Advertising is eating social media.

Every tenth post in your Instagram-Feed is irrelevant advertising, Facebook needs constant feeding of the ‘boost this post’ slot machine or you won’t get your message through, social media influencers are in hot water for undeclared promotions and cooperations. What is going on?

Advertising is eating social media. That’s what is going on.

Back in the days, a simple model was used to categorize and explain different types of online communication channels: The famous Paid, Owned, Earned Model. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s the gist:

  • Owned media are your own channels. Think website or newsletter.
  • Paid media are connections you paid for. Think Google AdWords, or Facebook Ads.
  • Earned media are connections you ‚earn‘ by you being you. Think followers on Twitter or Instagram.

For more background, see this Forrester Blog post from 2009. (Funnily enough, the linked blog post explains that advertising will see a diminished importance when in fact it is again the driving force of online communications).

I think it’s safe to say that the dynamic in years between the Forrester blogpost and today is a shift from owned to earned media, due to the astonishing growth of social media platforms. While owned assets like websites or newsletters are considered the foundation of an online presence, it’s social media where the engagement with the brands customers actually happens.

Another thing we’ve seen is a steady increase of online advertising spending, leading to a bigger absolute size of the paid part. Interestingly, „Earned Media Channels“ (read: Social Media) make up a substantial portion of that pie.

Because as social media matured, it needed to find a business model that allowed it to generate sustainable income — just like any other company.

And one by one, they chose the dumbest, but simplest business model there is: The business model of publishing advertisements. (Notice that I didn’t say the easiest)

So, what we’re seeing is advertising taking over social media.

Social media was always about two things: Authenticity and relevance. The advertising business model is hurting both:

Advertising hurts social media relevance

I already follow the brands I like on social media. The chance that a random ad can substantially contribute to the relevance of my feed is unsurprisingly small.

Advertising hurts social media authenticity

Escaping bought messages was the main reason why I signed up for social media in the first place. If you pay influencers to peddle marketing messages, I can go back to watching TV as well. And if those influencers don’t openly declare their relationships with brands, I might get the feeling that everyone on that platform is just trying to sell something.

As can be expected, there is some backlash to social media tactics, and it is gaining momentum. If you believe in the Canary in a coal mine model, and agree that your most savvy users are the canaries, not the miners, then you should start paying attention.

What does that mean for brands? Right now, we see an overspill of paid advertising tactics into earned brand-customer connections. This will only intensify and transform the online landscape from “owned, paid, earned” to “owned, paid, paid-with-an-increased-entry-barrier”.

If social media channels do get reduced to advertising outlets, users perceptions of them will change dramatically. And you probably don’t want to be caught up in that.

It is then that carefully cultivated owned connections between brands and their customers will shine. Connections that are authentic, honest, and made of mutual respect.

Let’s start building those connections, because it takes time and effort.