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Do publishers need an exit strategy from social media?

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One lesson the last decade has taught us is that publishers need to take a longer-term view of their relationship with the platforms; one that will outlive the next algorithm change.

We sometimes get readers responding to our daily newsletter with questions or asking us our thoughts on a particular issue. This question is from Mary Douglas, Head of Engagement at Architects’ Journal, EMAP:

I recently read some advice that publishers should start scaling back their social media presence because the platforms promote “widespread toxic behaviour” and therefore damage the credibility of anyone on it. But are publishers really doing this, and do we all need to have an exit strategy from social? Huge if true!

If we jumped back ten years and talked to publishers about where their fledgling romances with the platforms would end up, many would be horrified. What was once supposed to be a golden opportunity to reach and connect millions of people all over the world has soured, with the biggest platforms now being accused of threatening the very fabric of society and democracy.

As more and more issues have surfaced, brands are getting twitchy. From ad boycotts to deleting brand accounts, some feel it is better not to be associated with social media at all. So, is this something publishers should also be seriously thinking about?

Not all platforms are created equal

For the reason given in this question, which itself stems from a keynote at a recent publisher conference, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Anyone who thinks credibility will be damaged from having a presence on social media has – to be blunt – spent too long on Journalism Twitter.

The first point here is that not all social media platforms are seen as toxic. TikTok, Pinterest, Linkedin and Snapchat have largely avoided any mainstream PR scandals over toxicity. They have problems, sure. But nothing that has caused mass exits.

Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram have definitely come under fire, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the Facebook Files investigation. For the first time ever, Facebook has lost users over a quarter, although whether this is primarily because of toxicity or because it’s no longer seen as cool by young people is up for debate.

But public perception is more complex. Take Instagram for example. The app has been accused of seriously damaging body image among a third of teenage girls, among other things. But at the same time, it has been a lifeline for small businesses, allowing many female-led creative shops to find new customers during the pandemic and beyond. I personally follow a number of small businesses who are regularly pointing out just how transformative the platform has been for them and their followers. 

Like fast food, we have accepted that too much social media can be damaging. But that doesn’t stop us logging on.

The credibility issue

There’s another point in play, too. Anyone who feels strongly enough that credibility is damaged by being on a platform won’t be on it themselves to see you. Enough brands and publishers have a presence on Facebook that it isn’t affecting credibility.

Lush may have come off social media for reasons of toxicity. But not everyone has the benefit of a shop you can smell from the other end of the high street to remind people of their presence.   

But one aspect that publishers should consider carefully is ad spend. There is nothing morally wrong with having a Facebook Page, for example. But given the damage we in the industry know that the platform is inflicting – and struggling to control – should we be spending money with them? 

A final thought on credibility and quality. In a hypothetical world where all the reputable publishers left social media, I can guarantee you the void would be quickly filled with significantly less reputable ones. Cue even more misinformation and fake news than we already have to battle.

Time for a reframing for publishers

Publishers have a fraught relationship with the platforms, Meta in particular. Time and time again they have danced to the tune of various algorithms and initiatives, from the pivot to video to Instant Articles. Returns have been short-lived, and Mark Zuckerberg has a nasty habit of turning the traffic dial down whenever publishers no longer serve his purpose.

But a publisher’s strategy should never have been about publishing on social media, or becoming reliant on it as a traffic source. Instead, we should be reframing our relationship with social media to see it as a marketing opportunity, not a publishing tool. How can social media be used to drive other business goals, such as subscriptions, community outreach, or brand awareness?

Approaching it through this lens should allow publishers to focus on the value each platform provides in terms of building relationships with audiences, rather than becoming dependent on it. There are plenty of publishers who use features like Groups for the community outreach, but who aren’t there hiring whole video teams to make exclusive content for Watch.

The tail has wagged the dog over this issue for too long. Implying that we all need an exit strategy from social is unnecessarily alarmist, and concerns about damaged credibility are unfounded. But one lesson the last decade has taught us is that publishers need to take a longer-term view of their relationship with the platforms; one that will outlive the next algorithm change.

Some additional thoughts from Singletrackworld’s Mark Alker in response:

We just had our Instagram account @singletrackmag hacked and disabled. We’ve had the requisite request for payment to get it back from the hacker which we are ignoring – for now. I’ve spent the last 3 days trying to get someone, anyone, at Instagram to help. I’m making some progress there but it’s clearly going to take some time.

Our account has 57k followers. We used it daily for all the usually publisher things. But it’s loss has caused me to reflect on exactly what is is we have lost and I can’t help considering the fact that we’ve lost very little.

Nothing much has changed. There’s no financial hit – so far. It’s loss has reduced the amount of time our editorial team spend on it. Our merchandise sales haven’t dipped. In short, I’m wondering if life and business isn’t actually a bit better without it.

It’s very early days of course and ultimately I’m pretty confident we’ll get it back but in the meantime it does make you think about where the actual value lies in our social media portfolio.

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world.