In the previous installment of our CMO Strategies series featuring social media, Digiday+ Research focused on social media usage and budgets. This installment hones in on the key performance indicators marketers monitor and the challenges they face on each social platform.
Dominating all social media platform rankings within Digiday’s CMO Strategies series, Instagram was also top for driving sales, with 42% of respondents listing it as the best platform for conversions — reflective of the spend and confidence levels for the platform. Instagram was up 10% year over year as the best platform for branding, but down slightly — 4% — as a main conversion platform. This slight dip has been brought on by continued brand safety concerns and privacy changes, which have forced many marketers to begin experimenting with other platforms for valuable brand engagement with users.
Platforms such as Snapchat, X (formerly Twitter) and Reddit host more casual social interactions and less curated content than others like Instagram, making them good forums to listen to consumer sentiment while aiming to educate consumers and build a positive association with a brand.
As a result, marketers have a large array of social platforms available for ad placements, and they are investing in multiple offerings simultaneously. “It’s more about adding and not deleting,” said Angela Zepeda, CMO at Hyundai Motor America. “We’re still on Meta and have refined content to differentiate from TikTok.”
So how do marketers properly monitor and measure these various social channels? This report details marketers’ current strategies for doing so, along with insights from marketing executives.
To map out marketers’ current social media playbooks, Digiday+ Research sent out three surveys that asked a total of 635 respondents about past and upcoming investments, marketing channel tactics and preferences, and business challenges. Of note, this survey was conducted prior to the launch of Meta’s Threads and the rebrand of Twitter to X. Digiday+ Research also conducted a focus group and individual interviews with marketing executives across industries.
The gauge of success depends on the platform, from impressions to commerce
Although there are many social platforms consumers can sign up to use, a major challenge for brands is how to measure effective customer engagement and monitor each brand page — especially for brand safety.
With the exception of YouTube and Pinterest, engagement was the primary measurement of success for marketers on social platforms: Forty-one percent of respondents said engagement was the primary metric of success they focus on for Meta’s Instagram. Commerce or sales was secondary to engagement on Instagram, with 20% of respondents selecting that metric. A quarter of respondents (25%) each chose engagement and commerce or sales as their primary measurement of success for fellow Meta-owned platform Facebook.
Both Meta platforms offer shopping features. However, Instagram Shopping — a newer offering compared to Facebook Marketplace — integrates advertisements into users’ feeds with sponsored ads, Reels, Stories or posts with links to items that they can add to their carts, or links that take them to third-party websites to make purchases. Interestingly, Instagram removed the Shopping tab from its bottom bar earlier this year. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri said its removal came in an effort to simplify the app and to focus more heavily on the content creation aspect.
Newer entrant TikTok mainly hosts user-generated content. Therefore, brands marketing on the platform primarily rely on engagement (46% of respondents said this) and impressions (29% of respondents) as the primary success metrics for their brand pages.
Of note, Digiday’s survey was fielded prior to the release of TikTok Shop. TikTok’s shopping feature relies on an algorithm to feed ads, non-sponsored videos and LIVEs with product links to users’ For You pages — with creators eligible to earn a commission from any sales. Brand profiles can also showcase products directly on their pages, and viewers can complete checkout on TikTok — not external sites. To foreground it further, a tab has been added to users’ Home screens to access the Shop feature.
For platforms such as Snapchat, X and Reddit, rather than measuring engagement by the amount of likes or shares a brand or sponsored influencer’s post receives, engagement is most valuable in the form of conversations among users. Notably here, a successful engagement would be a positive mention of a brand.
Cheryl Gresham, who is currently CMO at Verizon Value and who was CMO at Verizon’s Visible at the time of our interview, said that taking an alternate approach to these more casual UGC-focused platforms works well for smaller brands or for brands that need a boost in recognition. “I have found that, for low awareness brands, you’ve got to look at the social platform differently, and use it for creating awareness and breaking through,” Gresham said. “Try to figure out a way to be in the culture and be part of the conversation.”
