The COVID-19 pandemic forced big changes in the way we work, but even more in the way we socialise. While about a quarter of the workforce worked at home, we all had to socialise from home. Socialising is a fundamental human need, and the natural response to enforced separation and the risk of isolation was for friends, interest groups, communities, and even families to satisfy that need online. Now, as the vaccination programme rolls out and lockdowns are easing, and we are emerging into a world which is similar, but changed, it's worth looking at how online social behaviours have shifted, and evaluating what might stick.
It’s important to bear in mind that the pandemic was only an accelerant of behaviours and trends that were emerging or ongoing already. Two changes in particular were already changing, or about to change, the social landscape.
The first is the decline of the ‘big social’ model. People get along better when they have shared interests, not tenuous social connections. The increasingly harsh and polarised political landscape came to boiling point in the last few years and, after an uptick in the early days of the pandemic, Facebook’s user numbers in Europe and the USA began to decline. Facebook and Twitter are reorganising around communities and interests, from Facebook Groups (used by 1.8 billion people every month) to Twitter Topics. Interest-based social communities like Reddit and Discord continue to see big growth, and like-minded people came together on TikTok to create content subcultures like CleanTok and WitchTok.
The second is the decline of advertising tracking, following Apple’s decision to make it an opt-in experience in iOS 14.5 and Google’s announcement that it would remove third-party cookies from Chrome starting in 2022. This makes it harder for businesses to reach customers through retargeting, potentially reducing the value of online advertising, which also affects creators who monetise their social channels through advertising revenue share. We still don’t know the long-term ramifications of this, but platforms had already begun to experiment with different revenue streams, from ‘social e-commerce’ tools such as Facebook Shops that let businesses reach consumers directly, and more tools to let creators monetise their fans directly, from micropayment ‘tips’ to paid subscriptions, enhancing the ‘creator economy’.
Finding opportunity in lockdown
Even as some market changes were already underway, the pandemic accelerated others. Many people had to try online services, such as ordering groceries, video calling, playing an online game, or attending a virtual concert, for the first time. All of these created opportunities for businesses, with the beauty, fashion, and entertainment industries prominent among them.
Cosmetics and self-care brands, already adept at engaging with communities of consumers in Facebook Groups, found further opportunity in the new public familiarity with video chats and live-streaming. Businesses in this sector often rely on physical presence, investing heavily in the in-store experience for try-ons, tutorials, and upsell. But the pandemic provided the chance to reach a wider audience through live video showcases, tutorials, and shopping sessions, and augmented reality makeup try-ons. Lancôme’s live-streamed Beauty Show in Italy reached 46,000 viewers, while L’Oréal sponsored Snap Camera with digital makeup lenses for video calls before releasing Signature Faces, its first digital-only makeup collection.
A combination of spare time, the need for socialising, and a desire for structure saw a boom in social gaming, whether in quizzes over video chat or multiplayer games like Among Us, Fall Guys, and Fortnite. As people looked to assert control in an era of uncertainty, we saw the rise of ‘digital gardening’ games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. And semi-public Discord channels helped keep the conversations going among the various gaming communities.
Fashion brands embraced gaming and virtual spaces. Streetwear brands had a relationship with games like Fortnite and NBA2K20 before, but Animal Crossing’s customisable outfits created new opportunities for fashion brands like Marc Jacobs and Valentino to release apparel for in-game avatars. Ralph Lauren Polo released its first digital collection for Snapchat’s Bitmoji. Gucci invested heavily in digital content including selling its first digital-only shoes, which it followed up with the Gucci Garden experience in Roblox, where players could buy digital goods for their avatars using the in-game currency, Robux; extremely limited edition items sold for up to £4,000 in real-world money.
People increasingly found community around live events; in virtual event spaces like Fortnite’s Party Royale island, in the chat windows of Twitch streams from gaming to comedy to ‘just chatting’, and in the emerging space of live social audio, like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, which is less fatiguing than video chat, less labour-intensive than text chat, and more intimate than both. A Twitter survey reported that 60% of users said they felt more connected to others when they watched a live-streamed event socially.
This was an obvious opportunity for entertainment brands, especially in music. In 2020 we saw, among others, Take That reunite for a concert over video chat, mega-productions from BTS and Dua Lipa, who drew five million viewers to her Studio 2054 show, and virtual concerts from artists including Travis Scott, The Weeknd, and Lil Nas X. Some of the community buzz happened in fan groups, but the best of these shows made their fans part of the production – in the case of virtual events in Fortnite and Roblox, the fans were participants in the staging itself.
The post-pandemic social landscape is based on a key difference from the pre-pandemic: people now better recognise what works online, and what doesn’t. In a year of accelerated learning, finding the right balance between the physical and digital life has been a challenge of its own. There’s a temptation to think of them as being in competition, but that’s not right; it’s physical plus digital. In a hybrid event model, physical proximity will bring advantages to those who can be present, while those who can’t will take part digitally. As Ben Mawson of TaP Music, which ran Dua Lipa’s event, put it: “even when touring comes back, I think this’ll be part of the new model”.
Online, people will gather less in the arena of open social news feeds, and more in the shared community spaces of groups, channels, live rooms, and spaces, with others who share their interests. Social increasingly means community, around interests, passions, and creators, and TikTok is setting new expectations for joining in with trends. The creators of popular TikToks, Reels, Twitch streams, YouTube channels, and Roblox experiences will form closer connections to the communities which support them through direct revenue, like tips, subscriptions, and merch sales. As the members of these communities feel invested, followers will give way to fandoms, and viewers to participants.
However, as people return to ‘normality’ the commute to the office, shopping, and in-person socialising will all reoccupy their time and attention, meaning less time for passion projects and consuming Twitch streams, TikTok videos, and Clubhouse rooms. People will be looking to maximise their available time on the content that gives them the most value: less quantity, more quality.
Businesses already recognised the importance of social media during the pandemic, with spending increasing from 13.3% of marketing budgets in February 2020 to 23.2% in June 2020. We believe that the role for brands post-pandemic is to engage and support communities and provide shared content experiences that truly reward them. While the top-down broadcasting model remains important for communication and awareness, engagement and brand experience start in the channels where people spend their time. A suitable content strategy and embedding social commerce will be key factors moving into a post-pandemic era. It’s now on brands to determine how to make the most of these now familiar and adopted behaviours of the audience in order to supercharge their presence on social media.
As featured on WARC, written by Peter Gasston, Innovation Lead, VCCP & Camila Toro, Social & Content Planner, VCCP