Peak social media
Somerset's weekly hard copy newspapers are vanishing from the shelves. Victims largely of social media growth. Now we ask if the engine that drives social media growth is also running out of fuel?
Somerset Confidential SC2 - 31
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Andrew Lee - editor
Peak Social Media
The decline in Somerset’s weekly newspaper’s has been there for all to see for a very long time. The paid for local paper was once a matter of pride. Every self respecting town had one.
Last week, Reach plc (owners of The Western Gazette, Frome Standard, Wells Journal, Shepton Journal, Mid Somerset Gazette and Somerset Guardian) announced an estimated 450 roles would be made redundant in local news across the UK. Of these it is expected that some 320 redundancies will be in editorial teams.
The weeklies may often have been the authors of their own misfortune. Losing touch with local news that matters, no longer going to the town hall to report on local councils and over relying heavily on incoming press releases.
Some would, of course, dispute one or all of those claims.
What is undeniable is that readers have left them in droves. The Western Gazette 15 years ago had sold close to 35,000 copies a week. It’s last published circulation figure (for the year to December 2022) showed sales of just 3,518. Only the free newspaper, The Leveller, has bucked that trend by doing things that traditional newspapers didn’t do.
Today The Leveller® accounts for perhaps 50% of the readership of all Somerset based newspapers.
But over the last decade there’s also been something else going on. Something that has damaged all newspapers, free or paid for alike. A gradual but definitive move of advertising budgets from traditional media to social media. Of course falling circulations are not enticing for advertisers, but papers like The Leveller® have shown growing circulation.
Organisations such as Facebook and Twitter, whose products are essentially free services, rely entirely on ad revenue to drive their business models. Just as free newspapers do.
By the end of this year some £243 billion will be spent on social media advertising (source: Statista). Most of which will have migrated from newspaper advertising. But why?
The prime sales pitch for social media has been the precision with which you can target an audience. Micro targeting they call it.
How great that you can ensure if you are selling a new model e-bike that you can use the detailed data social media platforms gather on us, to ensure you reach your target audience. You can target social groups, short hand for sorting those who can afford product for those who cannot. You can profile age and other demographic characteristics.
But best of all you can hone in on people who like e-bikes, people who go e-biking indeed people who are e-bike nerds.
This sort of precision is beyond the reach of hard copy publications. Even a special interest e-biking magazine can’t get quite the same precision.
But there is a problem with this sort of precision targeting. And it is one that the more savvy marketing teams have started to switch on to.
When you have a new product coming out the point of marketing is two fold.
The first is to make sure your audience know about it and the second is to persuade them to buy it.
But micro targeting is often wasted ad spend. Put simply you are marketing to the one group of people who will know about your new product almost as soon as you do. Because they are fanatical, they’ll be following every manufacturer’s every move.
They’ll already be on forums swapping notes about design, performance and the like.
In short you are spending vast sums of your ad budget targeting people who already know about your product. AND will already have formed an opinion of it. So you are advertising to exactly the group of people who already know what you have to offer.
The second is that getting the fanatic to buy your next product is unlikely to grow your market. You need to reach those who are not yet fanatics, those who have yet to discover the joys of e-biking. Micro targeting simply does not do that.
Why? Because even if you can predict who is likely to do something that hasn’t done it yet, they are unlikely to all belong to a definable group that you can micro target.
The other problems that marketing professionals have switched onto is the numbers Facebook claim don’t always add up. In fact often they turn out to be somewhat inflated.
When you advertise with Facebook you are, by definition, paying for access to any fake accounts as well as genuine ones. Something our sister organisation The Leveller®, challenged back in 2017.
Up until 2017 Facebook used a map tool telling potential advertisers how many people they could reach on the platform within a given radius of their business. The Leveller thought the numbers looked spurious. So started to record each of the claims as Facebook presented them. Recording these claims showed the number of people Facebook claimed lived within 15km of Langport varied within a 3 month period.
It was variously claimed to be 90,000, 120,000 and 130,000. In any case it seemed to the Leveller highly unlikely that even 90,000 people lived within a 15km radius of Langport, certainly not 130,000.
So The Leveller® took Facebook to the Advertising Standards Agency of Ireland (ASAI). It had to be Ireland because Facebook is considered to be based in Ireland. The long and short of it being that The Leveller® won and Facebook was forced to withdraw the tool giving that data from use.
Coincidentally, in the same year Facebook started looking for and removing fake accounts from the platform. In April 2017 The Guardian reported: “Facebook has purged tens of thousands of fake accounts from its platform as part of an ongoing bid to dismantle a sophisticated global spam operation.”
Following The Leveller’s success with ASAI Facebook started to do much more serious policing of fake accounts on their site. Removing first millions and later billions of fake accounts.
In the fourth quarter of 2022 alone, they removed 1.3 billion fake accounts from the platform. This is now a regular event. Back in the first quarter of 2019 they removed 2.2 billion fake profiles.
Even if we assume the work they do purges every fake account on their platform (which is itself unlikely), the numbers are still staggering.
Now bear in mind that Facebook claimed to have 3 billion active users according to digital analysis site Demand Sage. Looking at that number and comparing it with the number of fake account deletions and the church implied by the regular high volume of deletions, on thing is clear.
The accounts an advertiser is paying to access, will inevitably contain a significant percentage of fake accounts.
Flat on its face?
Corporate marketing teams around the globe are switching on to this problem. And that is evidenced by the fact that for financial year 2022 Meta’s (owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) annual revenue dipped for the first time in the company's public history (ie is a listed business), dropping from $117.9 billion to $116.8 billion. Not a big drop, but an indication that marketers are starting to see why the model doesn’t work.
If you’d like to hear another view on this topic, try this podcast from the FT which you can find a link to here
Sadly that is too late for many newspapers. With the County Gazette being picked up by just under 7,500 readers and the Western Gazette barely 3,500, the economics make little sense. We can only wonder how long they will keep going, especially in view of the new round of redundancies.
The migration of news content to online accounts either supported by advertising, or like this one, by subscription is starting to look inevitable.
But as the bubble of precision marketing is burst, suddenly the idea of non specific targeting, is becoming fashionable again. To get the message across to a large number of people via a medium that is retained, is once again an enticing prospect.
And a newspaper is retained, often for several days. A decent one with strong articles will be retained longer, the pages returned to, particularly when an article has resonance.
You have your eye on the page while you read the content.
With online sites the ad is gone in the blink of an eye as your attention is moved around the screen. The attention you get from the viewer is fleeting. Which means you have to pay more for more hits in more places, simply to gain the attention of the same reader.
The social media advertising model is broken. Advertisers are already looking for other ways to promote their brands.
Maybe that will be through a different online strategy. Or perhaps we will have to now reinvent hard copy newspapers and magazines to offer a new platform to all those advertising dollars looking for a new home?
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