For video streaming platform YouTube, it makes sense that impressions ranked as marketers’ most important KPI. Impressions measure how often viewers are exposed to the initial in-stream portion of a video ad and can help drive the shift of TV ad dollars to streaming by providing a commonly understood measure of ad-supported streaming’s performance in the language of ad views. In Digiday+ Research’s previous analysis of CMO strategies across the ad-supported streaming landscape, the overwhelming majority (83%) of marketer respondents said they placed ads on YouTube, and well more than half (60%) said YouTube consumed the largest portion of their 2022 budget compared with other ad-supported streaming services. The platform also has more than 2 billion monthly logged-in users, according to YouTube, which far outpaces many other platforms.
When it comes to Pinterest, the platform is unique in that it stands out as the only social option with click-through rates as its main KPI. When navigating through the platform, functionality is heavily borrowed from the search engine paradigm, where users can find ideas and inspiration that then redirect them to the product source. Similar to a search engine, its main point of success is when a user is directed to a brand’s site to convert via clicking on a pinned item’s link.
While not at the top of the list, click-through rates did emerge at a much higher level of importance than other KPIs for Reddit. This platform offers a space for users to share their thoughts in organized collections of threads across category hubs called subreddits. Related subreddits offer opportunities for advertisers to share product information and benefit from UGC — like unfiltered product reviews and community Q&As. As of 2021, Reddit had over 2.8 million subreddits, according to Oberlo, a drop shipping app for Shopify.
Branding vs. conversions: Marketers’ confidence in Facebook and Instagram shifts
Digiday+ Research also analyzed which social platforms best meet a brand’s marketing objectives. When asked which social platform is best for branding, 69% of survey respondents chose Instagram, the top choice last year as well.
Instagram remained at the top of the ranking for branding and conversions this year. In fact, Instagram has dominated all social media platform rankings within Digiday’s CMO Strategies series. In Digiday’s first installment on social media, Instagram was not only the No. 1 social platform marketers use, but also the platform that took the largest portion of marketers’ budgets this year.
In contrast to Instagram, fellow Meta-owned platform Facebook was not a favorite branding tool among marketers, with only 9% of respondents saying it was the best platform for that purpose. This was a significant decrease from 2022, when 36% of respondents selected Facebook as a top brand driver.
In a recent survey of agency professionals, Digiday+ Research found that agency clients are posting less frequently on Facebook and Instagram than they have in the past. More specifically, agency clients are posting on the Meta platforms only once or a few times a week. They’re also pulling back from buying ads on Meta sites and on investing in original content for Facebook and Instagram, indicating that agencies aren’t seeing a return on investment from the platforms. Publishers have also reported lower usage of Meta platforms compared to past years.
But brands and retailers do still see Facebook as an effective sales driver: It came in second place after Instagram as a driver of conversions, with 28% of brand and retailer respondents saying Facebook is a top channel for driving conversions. The platform still hosts a number of shopping features and capabilities, but unlike Instagram, Facebook was not originally set up for influencers and brands to reach beyond users’ friend circles. That’s now changing with the introduction of artificial intelligence and machine learning into Facebook’s algorithms. According to HootSuite, 15% of Facebook feed content is now recommended from non-followed accounts.
And Facebook’s value for branding has only increased this year among brands and retailers: Just over two-thirds of brand and retailer pros (68%) said that Facebook is valuable or extremely valuable for branding, compared with just more than half (52%) who said so last year. More specifically, the percentage of brands and retailers who said Facebook is extremely valuable for branding saw a big jump this year: more than a quarter (27%) said the platform is extremely valuable in 2023, compared with just 12% in 2022.
Comparatively, TikTok is almost entirely a forum for influencers. Rather than prioritizing the content of accounts a user follows, the app’s algorithm feeds popular videos to the For You page. With the ability to drive wild sales spikes when a brand goes viral, TikTok seems to be catching up to other platforms quickly as a top conversion driver. “There’s nothing like a viral trend to get TikTok users to open up their wallets,” said Jasmine Enberg, principal analyst, social media, at Insider Intelligence.
Last year, only 15% of brands named TikTok among even their top three conversion drivers. This year, 18% chose it as their No. 1 platform for conversions, and it came in third place overall, after Instagram and Facebook. This is particularly noteworthy as the other platforms all saw decreases in their standings for driving conversions.
