Why social media giants struggle to build Brand Intimacy
Social media brands have fundamentally changed the lives of many people around the world. Despite their enormous popularity, Apps & Social Platforms ranked 12th out of 15 industries in our 2017 Brand Intimacy Study. Social media brands provide easy communication, constant connection, a range of information, and endless entertainment at no cost—and yet somehow, consumers are not bonding with these brands in the ways one would expect.
Social media continues to transform the digital landscape, with 2.8 billion active users and 2.5 billion active mobile users worldwide. And those numbers have increased 21 and 30 percent, respectively, since 2016. However, the industry falls short from a Brand Intimacy perspective, with an average quotient score of 18.8, which is well below the cross-industry average (28.7). It’s true that Apps & Social Platforms is a relatively young category and younger brands have more trouble building Brand Intimacy, but given the widespread adoption of social media and the success of other young brands such as Netflix (6th overall) and YouTube (25th), it seems as though there are unique factors at play in this category that keep its highly prevalent brands from forming emotional bonds with their users.
Facebook is the #1 social media app, with a Brand Intimacy Quotient of 30.0, ranking it 68th in the study overall. This is a low score for a brand with over 1.8 billion active monthly users and 79 percent of the online adult population as members. Interestingly, other social media brands with hundreds of millions of active users, such as Instagram and Snapchat, don’t even place in the top 100 brands.
Clearly, having a lot of users does not equate to Brand Intimacy, at least for those in the social media category. Neither does frequency of use, as we see when we cross-compare the Brand Intimacy archetypes— that is, patterns that characterize intimate brand relationships—with usage data. The Apps & Social Platforms industry ranks 4th among all the industries in the ritual archetype, which describes brands as being ingrained into daily actions, becoming a vitally important part of daily existence. It also ranks 3rd for daily use, just behind Technology & Telecommunications and Health & Hygiene. Facebook in particular shows signs of frequent, repeated use. It has the second-highest percentage of daily-use consumers (78.9 percent) behind Apple, and ranks 5th overall for the ritual archetype.
Although social media brands have an abundance of users and are frequently utilized by consumers, Brand Intimacy remains low. We continued to explore our research findings to try to determine what has gone wrong with these brands.
Technology & Telecommunications is one of the top-performing industries in our study. Ranking 4th overall, with an average quotient score of 44.5 (more than double that of Apps & Social Platforms), the category is led by Apple and Samsung—two brands that are beloved for their smartphone products. Much as with social media platforms, consumers rely on smartphones to keep them connected; but the smartphones that Apple and Samsung make (as well as their computers and tablets) act as multipurpose ecosystems, capable of downloading and running countless apps to meet their users’ needs. Apps such as Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Instagram become free extensions of these versatile devices, and like apps for text messaging, making phone calls, or taking pictures, they can easily be viewed as utilities or expected functions of a smart device, services to which everyone with Internet access feels entitled.
This means that some of the benefits that social media brands deliver to consumers (e.g., feeling more connected, social, or informed) are easily attributed to Technology & Telecommunications brands. When it comes to using social media platforms, the only difficult choice that concerns consumers is which device they should use to access them. Social media brands appear to be displaced by devices in the minds of users.
Privacy is a common concern when it comes to social media. It’s great to feel more connected, but it’s easy to feel more exposed. In fact, only 4 percent of Americans using social media say they have a great deal of trust that their personal information is secure, with 53 percent claiming they have very little or no trust. This is reflected in the percentage of consumers in the stages of Brand Intimacy, which measure the intensity of brand relationships.
The Apps & Social Platforms industry’s weakest performance is in the bonding stage, which is the middle stage of Brand Intimacy and characterizes a more committed relationship between consumers and brands in which trust is established. The industry averages 3 percent of consumers in this stage, below the across-industry average of 5 percent. A below-average performance in the stage most tied to trust reflects the issues within the industry and has a negative impact on Brand Intimacy, as brands that have customers in the deeper stages perform better related to profit, growth, and economic equity than those that don’t. There are slightly more millennials in the bonding stage with Apps & Social Media brands (4 percent), which is not surprising given that this group is known to be more trusting of social media with its information. Seven percent have a great deal of trust that their personal information is secure compared with the total average of 4 percent.
Still, trust is a major obstacle to achieving Brand Intimacy that social media brands have yet to overcome, and things may be getting worse. Not only are consumers skeptical that their information is secure, but they now also have doubts about the veracity of the information they get from social media. Only 24 percent of people say that social media does a good job of separating fact from fiction (40 percent said the same about mainstream media). Severe trust issues stemming from fake news may have damaging effects on improving Brand Intimacy. Along with ritual, the Apps & Social Platforms category’s strongest archetype is enhancement, which characterizes a brand relationship in which the user becomes smarter, more capable, and more connected through the use of the brand. If users continue to grow skeptical of the validity of the information on social media, the industry’s association with this archetype may begin to suffer.
Although people connect, share, and express themselves on social media daily, these interactions tend to occur through the social media brands, not with them. In this way, social media platforms can be seen as utility brands (think about your feelings toward your cable provider vs. your favorite television show). They serve to build bonds with others, while their brands take a backseat to the individual brands of their users.
The Brand Intimacy archetypes reveal that the Apps & Social Platforms industry scores below the average for the identity archetype (19 vs. 22), which describes a brand that reflects an aspirational image or admired values and beliefs that resonate deeply with the consumer. It seems odd that these brands, which are built on users digitally expressing their identities, don’t perform more strongly in this archetype; but it’s because the brands themselves don’t have a clear expression of their own identities. A user may identify with the values of a friend or cultural figure on Facebook, or with the artistic vision of a photographer on Instagram, but it’s unlikely they feel that they have affinity with the social media platform itself.
But this apparent apathy is most likely engineered, as social media brands are designed to grow—fast. While they strive to provide new features to enhance the user experience, when it comes to their own brand’s beliefs or values, they purposefully stay agnostic. These brands have been able to acquire hundreds of millions of followers by being a place for everyone, regardless of age, income, ethnicity, or political beliefs. Similar to a utility company, a social media platform is a neutral brand that is like a conduit, acceptable to all, while being inspiring to few. Ironically, these platform brands are actually beacons of self-expression, even though the brands themselves are mostly expressionless. By subverting their brands for the most part, social media platforms have hindered their ability to build stronger Brand Intimacy. They now risk commoditization and a lack of goodwill from their users that they may soon regret. Facebook, for example, is now possibly facing some of its strongest threats, due to criticism over how it has handled the spreading of Russian campaign disinformation and sold advertising that targets hate groups.
Although social media brands have had a great deal of success attracting users, their relatively weak Brand Intimacy performance demonstrates a pressing need to strengthen their brands and build stronger bonds with their stakeholders. Social media brands command enormous audiences and frequent use, yet they are one of the weakest-performing industries in our study. As the pace of technology evolves and accelerates, social media brands that were once successful disruptors will need to adapt quickly or else they will become victims of indifference, commoditization, and distrust.
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