Marketing channels have had a turbulent time in recent years, from shifts in privacy regulations to an increase in marketing costs and the impact of macro-economics on marketing spend. As marketers continue to face roadblocks in their efforts to keep their brands at the top of consumers’ minds, Modern Retail+ Research has analyzed strategies and challenges across leading marketing channels – like programmatic display, Instagram and Amazon Ads – to identify key trends and best practices in our CMO Strategies series.
First up, Modern Retail+ Research will focus on social media usage and budgets. The following reports in the series will focus on platform specifics and different channels.
To map out marketers’ current digital playbook, Modern Retail+ 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.
Modern Retail+ Research also conducted a focus group and individual interviews with marketing executives across industries.
Among all channels considered in our CMO Strategies series, social media had the highest usage rate, with 97% of survey respondents saying their company uses it for marketing.
Within social, Meta-owned platforms Instagram and Facebook are the predominant players. While both are owned by Meta, the two platforms attract different audiences: Instagram appeals to younger generations, with almost 70% of its audience base falling between the ages of 13 and 34, while almost 67% of Facebook’s user base is between 24 and 65 and another 11% is 65+, according to Statista. The two platforms benefit from being veterans in the social space and also have found success from offering marketers and influencers out-of-the-box-ready marketing options. Out-of-the-box ready marketing options typically include built-out standardized ad options that marketers can select from, such as Instagram’s in-feed ads that can also be combined with shopping.
Despite Facebook and Instagram’s high placement as the social platforms of choice, some marketers are itching to shift away from the Meta-owned offerings. Although this sentiment is nothing new — whistleblowers at Meta created brand safety concerns for some marketers and Apple’s privacy changes impacted Meta’s ad measurement abilities — there are some new challenges regarding these platforms. Casey Terrell, CMO at Krystal Restaurants, said his company has faced obstacles with Meta.
“For us, the challenge has been Meta recently with a lot of changes,” Terrell said. “That account management piece is kind of gone. It’s forced us more into TikTok and other platforms – plus Facebook is a different generational play.”
TikTok came in third place among social media platforms in Modern Retail’s survey. While TikTok has fewer out-of-the-box tools for marketers than its legacy competitors, its ability to create viral moments has pushed the platform to the top of marketers’ minds. Of course, it’s not quite a zero-sum game: Many companies have stuck with Meta and continued to invest in it, while simultaneously expanding into and experimenting with fresher platforms like TikTok. “We added newer platforms,” said Angela Zepeda, CMO at Hyundai Motor America. “I wouldn’t say we’re moving away [from Meta] because we found our consumers are still on all platforms. And we don’t want to miss an opportunity, so we’ve changed spending.”
“It’s more about adding and not deleting,” she added. “We’re still on Meta and have refined content to differentiate from TikTok.” Despite changes in the social media landscape due to the emergence of TikTok, Meta will likely remain a major player.
Not far behind the other top social platforms, Google-owned YouTube was a close fourth after TikTok, with 62% of respondents saying they use YouTube. The video streaming platform is popular among brands not only as a social platform, but also as an ad-supported streaming platform, thereby serving a dual purpose for marketers.
From a social media perspective, YouTube recently launched Shorts, a short-form vertical video option for its content creators. Compared to the platform’s longer-form videos, this content type is more mobile-friendly and engineered to compete with TikTok and Instagram. As more platforms attempt to mimic TikTok’s briefer format, marketers may see more opportunities to broaden their content distribution to other platforms.
Platforms with lower usage by marketers — including Twitter, which about one-third of respondents (35%) said they use, and Pinterest, used by 30% of respondents — are platforms that focus more on users engaging each other than brand marketing. While these platforms still play important roles for brands, like Twitter being used for customer service and Pinterest being used for inspiration and product discovery, marketers may not use them as frequently for performance marketing.
Within just the social channel, the platforms come with different content requirements, which is a growing challenge for marketers as social media marketing continues to gain importance. Hyundai’s Zepeda, said marketers have to consider the expense of having to create different content for various platforms. “The biggest challenge is that each platform has specific content perspectives,” Zepeda said. “We’re able to have a budget that allows for production, but we have to produce content for every platform. … You can’t take what you create someplace else, and just throw it on every platform.”
Companies with smaller budgets, however, may not have the option to create content tailored to every social media platform and have to choose more strategically. For example, Verlas, a direct-to-consumer jewelry company, honed in on Pinterest ads after it decided to shift away from Meta. Verlas’s co-founder Nidhi Dangayach said, “I was ready to give up on Pinterest, but when we shifted focus to channel diversification in light of Meta changes, we decided to test it again.”
The company found that Pinterest offered a better return on investment, but Dangayach noted that figuring out a set of new advertising channels requires extensive testing and a quick turnaround. “We test, scale or kill campaigns as quickly as possible, sometimes within two days if they’re not working,” she said.
When assessing platforms year over year, Instagram and Facebook received the majority of budget allocation in both 2022 and 2023, Modern Retail’s research found. Additionally, TikTok outpaced YouTube in 2023 for marketing budget allocation. Despite its nascency compared to the more mature YouTube, TikTok has quickly become a favorite among marketers.
Overall, platforms that took the top spots for budget allocation — Instagram, Facebook and YouTube — were unsurprisingly those that have feeds where ads were much more common. TikTok was the only exception to this. However, despite its success, the Chinese ByteDance-owned platform still faces uncertainty with recent U.S. congressional hearings about a possible ban and potential regulations on its use in the country. As TikTok continues to evolve and regulations take shape, marketers will have to stay flexible with their plans for the platform and measure brand risk accordingly.