Some agency executives expected ad spend on TikTok to increase this year, after noting a strong finish to 2022. “Between the first three quarters of 2022 and the final one, we saw ad spending on TikTok rise 20%,” Ben Allison, head of media operations at VaynerMedia, said in January. “We see this trend of investment in TikTok continue to increase with quarterly comps expected to grow at least for the duration of this year.” TikTok’s ad revenues are set to hit $13.2 billion in 2023, a 33% increase from last year, according to Oberlo.
As costs across platforms rise, some face more abstract barriers
As the cost of acquisition continues to grow across the platforms, the amount of ROI companies get per ad dollar spent decreases. And marketers’ biggest challenge on legacy platforms Facebook, Instagram and YouTube is the cost of media. “We’re focused on awareness, because when click-to-actions are low we might as well just buy everybody a new car in terms of the cost per acquisition,” said Verizon’s Gresham.
Although the cost to advertise on the platforms has increased, platforms have continued to diversify their ad offerings. But with more options for brands to choose from, company budgets are stretched even further as they try to test newer ad formats while also investing in those with proven efficacy. For instance, many small-to-medium sized advertisers clutched their wallets when X CEO Elon Musk announced that advertisers would need to pay for verification to run ads on the platform.
“I think it’s going to harm smaller brands that don’t have those big budgets and they have to think very carefully about where to spend every penny,” said Samantha Robinson, social media marketing manager at digital consultancy SJR Social Media. “They will just spend elsewhere.”
In addition to budgetary concerns, the ability to properly measure campaign success is a challenge that directly impacts marketers’ ad spend. Laura Jones, CMO at Instacart, said the rising cost of media in relation to the impact of tightening privacy restrictions has pushed measurement to the forefront of marketers’ minds.
“In recent years, measurement and data visibility have become an increasingly prominent issue for social and that’s the biggest challenge that we face,” Jones said. “It is becoming more difficult to ensure various social media platforms are getting the signal needed to accurately report results. … The other thing is efficiency and making sure that we’re paying for media that is a good investment.”
“Again, that comes into play when we’re thinking about loss of signal or measurement, because it makes it harder to feel confident that dollars are deployed efficiently,” she added.
Marketers find lack of scale to be the biggest challenge on Snapchat, Pinterest and X. Many of the UGC-focused platforms lack scale due to the fact that brands tend to struggle to establish an effective, native presence on them. These platforms place an emphasis on users engaging with each other, rather than promoting passive content consumption — though plenty of “lurkers” (users who are active on social media platforms but who don’t participate or engage with others) certainly do exist. Therefore, there’s a greater necessity for content that generates interaction and discourse. Brands that tend to post only curated visuals struggle to gain enough engagement because their posts don’t feel organic within these environments.
Additionally, with consumers leading the discussion and trends on casual UGC platforms, companies tend to go along with trends rather than aiming to create them. This leads to a reactive strategy rather than a proactive one. For example, after Taylor Swift made an appearance at a Kansas City Chiefs’ game the NFL changed its bio on X to “NFL (Taylor’s Version)” — a reactive effort to capture the massive “Swiftie” fan base of the singer. This showcases that brands are more likely to follow user trends on these platforms rather than executing planned marketing campaigns.
Instead of focusing on lack of scale as a detriment, brands have the opportunity to use UGC-focused platforms’ environments to engage users in more authentic, one-on-one communications. Snapchat, Pinterest and X are good spaces to gather customer sentiment and respond to customers — as seen through customer service responses from brands on X.
However, platforms like X, TikTok and Reddit that provide forums for more unfiltered UGC face brand safety concerns as the biggest threat to further brand adoption, according to the marketers Digiday surveyed. Forty-seven percent of respondents chose brand safety as the biggest threat on Reddit, while 35% said the same of both TikTok and X.
Brands have less control in these environments due to the emphasis on and foregrounding of content creators’ unfiltered opinions and comments. In particular, X has been criticized heavily for a lack of progress toward swiftly resolving problems with brand safety. This has fed an ongoing negative perception of the platform, leaving doubts about consumers’ ability to take it — and advertisers — seriously.
Similarly, brands have been historically hesitant to advertise on Reddit. Many brands have a presence on the platform, but their efforts are usually only effective under certain circumstances. The platform allows brands to make posts, like an “Ask Me Anything,” for example, to interact with users within their own conversations. However, only compelling celebrities or experts are typically well-received. Additionally, a main issue with Reddit is that brands typically do not own subreddits or posts, so they have less control over the conversations that takes place there.
