Why your social strategy is failing you in a TikTok-dominant world

Finding success through this evolution means building new strengths rather than grafting new channels on to an old strategy

Statisticians have a concept called overfitting. It’s a phenomenon where a model too closely follows the path of existing data, forcing it to miss the mark as new data emerges. Today, brands’ social strategies are overfit to the previous era, Scott Luther, head of digital strategy at The Richards Group, explains.

Content strategy, development, channel planning, audience targeting and media investment, publishing, moderation, hype-jacking and clout-chasing – all were designed for the feeds of yesterday.

A caveat: this is far from a call saying, ‘social is dead.’ The path most brands are on can continue to drive incremental growth for the foreseeable future.

This is a gentle prod to say, for brands that are seeking more than incremental growth – transformational and exponential growth, even; the kind of impact that is unique and memorable – we need to accept that our current path is plateauing. And then we must choose a more interesting detour. There is more untapped potential in the social space than ever before.

Losing the thread

The feeds of Facebook and Twitter are no longer the center of gravity in the social universe. Each will still have a role, a moment to shine and a long – and likely profitable – life as a media channel. But true creativity and social significance have moved on. The pitfalls of a Meta (Facebook and Instagram) and Twitter-centric social strategy have become too loud to ignore.

On Facebook and Instagram, established best practices and opaque machine-learning (ML) targeting systems are making brands look alike (and we are responding by taking fewer and fewer creative leaps). Twitter data tells the same story: brands all start to sound the same.

Advertisers have lost price control and are fighting over smaller and smaller bits of attention. The average cost per ad has increased as much as 47% year-on-year on core Meta ad products, and while Meta may be in a rough patch with its latest earnings reports, advertisers are still projected to pour more investment into the platform.

Meta has a serious age problem – both in perception and in the reality it fuels. Internal documents released by whistleblower Frances Haugen reveal the depths of Meta’s concern about its aging user base and how it has lost engagement with users under 30.

All of this ignores the well-documented challenges of effectively managing a platform on a global scale. The toxicity and harassment, rising trend of influencers choosing to vacate Instagram for their own mental health, threats of regulation and general stagnation of innovation have saddled Meta with an air of malaise. Brands that are too reliant on Meta may face brand safety hazards and could suffer performance risks if they do not have meaningful alternatives to rely on if suspending activity on Meta (or Twitter) becomes necessary.

Today, the true center of gravity for social – the place with the most energy, creativity and cultural significance – is the Discover page of TikTok (more creatively diverse than the For You page). If you want to be awestruck by creativity and talent, that is your first stop.

Tomorrow, it may shift again. And that possibility, that potential for finding a new forum for creativity and community-building, should excite you.

Linger near the fun

Social media should be fun. Done well, it can aspire to striking awe. At a bare minimum, it should be interesting. All too rarely will that be possible with a Facebook, Instagram and Twitter-centric strategy. The fun to be had online is in new places with a new set of rules. Finding success through this evolution means building new strengths rather than grafting new channels on to an old strategy and way of working. It means investing time and resources in new ways.

The common thread for brands finding success in all these new spaces is that they recognize they are not the ringleader, the center of attention. Brands that accept that they need to be interestingly additive are best poised to succeed in these rising environments. Recipes for additive engagement include:

Be a fan yourself

Firehouse Subs has worked with 15+ streamers on Twitch in the past year, using sponsored streams and offering gifted subscriptions when viewers engage with the brand. SephoraSquad, the cosmetics company’s take on an influencer strategy, rather than pursuing one-off transactional relationships, has created year-long cohorts to raise up the creators they work with to give them an even broader audience.

Help people ask the uncomfortable questions

UCHealth, a leading health system in Colorado, has hosted a series of AMAs (ask me anythings) on Reddit with patients and their care teams, covering a range of topics and stories. Nonprofits, always quick to take advantage of effective new platforms, are using the low-fidelity and unpolished aesthetic of platforms such as TikTok to make topics such as mental health awareness more approachable.

Make the complicated more approachable

The Washington Post has effectively educated and entertained the populace by sharing the news of the day through breakthrough trends on TikTok. Fintech startup Playbook makes financial literacy and wealth-building more approachable to a new generation of investors through the memes and magic of TikTok.

Make progress against a larger problem

Fly by Jing, the fast-rising condiment brand, created a paid-subscription-based presence on OnlyFans, donating the proceeds to raise money for sex workers in Los Angeles. L’Enfant Bleu launched the Undercover Avatar program through Fortnite to offer a new solution to fighting child abuse.

Be a member, not a ringleader, of a tribe

Visa took the interesting step of joining different NFT communities when they bought a CryptoPunk to signal their interest in the emerging space. Rather than launching their own project, they became another member of a (quite expensive) club in which they could watch the space evolve.

Beyond the channels where brands can find their fun, don’t forget that the most potent social influence happens in the real world first. Memes are constantly born of events, gatherings and even live broadcasts. The Duke’s Mayo Bowl is proof that finding your inner circle and most vocal champions, and leaning into fan service, is a great recipe for a breakthrough moment (even if it does make you cringe a bit).

Where do we go from here?

These forums aren’t without risk. Risk of irrelevance and inauthenticity may be chief among them, but certainly are not the sole risks. The siren call of virality and ‘being first’ is intoxicating. Squash that craving: it has made more fools than prophets profits.

So how do you safeguard against failure or missteps? How do you make sure you don’t overfit your strategies for tomorrow’s Metas? One, accept that you may not. Then spend time in these newer environments. Learn the rituals, the language, the gatekeepers and the community-builders. Soak in the energy. Then make a choice about how you and your brand can contribute – not become the center of attention, just contribute. Give more energy than you take. Build. And then adjust further based on what you hear from the community you are joining.

Listening for nuance in culture and energy, and constantly launching new test balloons, is the secret to staving off overfitting your social strategy to this moment in time.

Said more simply: safeguard your social and commit to having more fun.

Scott Luther is head of digital strategy at The Richards Group.

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