Social media trends in 2021  Get the report

Events across 2020 showcased the true power of social media.

Widespread lockdowns made the connections social media provides – between friends, businesses, and content providers – more important than ever. 

Social platforms have also evolved into a key vehicle for activism, with some businesses paying the price for taking their eye off the ball. 

Brands can’t sit on the sidelines of wider conversations, nor can they miss the chance to forge genuine connections with their customers. Luckily, the social space is evolving to accommodate these demands. 

Livestreams, online communities, and influencers all offer fresh ways for companies to convey personality, while entertaining their target audience. And with content now a key battleground for consumer loyalty, brands should strive to bring something new to the table. 

Here, we explore four of last year’s standout social media trends to see how they’ve progressed.

1. Gen X and boomers have joined the party. 

A key question on everyone’s lips is whether lockdown increases in usage are going to be sustained in the new normal.

There was a universal uptick in time spent on social media during Q2 (April-June) as countries went into lockdowns. The global figure then fell, before stabilizing.

Spikes in usage were ultimately one-offs, and we’ve since returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

Chart: Uptick in social media usage

Age plays a part, however. Younger consumers still spend the most time on platforms, but their initial increases were the first to settle down.

In contrast, boomers continue to use social media more than they did at the start of last year, with their Q2 peak largely being maintained. Partly due to their purchasing power, this group’s heightened presence on social sites is now being addressed by marketers.

Pre-pandemic, older consumers’ usage was pretty much synonymous with YouTube and Facebook; but across 2020, the portion of boomers using Instagram and Twitter grew considerably. 

While boomers are spending more time on platforms and maintaining a broader presence, they’re not necessarily more receptive to social media marketing. 

Compared to their younger counterparts, boomers in the U.S. and UK are more likely to describe social ads as excessive or intrusive; and low levels of connection with the content drive these sentiments. 

Only 10% of boomers say they feel represented in ads.

Boomers are far less likely to describe ads they typically see on social media as relevant. 

Some luxury brands are waking up to the problem and finally chasing the potential. Footwear company UGG is using a 65-year-old supermodel to front its upcoming Spring/Summer campaign; while others have collaborated with boomer influencers in fitness, fashion, and lifestyle categories. 

Our recent travel research shows that boomers are the most likely to have booked a trip for 2021, due to them being vaccinated first and typically having more disposable income than youths.

If travel is any indication, older consumers will be spending more, and more quickly, than audiences often targeted in advertising.

Brands who rethink and broaden their ad spend are the ones that stand to benefit. 

Many Gen Xs and boomers want to stay active and trendy, and thanks to the pandemic, they’re more reachable on social media than in the past.

Depicting relatable role models will break down old stigmas and encourage this audience to respond more positively to social media ads – prompting more sales and brand loyalty in the process.

2. The tide has changed for influencers. 

In light of the challenges posed during the pandemic, we’ve touched on how demand is increasing for more authentic and representative influencer marketing

Nowadays, the consequences of failing to read the room can be severe. A group of influencers came under serious fire in January after they traveled to Dubai under the label of “essential” work.

Consequently, several reality stars lost thousands of followers, causing some to speculate about the kind of place influencers have in our post-pandemic world. 

This obstacle aside, our data demonstrates the strong hold they have on consumers, particularly younger generations. 

27% of Gen Zs say following influencers is one of the main reasons they use social media, ahead of seeing content from their favorite brands. 

Especially now physical retail has taken a backseat and mental health is suffering, influencers are needed to help brands engage with customers in a more human, empathetic, and personal way.

Writer Chloe Combi argues 2020’s ideological shifts caused young people to shift their focus onto “true role models” and away from polished influencers.

This aligns with several aspects of our data; in Q4 2020, influencer followers were much more likely than other consumers to say challenging themselves, learning new skills, and contributing to their community was important to them. 

Influencer followers also have interests beyond travel and beauty. They stand out for being interested in personal healthcare, wildlife, DIY, and volunteering.

The gap between personal healthcare (58%) and beauty/cosmetics (45%) is actually wider among influencer followers than the average, which highlights their focus on wellness and self-care. 

So it’s not that influencers have less potential, but that followers want more raw, unfiltered content, which they currently relate to better than glitzy backdrops.

Influencers that offer lifestyle tips and encourage people to open up and express their frustrations, while voicing their own, stand a better chance of engaging followers in a meaningful way. 

3. Livestreams are empowering online communities.

The pandemic created a gap for virtual live events to fill, as many began craving human connection and entertainment.

In the same way users in Reddit communities or Facebook groups share similar interests, livestreams tend to attract like-minded crowds. 

Those who cite livestreams as a top use-case for social networking often seek out like-minded communities to a much greater degree than the average social media user (37 vs. 22%). 

They’re also 56% more likely than other social users to say they want brands to run customer communities, with just under half also longing for companies to make them feel valued and improve their knowledge or skills. 

Livestreams are a great opportunity for brands to provide value beyond their products, and leverage company expertise to make their customers’ lives better. 

China has been the trend-setting country for livestreaming in the last couple of years.

Around a quarter of those who visit shopping website Taobao each month cite live product demos as a leading purchase driver. In fact, Taobao Live created a precedent for WeChat and Douyin (TikTok), who quickly integrated this feature into their platforms. 

In the West, this pattern is somewhat reversed. Social platforms were among the first to invest in livestreams, followed by ecommerce companies like Amazon.

Unlike in China, livestreaming isn’t currently heavily associated with buying and selling, which gives businesses the opportunity to shape consumer perceptions of these experiences. 

As the community aspect is something current engagers value, brands can focus on ensuring their live events drive social interaction and a sense of belonging by giving viewers the chance to participate through activities like Q&As.

Selecting relevant hosts is also key to building trust, and will encourage people to open up and feel connected to a company.

At the end of the day, accessing an engaged group of customers should be high on the agenda for any organization, and livestreams – in conjunction with online groups and communities – offer the means to achieve this.

4. Content placement should be selective (not pervasive).

Having online communities helps brands support their customers in real-time, and how these interactions are managed is more important than where they take place.

Big companies like Walmart, Chipotle, and the NBA (who have the luxury of large advertising budgets) are the pioneers of TikTok marketing.

And we’re seeing similar things happen with Clubhouse, as well-known companies like Pernod Ricard and Restaurant Brands International (RBI) rush to make early investments.

Yet, smaller businesses with lesser budgets don’t need to feel anxious about maintaining a limited social media presence.

They don’t need to be everywhere at once, as while new sites have a unique set of usage motivations, these aren’t exclusive to any one platform. 

Chart: brand research on social media

Pinterest is increasingly gaining the attention of marketers. Many of the platform’s users log on the site for lifestyle inspiration, making brand discovery a lot more likely. 

But there’s considerable overlap when it comes to citing brand-related research as a use-case: 60% of Pinners who say they use the site to find brand-related information also visit Instagram for the same reason.

Ultimately, brands are better off managing a few platforms well rather than neglecting additional accounts.

Modest marketing budgets can still capture all kinds of user intent across the more tried and tested platforms.

New features introduced by up-and-coming platforms typically inspire similar changes on the more traditional networks, so they end up being accessible to the majority on social media.  

Reels and Shorts (inspired by TikTok) have enabled Instagram users to enjoy a stream of personalized clips, and several technology giants are trialing audio-based features of their own off the back of Clubhouse’s success. 

By being consistent and taking advantage of the latest tools in livestreaming, influencer marketing, and social commerce on a few hand-picked platforms, brands stand the best chance of amplifying their message to an attentive audience of loyal and potential customers. 

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