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Rise of the Underdogs – Why Social Media Behemoths are Losing Ground to Outliers

In November of 2023, X (formerly Twitter) was reeling from a mass exodus of advertisers following controversial social media posts from its owner, Elon Musk. Sitting in front of a crowd of business executives, high-level politicians and other thought leaders at the New York Times’ DealBook summit, Musk addressed his fleeing advertisers with a simple directive:

“Go f*** yourself.”

In recent years, this message has been received loud and clear by advertisers and audiences alike: the current state of play on mainstream social media channels has shown lackluster year-over-year engagement for behemoth content engines such as Facebook and Twitter/X while previously second-string platforms including Reddit, Twitch, Pinterest, and even neighborhood-based networks like Nextdoor have seen surges in traffic.

Though these underdogs may take up a smaller market share than their more gargantuan social media counterparts, recent trends have shown us that these seismic shifts in advertiser and audience behaviors create ample opportunities for brands to expand their advertisement reach into new social media frontiers.

Read on to learn why these shifts have become especially pronounced over the past few years and how brands can determine where their ads can make the biggest splash in our increasingly compartmentalized digital sphere.


The Premiere Platforms of the Past

When Facebook first emerged onto the digital scene around 2005, there was nothing quite like this virtual town square for flip phone-era internet users. Facebook users registered accounts using their real names and locations, tagging their real-world friends and family in their posts and photos to solidify the connections between their real and digital lives. By the end of 2005, Facebook had six million monthly active users, and advertisers were starting to take notice.

The following year, Twitter burst onto the scene. The microblogging platform allowed users to register with relative anonymity and post messages no longer than 140 characters, ensuring that users created concise, punchy “tweets” in contrast to Facebook’s more comprehensive approach to social media interactivity. This format allowed breaking news and novel advertising campaigns to propagate faster than on other platforms, keeping the discourse fresh and fast-paced in an increasingly sprawling internet.

Here we have two pillars of the original social media age: Facebook, where users extend their real-world relationships into digital communities, and Twitter, where conversations are limited by character count, not proximity. Without them, the advent of social media may never have come to pass. The current digital landscape, however, is a vastly different one than it was in 2006.

As communities continue to propagate online and technology improves at an exponential pace, the foundational tenets of Facebook and Twitter have become less novel to digital audiences looking for a digital connection space, and smaller social media platforms have been more than happy to pick up the slack.


A Shift in the Digital Conversation

It’s easy to forget that Facebook wasn’t the first monolithic social media presence during the burgeoning digital age of the early to mid-2000s. Myspace, the most popular social media platform from 2005 to 2008, saw a steep decline in popularity as Facebook and Twitter became more established in the social media scene and began offering expanded suites of features that Myspace simply couldn’t match.

Just as the era of Myspace gave way to the age of Facebook and Twitter, recent trends may imply another tectonic shift in the social media landscape. According to SimilarWeb, Facebook and Twitter/X saw significant drops in traffic between December of 2021 and December of 2023, with 19% and 17% fewer users respectively.

While there is no single, all-encompassing explanation for this shift, several factors can help us better understand why these two platforms have struggled to retain their peak traffic numbers in recent years:

  • The Pivot to Short Form Video: While Facebook and Twitter both integrate video capabilities into their platforms, other sites have simply been more effective at drawing users in with short form video content. YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels and TikTok have optimized their user interface and business models to emphasize the importance of video, drawing in younger audiences looking for a more streamlined experience.
  • Demographic Shifts: Although Facebook may be the most popular social media platform for the 50-64 demographic, younger generations are increasingly flocking to recent video-centric breakouts such as TikTok and Snapchat. If brands want to stay at the forefront of their audience’s minds, they’ll need to focus on building a relationship with younger audiences where they’re most engaged.
  • Courting Controversy: Between the spread of misinformation, a cyberbullying epidemic, “bot” accounts and the mercurial decisions of executives (see our introductory section above), the largest social media platforms often find themselves in the news for less-than-ideal reasons. This can make it difficult for audiences and advertisers to sit comfortably with their daily social media usage, though as with all things your mileage may vary.
  • Looking for Deeper Connections: As online spaces have evolved, audiences want their digital communities to be more reflective of their identities than just Facebook’s group pages or Twitter’s hashtags can allow. When a social media platform can tailor itself to the specific interests of its audience and develop an online presence that is most conducive to engagement (such as Letterboxd or Rotten Tomatoes for professional and amateur film reviews, or Goodreads for sharing opinions on books), those platforms prove to be a more fulfilling experience for users looking for more specialized communities.