Within Modern Retail’s 2023 breakdown of social media platforms, Twitter, Reddit and Snapchat fell toward the lower end of marketers’ budget allocations. Notably, rather than playing host to higher quality influencer or professional content, these three platforms give users the ability to interact consumer to consumer. As a result, the environments on these platforms are not particularly conducive to advertising content. Instead, brands typically use the platforms as more of an opportunity to educate or engage consumers, such as through the Ask Me Anything format on Reddit. Such tactics often result in casual – occasionally irreverent – conversations with users on these platforms. Wendy’s Twitter account, for example, famously pokes fun at customers and other brands.
Because performance marketing isn’t a focus on these platforms, budget allocation is low. But, lower spend does not always equate to a lower presence on the platforms. As such, brands would do better to use them as places to listen to consumer sentiment or to organically join the conversation, rather than as platforms to market to consumers.
Pinterest, while also lower on 2023 budget allocation, and despite its emphasis on consumer-generated content, does offer paid tools for marketing. Different in strategy compared to the top platforms, like Instagram, brand-owned Pinterest boards typically repost user-generated content and allow marketers to target consumers in a more organic way.
In particular, among platforms that received smaller chunks of marketers’ budgets, Twitter has seen quite the shift since its 2022 acquisition by Elon Musk. Musk’s policy updates and their effects on the platform’s reputation have caused some brands to pull away due to brand safety concerns. Recently, Musk announced a change in spending requirements on the site for advertisers, requiring marketers to spend at least $1,000 per month on Twitter or they will need to pay for verification to continue running ads. Similar to the regulation concerns facing TikTok, the changes happening on Twitter will likely force marketers to adjust the way they do business with the platform and to further reduce their reliance on it as a marketing tactic.
Looking specifically at the portion of budgets marketers gave to the different platforms, the majority of brand respondents, 46%, told Modern Retail that they leaned toward allocating no marketing budget to TikTok and 24% spend a small or very small portion of their budget there. While TikTok has grown in popularity, marketing spend on the channel is still relatively low. Granted, ad spending on TikTok may not be as necessary as on other platforms. The platform focuses more on creating viral organic moments for brands and is not as pay-to-play as other social players. But many marketers trade predictability for that potential.
Krystal Restaurants’ Terrell said it’s important for brands to balance paid media with organic social. “We see it as paid is still number one, but organic is extremely important,” Terrell said. “It’s just what channels we need to be on, but always keeping in mind that people still talk to each other in real life. Just because it’s on social, not everybody knows about it. Brands still have to get out there and be relevant with actual conversations.”
Meanwhile, Instagram remained the recipient of the highest portion of marketing budgets, and marketing spend on the platform has only grown year over year from Q1 2022 – Q1 2023. Based on YoY spend, Instagram received the highest average portion of social budgets, 20% on average spend a moderate to very large portion compared to 13% spending none or a small portion since Q1 2022. Modern Retail’s earlier budget question also noted that the majority of the budgets (83%) goes to Instagram as well. But, as TikTok continues to mature its ad offering and exert its influence, there’s a chance for this dominance to be eroded.
Not all respondents feel positive about TikTok’s potential. When asked about their confidence in TikTok as a successful marketing platform, brand respondents were less optimistic compared to when they were asked about Instagram. The percentage of respondents who said they were somewhat confident, confident or very confident in TikTok fell slightly between Q3 2022 and Q1 2023, from about 56% to 52%. Despite its massive popularity among users, the slight decrease in brand confidence can point to challenges in the platform as a marketing tool. Along with unpredictability about what goes viral on the platform, a potential ban on TikTok in the U.S. has started to shake marketers’ confidence in the platform as a stable place for brands.
On the other hand, Instagram saw an increase in marketer confidence within the same time period, from about 38% to 46%. As mentioned earlier, while some marketers are looking to move away from Meta’s platforms – or at least paying lip service to the notion – many advertisers still have faith in Meta-owned properties, and Instagram remains a consistent performer. It will likely take much more effort from competitors before Instagram falls from grace as a top marketing tool. Compared to platforms like TikTok and Reddit, which can pose brand safety risks through a lack of control over where marketing content appears, and specialized platforms like YouTube, which are limited to serving video content, Instagram continues to provide a wide range of tools for marketers and a consistent user base.
To further analyze marketers’ strategies around the different social platforms, Modern Retail+ Research separated them into three categories that emerged based on commonalities from survey results on budget, usage rates, commonly used metrics and other factors. In subsequent reports, we will dive deeper into each of these groups, examining their advantages, drawbacks and other aspects that determine their place in marketers’ playbooks. Here are the groupings:
- Out-of-the-box-ready: Instagram, Facebook and YouTube are in this category. This group consists of platforms with a long list of ad options for marketers to choose from to target and interact with consumers. More specifically, the platforms are well-established performance marketing channels.
- Too-soon-to-tell (i.e. TikTok): TikTok is the only occupant of this category. While TikTok does offer tools for marketers, most of the platform’s benefits come from its ability to generate organic viral moments. However, these viral moments are typically unplanned and unpredictable. With a plentiful number of brands and influencers posting on the platform, casual and unedited content often has as much impact as professionally created content.
- User-dominated: Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter and Reddit are in this group. These platforms may have offerings for marketers, but their sites are more suited for users to casually post and interact with one another. As a result of the platforms’ UGC-centric focus, branded content can feel out of place.