the early attempts at effective moderation haven’t born fruit, but platform owners know this harms their sites’ viability and the value of them as marketing platforms. If you’re looking for a great pinterest marketing course.