The Year in Social Media: 2018’s Biggest Changes & What’s to Come in 2019

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Digital ad revenues are poised to exceed $100 billion this year, and every day the advertising ecosystem is changing. Just this year, Amazon leapfrogged over Microsoft and Oath to become the third-biggest digital ad platform, topped only by Facebook and Google. We also saw old platforms say goodbye (R.I.P. Google+), while others made splashy debuts and big strides forward. And above all, data and privacy captured the industry’s attention in 2018, a trend that shows no signs of slowing as we look toward the new year.

Read on for more of the biggest shifts we saw in social media this year, and get ready to join us for a fantastic 2019 full of new platforms, new opportunities, and – like always in the social media world – a whole lot of unpredictability.

Data and Privacy Define 2018

If there’s one word that ruled the marketing industry in 2018, it’s privacy. And with all those privacy changes came a crucial question for advertisers: What does this mean for my data? Starting at the beginning of the year with Cambridge Analytica, data and privacy stayed top of mind with GDPR in May, the removal of Partner Categories this fall, and high-profile hacks and platform changes all year long. Social media as a whole became more transparent, while attribution became a lot more complicated.

GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation) went into effect on May 25, 2018 in the European Union. Although its scope is technically limited to Europe, the internet is global and as such it sent waves throughout the marketing industry. GDPR was designed to standardize data privacy laws across Europe and improve data privacy for EU citizens, however it also impacts companies based outside of the EU who control or process the data of EU citizens. That includes all social networks, search engines, and most brands, and in the days leading up to May 25, users around the world were bombarded with opt-in emails and website pop-ups that they had to accept to proceed on sites with cookies and tracking.

In mid-2018, Facebook and Twitter both rolled out policies for election and issue-related ads, in order to make it clear who is paying for any content that relates to politics or issues. Facebook also launched an archive of election-related and issue ads, and created a public “Info & Ads” section to show all ads a Page has run across all Facebook platforms. Twitter, meanwhile, introduced US election candidate labels and an Ad Transparency Center where billing information, ad spend, and targeting data is shown for US political ads. Social media got very political over the past few years, and in 2018 the platforms took major steps to introduce transparency to the political tide.

“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and, if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you,” wrote Mark Zuckerberg in a Facebook post on March 21. In the wake of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook implemented several changes to restrict developers’ access to user data, audit apps with suspicious activity, and offer users additional visibility into installed apps. They made additional changes to their ad platform throughout the year, removing thousands of native targeting categories and all third-party data via Partner Categories. Advertisers can now partner directly with third-party data providers or select Facebook Marketing Partners (including Adaptly) to access third-party data sets and advanced audience targeting.

See More: The Impact of Third-Party Data Changes (So Far)

Looking forward into 2019, data and privacy are still top of mind and many issues remain unresolved. ITP 2.0, GDPR, and the third-party data changes are still impacting brands’ advertising decisions on a daily basis, and there are likely to be even more platform changes and regulations introduced in the new year. The best way to navigate the complex and ever-evolving privacy landscape is to err on the side of transparency and align your brand with reputable partners who work closely with and can advise you of changes on the social platforms.

Visual Search Jumps to the Forefront

Visual search has been growing for years, but it took a few leaps forward in 2018. On Pinterest, monthly visual searches increased from 250 million in February 2017 to 600 million in February 2018. Visual search opens up a world of opportunity for brands on search-based platforms by offering an option for searches that can’t quite be put into words. While there aren’t many advertising opportunities tied to visual search just yet, we expect that to change over the next few years – maybe even sooner.

Only 27% of internet users reported being aware of visual search options in their shopping experiences, however 62% said they would be comfortable using the technology. That indicates that visual search is still seen as an interesting possibility, but not something that users have access to when they want it. In 2019 and beyond, that gap between the available visual search options as users’ desire to test them out will begin to close.

See More: Pinterest on Visual Discovery in the Real World & Online

Amazon was one of the earliest leaders in mainstream visual search technology, and in Sept. 2018 they partnered with Snapchat to power a new visual search tool. Users can point their Snapchat camera at an object, press and hold the screen, and wait for a shoppable Amazon product card to appear. It’s a natural extension for both Amazon and Snapchat’s business model, and in the future we could see either partner offering ad formats that tie into that visual search process through their ad platforms.