That final point is of particular salience for advertisers; audiences are more receptive to brand messaging within communities that they actively and frequently engage with. While Facebook and Twitter made names for themselves by casting a wide net in the emerging social media scene, niche digital communities have evolved into spaces where audiences are looking for specialized communities that will grow alongside them without the baggage of the larger platforms.

Enter: the underdogs.


Niche is Nice

Specialized communities like Reddit, Nextdoor, Twitch, Pinterest, and innumerable others have often been overlooked as fertile ground for advertisers to reach new audiences. After all, the average internet denizen visits an average of 6.7 different social media platforms every month, why should advertisers limit their reach to the two or three most visible ones?

As we just discussed above, underdog platforms often make up for their lack of reach and resources by fully committing to their chosen user base in ways that the behemoths simply can’t. One example: Nextdoor, a localized networking platform for users looking to stay informed about their neighborhood without leaving their front door. Users can message new arrivals to the block, peruse items for sale nearby or read restaurant recommendations when looking for a night out on the town. Just last year, Nextdoor added a record number of organic verified users to the platform and increased their revenue 4% year-over-year.

Reddit is another sterling example of a specialized platform at its peak. Split into a near-infinite number of “subreddits” for any and all interests, this user-driven content aggregate site serves as a combination message board, image sharing site, and Q&A platform for celebrities and creators, among other capabilities. Though the site’s interface isn’t as sleek as Facebook’s, the simplified UI allows communities to imprint their own identities within each subreddit and choose the content format that best fits their theme.

This level of specialization means that users bouncing off of the more well-established platforms can find their next digital obsession with a few simple Google searches. These highly specialized social media platforms have seen an upswing in traffic while the behemoths have lost some momentum. Between December 2021 and December 2023:

  • Nextdoor traffic increased by 6%
  • Reddit traffic increased by 14%
  • Pinterest traffic increased by 4%

These underdogs know that they don’t need to be the next Facebook or Twitter to succeed. On the contrary: they want to focus on a core, specialized audience segment and create the digital spaces that allow for the most engagement.

But since more specialized sites won’t necessarily benefit from the same advertising approach as the behemoths, how can brands and advertisers maximize their returns in these new spaces?


Specialized Platforms Require a Specialized Approach

As brands continue to seek out their target audiences outside of the usual channels, advertisers are taking notice of the potency of these alternate social media platforms. In a recent LinkedIn poll, we found that 57% of respondents would consider placing ads in social media channels outside of the usual behemoths such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This tells us that these underdogs are starting to become recognized by advertisers who have historically been more comfortable with the standard ad channels, but it also implies that some companies may not know where to begin.

Choosing between the plethora of alternate social media channels can be a daunting task at first, but following your target audience and understanding the platform-specific tools at your disposal goes a long way toward establishing an effective presence in these specialized digital spaces. Research your target demographics, become more familiar with industry and hobby-specific social media spaces and find out where the experts are consolidating their conversations and knowledge.

Additionally, these secondary platforms will sometimes have demand-side platform (DSP) tools to help you more efficiently streamline the ad buying process. Though you’ll most likely need outside assistance to manage multiple ad buying processes and relationships while juggling internal work, these DSP benefits can make your brand’s life easier in the long run by automating crucial campaign segments (similar to how programmatic ads utilize AI to remove effort-intensive manual work from your employees’ to-do lists).

Though this may sound like more effort on top of an already dense digital advertising playbook, we have our own portfolio of success stories to underscore the viability of secondary social media platforms. most recent Reddit-based campaign produced strong results with high click-through rates (CTR) and cost per click (CPC) thanks to the platform’s ability to drive clicks and impressions through an audience segment primed for engagement. In summary, we learned that despite its moderate cost per thousand impressions, Reddit’s innate ability to drive impressions and facilitate more clicks than expected makes it a compelling platform for advertisers.

Of course, that’s not to say that Facebook and Twitter are obsolete; they’re still juggernauts in their own right, with Facebook’s parent company Meta taking up 19.5% of all digital ad spending in 2023. So long as audiences log in to the behemoths in staggering numbers, there will always be a place for ads on the largest platforms. However, as brands and advertisers look to narrow their focus and maximize their ROI, specialized and under-the-radar social media platforms have proven themselves to be a worthwhile investment.

To find out which underdog platforms can carry your brand’s voice the farthest, reach out to us at leverinteractive.com/contact and let us help you locate the perfect positioning for your next round of ads.

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