TikTok, on the other hand, raises a separate brand safety issue: Because the platform creates more unpredictable viral moments, it does not discriminate between positive or negative press. A viral moment could happen around a bad review of or experience with a company, which could heavily impact brand perception. This brand safety risk is inherent on feed-based platforms that are more biased toward showing new, unpredictable content.
While brand safety is a common concern across UGC platforms, it doesn’t always pose the same amount of distress for every advertiser, as noted by Instacart’s Jones. “Brand safety is an important consideration for us and it’s something that we have at the forefront of any campaign on a channel,” Jones said. “But it’s historically less of an issue for us and not something that we faced a pointed challenge on.”
Unlike the cost of media, available tools and privacy restrictions, brand safety is a more abstract barrier for marketers — and its importance is more dependent on a company’s values and appetite for risk.
Looking ahead: The future of ad-free tiers may pose a threat to advertisers
Aside from cost and brand safety concerns, advertisers have a larger threat looming — ad-free subscription options of social media platforms. YouTube and Reddit have been offering ad-free and exclusive content to paid customers for many years. YouTube Premium launched in 2014 as Music Key, offering ad-free streaming of music videos from participating labels. By the end of 2024, Statista predicts the current iteration of YouTube Premium will have nearly 28 million subscribers.
Reddit Premium, formerly Reddit Gold before being renamed in 2018, offers members an ad-free viewing option, along with avatar gear, custom app icons and access to a “lounge” subreddit page. According to Statista, as of 2022, Reddit Premium had over 473,000 subscribers.
Last year, Snapchat released a $4-per-month ad-free subscription tier called Snapchat+. By September 2023, Snapchat+ had topped 5 million subscribers, according to the company. Similarly, X Premium (formerly known as Twitter Blue) launched in December 2022, though it isn’t seeing the same success as Snapchat+. As of April, X Premium had only 640,000 subscribers, according to Statista.
Other platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are also testing ad-free subscription tiers in regions outside of the U.S. Meta is making plans to charge EU users a $14 monthly subscription fee to access Instagram on their phones if they don’t allow the company to use their personal information for targeted ads, according to recent reports. It also has plans to charge $17 for Facebook and Instagram use on a desktop. TikTok has reportedly launched a single-market test of a monthly ad-free subscription service in an undisclosed non-U.S. location.
Of course, social platforms still rely heavily on ad revenue, and most users are not willing to pay extra for an ad-free experience. But the risk for advertisers of ad-free subscription tiers arises in the potential to lose those users who are able to afford and are willing to pay for the higher-priced luxury tiers — ironically, an important demographic made up of consumers most likely to respond to the online ads they might pay to avoid.
With reduced ability to reach these audiences through sponsored posts, creating natural engagement on social platforms through brand pages will be vital. A potential pocket of growth for organic engagement is in Threads, a text-based conversation app recently released by Instagram to compete with X. However, brands are still getting a feel for the platform and developing strategies to best use it to their advantage.
A recent Digiday+ Research survey found that 47% of brands and agencies are not sure about the marketing potential for Threads. But more are feeling positive (29% of respondents) than are feeling negative (24% of respondents) about its potential. “It will take time for people [marketers] to decide what their strategy is going to be on Threads,” said Danielle Carter, paid social account director at digital marketing agency Croud. “There’s no right or wrong at the moment; marketers are just finding their feet.”
While there hasn’t been any mention of monetization or ads on the platform just yet, chances are they’ll be coming to Threads soon — maybe even accompanied by an ad-free subscription tier.
It’s important to note that there was a significant drop-off in user signups after Thread’s release. As the app struggles with consumer retention, brands aren’t joining the exodus, but they are proceeding with caution. “We told our clients to expect the unexpected with this new platform and as engagement dropped we kept an eye on it,” said Tyler Moore, chief strategy officer at The Escape Pod ad agency. “We haven’t abandoned the platform as we know it’s still being defined by users and Facebook.”
As evidenced by Threads, the social media landscape is evolving quickly — as it always has — with new apps and features launching constantly. Because brand marketers continue to value social platforms for their ability to engage with customers, they continue to invest in and use many platforms — all while evolving their specific strategies for each one. Generating different content for each platform will continue to play an important role as audiences and ad features evolve.