Scandals Reshape Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing has long been the wild wild west of the marketing landscape, with brands struggling for years to produce cohesive strategies or prove ROI from influencer partnerships. In 2017 and 2018, scandals rocked the influencer marketing world, and brands were forced to take a closer look at the risks and rewards involved in their influencer campaigns.

Laura Lee, a makeup influencer, and PewDiePie, the most-subscribed to YouTuber in the world, both came under fire for racists comments, prompting brands like Ulta, Disney, and YouTube itself to break ties and pull out of influencer partnerships. In mid-2017, the FTC also sent warning letters to more than 90 celebrities, influencers, and brands for violating sponsored content guidelines. Several influencers have been called out for inflating follower counts and buying fake followers, and one company even created fake influencers (who scored real brand deals) just to show how easy it was. The year kicked off with a report on “The Follower Factory” in the New York Times, where reporters explored the social media black market that makes influencer marketing such a precarious place for brands to play.

As brands worked to refine their influencer approaches in 2018, so too did the platforms. Pinterest expanded their Marketing Partners program, which includes strategy and advertising partners like Adaptly, to also include eight influencer marketing platforms. Working with a platform-approved marketing partner offers an extra safety net for brands, which is key in the ever-changing social and influencer landscapes. Facebook also made changes to their influencer products in 2018, updating the Branded Content tag to improve transparency and more clearly disclose the nature of brand-influencer relationships. They changed the language from “Paid” to “Paid Partnership” and added an “About This Partnership” icon that provides more information. The platform’s Brand Collaboration tools also continue to expand internationally, reaching the UK, Germany, Mexico, India, Thailand, and more in 2018.

See More: How to Make Influencer Marketing More Effective

Influencer marketing still lacks the structure of other marketing functions, but going into 2019, brands know to be much more careful about who they’re partnering with, how much leeway they’re giving influencers, and whether they’re being transparent enough in how they disclose the relationship. Brands also know now that follower counts aren’t everything, and in 2019 we expect to see more brands moving away from the most-followed influencer in favor of small, niche influencers with authentic content and highly engaged audiences.

Google+ Goes, WhatsApp (& More) Say Hello

New platforms come and go each year, but 2018 was surprisingly light on splashy new platforms like Jelly, Ello, and Mastodon of years past. What we did see, however, was the end of Google’s own social network, Google+, which shut down following low engagement numbers and a software bug that gave developers access to 500,000 users’ private data. We also saw Facebook’s new Explore feed come and go in just four short months, reminding us that social media is ever-changing, and a consistent strategy will always pay off more than jumping on the latest new thing.

But it wasn’t all closures in 2018. In January, WhatsApp launched its new WhatsApp Business app, opening the door to brand and advertising opportunities. Throughout the year they’ve rolled out ads within Facebook’s network that open conversations with brands in WhatsApp, growing their platform to 1.5 billion monthly users and growing WhatsApp Status (the platform’s version of Stories) to 450 million daily active users. Facebook has shared that they will be looking to monetize WhatsApp in the near future, so brands can expect advertising opportunities to be available as early as 2019. In the meantime, there are opportunities available in Facebook’s standalone messaging app, Messenger.

See More: The Rise of Stories | Facebook Messenger Playbook

Facebook also launched IGTV on Instagram this year, an app for watching long-form vertical video that allows users to upload content up to an hour in length. Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom said that IGTV is “a very reasonable place (for ads) to end up,” and we anticipate pre-roll or mid-roll video ads could be available on the platform in 2019.

Even greener is Facebook’s new Portal, which just debuted in November. Facebook told Recode that Portal itself will not have ads, but that the data can be used by advertisers to target users throughout the Facebook Ads ecosystem. The third-party apps a user installs on Portal may also include ads, so savvy advertisers won’t think about Portal as another Facebook ad format, but instead include it in any voice device strategies being prepared for Amazon Echo or Google Home.

Looking Ahead to 2019

Data and privacy will continue to lead the conversation in 2019, and the best brands will learn to embrace transparency and make it a foundational part of their marketing strategies. Consumers have long appreciated the value of authenticity, and transparency is the next step in what they want from brands.

New platforms will come and go in the new year, just as they always do, but consistency is still key. Having a core strategy and the right partners in place will give you the room to explore new platforms, formats, and content types. When you try new things like visual search, smart devices, and WhatsApp ads in 2019, don’t let them steamroll the plans you already have in place; make them complementary pieces of your strategy.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from all of us at Adaptly.
We can’t wait to work with you in 2019!