A Better, More Transparent Way Forward with Social Media | Industry Insights | All MKC Content | ANA

A Better, More Transparent Way Forward with Social Media


Facebook, Instagram, and the other traditional social media giants are past the apex of their popularity. And while user numbers remain high, fewer younger people are signing up in the first place. Ampere Analysis found that 18 to 24-year-olds were cooling off on social media as far back as 2018, and this trend has only accelerated since.

Some established users are scaling back to detach themselves from the surveillance and data extraction that exists behind the friendly graphics. Many are turning to apps to set boundaries for engagement, often reducing aimless scrolling by up to 57 percent. Others question the basic assumed motivation behind such apps – sharing snapshots of your life with an invisible audience.

In this context, it's time for marketers to reevaluate their strategies for engaging with audiences based on how our cultural relationships with technology are evolving. After all, badly targeted algorithmic marketing is one of the key reasons why users are leaving in droves.

To move forward effectively, marketers need to understand how we ended up here, and what people are seeking from their digital lives in 2024.

The Social Situation

While most platforms still allow people to connect with friends and even meet new people online, it's long since ceased to be their core purpose. According to digital anthropologist Danny Miller, social media channels had originally offered places for many people to "fully realize" their identities.

For those suffering from muscular dystrophy, for example, using avatars was a way to transcend their physical realm and communicate beyond this reality. For many who feel excluded or marginalized in offline life, social media provides an opportunity to express themselves authentically.

Despite these invaluable user benefits, they are very much second priority behind commercial interests on the social media platforms of 2024. As soon as it became clear to tech corporations that users' personal data was the key to monetization, their primary objective shifted to harvesting as much of it as possible.

Subsequently, marketing on these platforms has at times extended beyond personalization to intrusive extremes. Facebook was buying data about users' offline lives and targeting ads at teenagers based on their emotional state even back in 2017. These tactics weren't hidden from marketers – they were actively included in pitches to some, making it difficult for brands to claim ignorance or distance themselves from increasing consumer distrust.

Regulatory bodies have closely scrutinized tactics such as disguised selling via influencers, and updated FTC Guidelines accordingly in 2015. But this largely served to shine a brighter light on what had become the "new" social media project...what we might call "secret selling."

Understanding of the personal data for services exchange user enter with social media companies varies between individuals, but most are willing participants on some level (or were initially). In Jennifer Egan's The Candy House (published in 2022), the author compares the allure of handing out our personal data for a dopamine hit of accessing everyone else's, to the fate of Hansel and Gretel.

But we're now amid a collective and generational awakening to a sense of data sanctity. Extremely smart people are paid a lot of money to figure out how to keep our attention fixed on our devices. We feel like we're indulging ourselves when we spend time scrolling. But we're actually indulging them.

Searching for the Truth

Truth seeking has become the leading imperative of some of the world's most talked about new technologies. In fact, it can be argued that these emerging technologies are usurping the version of the truth that social media platforms have provided to users by mirroring their own lives back to them – albeit in a distorted way.

In The Candy House by Jennifer Egan this idea is explored further to demonstrate where the pursuit of truth via technology may take us.

One of the leading characters develops a device that can upload a person's entire life (as lived from their vantage point) onto a global cloud like service, called "Collective Consciousness". In exchange, they can access the memories of anyone else who has participated in the process. The service is alluring because it presents an answer to personal traumas and other mysteries that may haunt us as individuals.

This concept isn't a far cry from genetic ancestry services that draw in users on the promise of uncovering their (often unexpected) roots for as little as a mouth swab. But of course, that swab is worth far more to the service itself than meets the eye. And there is a growing community of actors who critique and reject this exchange of data. Which brings us back to marketers.

Stepping into the Light

In some ways, the social media marketing boom was responsible for exposing the tech business project taking place behind the scenes. Targeted ads remind users (rightly) that their time and energy spent on apps mean money for advertising orgs. And the inferences drawn from incomplete data profiles have at times led to targeting that is invasive, wildly off the mark and occasionally incredibly harmful: No one wants to be bombarded with pregnancy tests while suffering a miscarriage because they googled one at some point.

Popular documentaries such as The Social Dilemma (released in 2020) have further lifted the veil on social media's initially cozier community focused branding, revealing dangerous political and commercial motives at play, using what we share as fodder to control and influence us.

With this in mind, marketing needs to step out of the shadows. It should leave stealthy, clunky algorithmic ads behind, and embrace a new era of transparency to thrive in the rapidly evolving social media landscape. Influencer marketing has come full circle, with professionals giving way once again to those most authentic of brand champions – ordinary people.

Consent and participation in being marketed to will continue to grow in prominence as users align themselves with more ethical and open practices. Marketers plugging back into more traditional marketing principles have already demonstrated value for brands such as The Frankie Shop, which has been able to build credibility and word of mouth currency by relying on classic product value.

What The Frankie Shop has grasped so clearly and effectively is that ethical marketing, sustainable business models and quality goods, are not just compatible with business success – they are the very zeitgeist of our historical moment. And for good reason.

The roadmap is emerging for how marketers should aim to shape communication content in 2024 and beyond, and open dialogue with increasingly savvy consumers should be at its heart.

Dr. Pardis Shafafi is an anthropologist and global responsible business lead at Designit.

The views and opinions expressed in Industry Insights are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.