It’s hard now to imagine life before social media, but as research signals a growing level of disillusionment with the big platforms, Benji Vaughan wonders if the future could lie with communities built around specific interests.    

Given the size, reach and influence that social media has today, it may be hard to recall its modest origins. Once a virtual space for keeping in touch with and making new friends, social media is now an omnipresent force that is felt in nearly every corner of life. However, while the influence and power of social media has grown exponentially in the last decade, the same is not true of its popularity. Instead, public perception of social media has shifted as users become disillusioned with these platforms.

The data on distrust

This public consensus has only been further highlighted by social distancing as virtual spaces become a proxy for our innumerable daily interactions. Yet, even in facilitating these social functions, there is a general sentiment of distrust and dissatisfaction among users. According to our inaugural Passion Index Report, over half of locked-down Brits want to spend less time on social media, and 60% have noted their distrust of platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

The same survey observes that Brits feel they’re wasting, on average, 2 hours 45 minutes a week viewing low-quality content. Younger Brits were worst affected, spending three and a half hours a week. What makes this content ‘low-quality’ is that it is frequently non-specific and targets the widest possible audience rather than matching to specific users’ interests. Consequently, there is a drought of content that allows for meaningful audience engagement.

So what does this mean for marketers who use social media as a mechanism for speaking to their audiences? Moreover, how can they ensure brand safety online in an increasingly turbulent market? The answer is moving back to a customer-centric approach. They need to deliver content that provides true value and ensure it is reaching relevant audiences. This can be achieved through the creation of niche community networks. In these networks, brands can build a relationship with an interested group of people who will appreciate and respond to direct advertising.

Prioritising people

While we typically see traditional social media models aim to reach as broadly as possible, niche communities are user-centric and built around their specific interests. Niche communities are distinguished by the value they place on community.

The same research shows that over half of respondents would join communities built for their personal passions, and over a third would like to see new communities from their favourite brands and influencers. As such, businesses should consider this data and evaluate whether investing in their own community apps is a more suitable approach. This may yield better engagement than building networks via Facebook, while also giving them ownership of the data so they can control how this is used.

Given endemic mistrust of social media, ad spend could be wasted if advertisers don’t remain close to user preferences and engagement. The data shows that 43% of Brits feel social media is an unnecessary distraction and 52% want to cut the cord with generic platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

The fundamental premise of these niche community platforms is to provide passionate individuals access to content that will truly speak to them and connect them with similar enthusiasts.

With such an audience, content creators and entrepreneurs will find benefits too: 34% of Brits say they would be willing to pay for exclusive content or offers on such a platform. With more users engaged by their fellow community members, this means they will likely remain on the platform even if they lose interest in the content or there is a shortage of content. In light of these benefits, many entrepreneurs and YouTube creators are already moving to such micro-networks. Such a move allows them to build on social capital they have already created and build a valuable, independent business.

People are spending more time than ever on social media due to social distancing. Now is a more important time than any to ensure that people are connecting online in meaningful ways and finding value in their social media platforms. A user-centric approach can ensure that these platforms are delivering and creating communities for individuals and not just perpetuating the attention economy. We define the attention economy as a platform that aims to share generic content to the widest possible audience; prioritising the quantity of time spent consuming content on the platform over user engagement or quality.

It’s likely we will see niche communities coalesce during this time and create innumerable opportunities for businesses and individuals. By owning the channel of communication, businesses and content creators can increase efficiency and reduce costs, while also maintaining control over the privacy and security of the brand, data generated and assets.

This isn’t achievable with traditional social media channels, which use algorithms to limit your overall reach and, therefore, engagement with your community. If customer engagement and loyalty is a priority for your businesses, it is time to bring all your customers into one place and start nurturing your relationships.