Turning With The Pivot: Dealing With Social Channel Change

December 5, 2016, by , in Blog, no comments

Tis the season for the “pivot” among some of the most prominent social media channels – that special time where the communities we’ve taken time to strategize and approach carefully throw us curveballs in how they operate. Sometimes it’s merely a tactical tweak here or there that helps you adapt quickly, but other times the pivot itself marks a more fundamental change in how the channels think of themselves – and signals more change in the future. Companies pivot to ensure (or speed up) survival with change, but it can often leave those of us managing brands in the lurch. How should strategists view social media pivots and how do you insulate yourself from risk as they change? Here are five tips, wrapped in recent cases, which should help you take the curve of a pivot with more deftness than danger:

  1. Instagram’s Image Upgrades
    It started out innocently enough – Instagram was a sleepy image-centric app that garnered a massive audience for several years before they even let you zoom in on a photo, much less have a link in a post. But 2016 has brought a suite of huge changes, many of them aimed at keeping advertisers happy and coming back. Most of these have almost a concession-like feel to them from an industry perspective in order to drive use of Instagram Stories. (For those unaware, Instagram’s “Stories” feature is ostensibly Snapchat-style limited-run content within the app alongside the regular Instagram feed.) Within Stories they now allow URLs, tagging other accounts and more “Instagram will now let creators add URL links, tag friends, and create Boomerangs in Stories”. But even the regular feed is getting more advertising-friendly with “shoppable” photo tags. So what does all this mean? To be blunt: good things come to those who wait. With Instagram’s purchase by Facebook we knew that both statistics and advertising-friendly fare was on its way. All it took was their desire to gobble up Snapchat’s user base to start rolling out things. They need brands to come along – especially since they aren’t thrilled with Snapchat right now – and this was a slight, but effective suite of changes we can really work with.
    Strategic Tip: Dive on in and test these new advertising possibilities if you have retail product – knowing that the large user base will help you gather data and try it out easier than other channels.

  2. Instagram Redux: Ephemeral Enters
    …and then the cherry on top of Instagram’s raid of Snapchat’s users arrives before 2016 ends with ephemeral images and video (more here at TechCrunch). The execution is interesting, featuring live video not unlike Facebook Live, but without archiving (making it more see-it-or-miss-it in the vein of Stories) and then accompanied by a big boost to their Direct messaging that includes images or content that disappears after viewing. In one swoop Instagram has effectively become a realtime contender, incorporating Meerkat (rest in peace) and Snapchat’s most-used features. It’s a bit of a feature salad though, so whether users will find the odd distinctions between the regular Feed, Direct messages, and Stories remains to be seen. But with Instagram’s massive user numbers, they’ll put it through the paces fast. It’s safe to say that shots have absolutely been fired at Snapchat.
    Strategic Tip: While Instagram is reaching a bit here, it’s all in sync with how we already use Instagram; go with it and start incorporating the live video just like your over-arching strategies would dictate.

  3. Snap(chat) Looks Ahead
    Meanwhile, Snapchat seems to be living two lives: one of the actual user behavior, and another of Snapchat getting ready for their IPO in Spring 2017. Only 14% of Snapchat users are over 35, making it a breakout star of the younger demographic – who fled to its shores because of the ephemeral (timed-delete) content. It suggests a desire for privacy at least of a sort that they can’t get from other apps; at least not with cool filters. Meanwhile, on the brand-side you can essentially interact in two ways: produce your story to be Discovered or pay for a Geofilter (a time-and-geography-specific image filter for users to see and use). Problem is, Snapchat has been burying the former – forcing brand-created stories behind any friends’ stories (more detail here at Recode). So, users are turtling inside the app for privacy and advertisers are having to dig for value – what does Snapchat do? Well, rename the company to “Snap” for one and then release their own wearable glasses that take photos and videos constantly for upload… right. This is the best example of a hard pivot in practice, but hardly the one that makes the most sense on its face. Even more, reviews have already been mixed about the vending-machine-dispensed, “Spectacles” and no one is sure anyone was begging for them in the first place (It’s worth noting Google killed their Google Glass sales.) Does everyone want to become paparrazi? Last we checked, Snapchat filters were for cameras pointed back at the user… Will the pivot help or hurt as they approach their IPO? It’s best not to dwell on it and instead use what works, the Geofilter. Be there for their users and know what you’re getting into and you will survive their ride – or be able to jump off if it gets crazy.
    Strategic Tip: Try out an on-demand Geofilter, but be cautious with much else – most Snapchat users don’t want you anywhere else in the app and they’re hiding you anyway.

  4. Twitter Spins…and Spins…
    Twitter is currently pivoting so hard they’re essentially just spinning around. In the last few months the former social media giant has added NFL streaming, failed to require users to even have accounts to use said streaming (in a bid for advertising eyeballs, not users), killed the Vine app and community, allowed users to create and control their own Moments, tried to put itself up for sale, cut hundreds of jobs, and added QR Codes to profiles because at this point, why not — all the while bleeding users. It’s not pretty and it’s a good example of when there’s smoke there’s fire on big channels making so many big, incongruous changes in a short time.
    Strategic Tip: For the foreseeable future it makes us recommend not relying on Twitter as any sort of major strategy beyond customer service.

  5. Facebook Messages Get Messy
    A real “pivot” is meant to change the purpose or aim of an entire channel and frankly some channels just can’t pivot because they just don’t do all that much – or they were born out of a pivot already. Facebook’s Messenger falls in that category. Born from Facebook’s desire to get at least a second button on your home screen, but happening too late and forcefully to engender the love Snapchat got for making those messages disappear, Messenger is ostensibly a necessary evil more akin to email than social media. And, it’s nearly as boring. So Facebook has been trying ways to spruce up the Messenger house with goofy upgrades such as Conversation Topics meant to help you find things to talk about with friends (we’re reminded of a favorite critique of the CueCat device with this Messenger tweak: “not solving a problem”). Other new elements at least let advertisers get in on Messenger with sponsored messages and share live video between recipients. Point being, some things will never pivot that far, but may create openings or opportunities you can explore.
    Strategic Tip: Sponsored messages only make sense if you have reasons to initiate messaging – but that could absolutely happen between customer service and event-group related situations.

The moral of the story is: everything will change. In fact, it may change in ways that don’t even make any sense for the specific audience or behavior that is important to you. Best bet is to stay nimble with solid over-arching strategies that help provide direction in times of change and stay smart by observing behaviors so you have an idea of how they’re likely to go over before you invest time, energy and money.