Our social media feeds used to be populated by the inoffensive content of friends, family members, and favourite celebrities. This has all changed in the last few years, as brands have caught on to the immense power of social media, and have harnessed it so that subtly integrated sponsored content lurks amid the posts you actually chose to read.
Snapchat’s latest update, however, signals a shift in this trend, as the flagship app has decided to separate friends from brands so that the content is no longer blended. The repercussions for professional promoters remains to be seen, but it will certainly mean that users have more autonomy over what they look at and when. When the update rolls out officially in a few weeks’ time, branded content will still be available: but looking at it will be a conscious choice on the part of the user rather than an involuntary bombardment incited by the app’s layout.
The commercial presence we now feel when we scroll through our Facebook feeds or flick through our Instagram stories was not there when most of us joined these networks, and if it was it existed on a much smaller scale. We now experience so much product placement on a daily basis that our fatigue is unsurprising. Even if you quickly scroll past it, the sponsored content is there: cluttering up our feeds and our subconscious with scarily well-targeted ads featuring the things we were looking at the night before.
If it isn’t paid advertising or promoted posts, it’s sponsored content accompanied by an #ad or #spon tag that has been posted by a popular social influencer or celebrity. These people need to earn a living, of course, but the regularity of such promotions is taking the personality and the ‘social’ out of the social network, as it often feels as though social media is less a vehicle for online sociability, and more an engine for clever advertising.
This is something that Snapchat has cottoned on to, handing the power back to users and giving them the option to socialise with friends, or look at professional published content. It recognises that these are two distinct things, and that to combine them is to risk alienating and disillusioning their user base. A bold move for a business which has long struggled to monetise it’s offering.
If this option were to exist across all social media channels it would certainly create a harder task for digital marketers. However, for the users – the people for whom these platforms were created in the first place – it would signal a vote of confidence, as their favourite social networks allow them to be the sole curators of their online social lives once again. It will be interesting to see what social media platforms value the most: the money that paid content brings in, or the genuine engagement and sociability of their increasingly stagnating user base. Snapchat have set the ball in motion: let’s see how far it will roll.