The risk of building your social media house on someone else’s land

I was going to start this post with some joke about 2021 being a long year… but I’m tired. Last week was a draining week on many, many fronts. From the ongoing worsening of the COVID situation anywhere you look, to the events in the US – there’s a lot to be drained by.

As I was reflecting on the tumultuous week over the last few days, I couldn’t help but be struck by a reminder that we as digital communicators should take from recent events – one that harkens back to narratives from a decade or so ago.

If you rent your house, you risk losing it.

Photo by Alexander Trukhin on Unsplash

Politics aside, the de-platforming of Donald Trump over the last few days was a reminder that building your house on a property you don’t own can be risky business.

This is a lesson that industry veterans learned back in the early days of social, when social networks would regularly make changes that caused seismic shifts for brands, and one that Christopher S. Penn reminded me of in his latest newsletter (which is always excellent and worth subscribing to).

Setting aside your personal opinion on whether tech CEOs should have that much influence over public discourse, it is a reminder that you don’t ‘own’ your social media presence.

Brands aren’t likely to run into the kind of issues that #45 has, but the underlying point remains. Facebook killed a billion-dollar industry overnight when it ceased to allow brands to set custom-built tabs on their Facebook Pages as their default landing experience. Then not too long after, they pulled the rug out from under brands who spent millions of dollars building their audiences on their platform when they decided to apply an algorithm to the Facebook timeline.

And they’re going to keep evolving. Brands who continue to invest in their rented channels while neglecting the very properties they own are missing an opportunity.

Turbulence ahead for digital marketing

2021 is likely to be a turbulent year in the digital marketing space. Multiple shifts – underpinned by a trust deficit in the marketing space – are combining to force a shift in some of the technologies that have formed the foundation of digital marketing for years:

  • The death throes of the third-party cookie;
  • The tightening of data through legislation in Europe, the US and soon Canada;
  • The moves by Apple to allow people to opt-out of sharing their mobile device IDs with app developers and to remind people when apps use their location data.

All of these things, along with heightened cultural sensitivity to privacy (think: The Social Dilemma, Cambridge Analytica, TikTok controversy, Clearview) will combine to force a reckoning around marketers who rent vs own. First-party data isn’t short of its own challenges (legislative requirements around portability, deletion rights etc. all present challenges), but the benefits are significant.

None of these things can or should live in a silo. Social media activity isn’t an end unto itself – and ideally it can help to drive that data collection. So ask yourselves:

How are you building your email database – and are you building it with quality data?

How are you providing enough value to the user that they are willing to exchange their information in return for what you are offering?

How are you building your long tail of content on your own platforms?

Now is the time for brands to invest in their own properties. This doesn’t mean stepping back from social media, but it does mean ensuring that that activity drives some kind of long-term benefit.

Build on your own land.

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.