Social media advertising is getting expensive. Organic social has been proclaimed "dead" for a long time in the social industry. And it’s true that very little social marketing is now done without a paid media strategy to back it. If you want to appear in the news feed, it’s pay to play.

A 2019 study found that 85% of marketers are concerned about the rising costs of Facebook ads and last year Facebook cost per mille rates grew a massive 90%. It’s no wonder that UK social advertising spend was up 20% year on year, according to our Digital 2020 report; £2.6bn was spent on social ads in the UK in 2019.

However, while advertising costs increase due to demand, people’s tolerance of ads is declining. The use of ad-blockers is on the rise, particularly among younger generations, while growing concerns about data misuse mean people are retreating into more private spaces. Private messaging apps such as the (currently) ad-free WhatsApp are growing; the app just launched its first brand campaign. Meanwhile, places for forming niche communities are gaining traction. Reddit experienced the biggest audience growth globally last year of any social platform and has just announced plans to run its first brand campaign.

Even Facebook, arguably the biggest perpetrator of data misuse, has somewhat ironically recognised that a sense of privacy online has become a priority. Its not-so-subtle Super Bowl ad drilled home the growing importance of "groups" to the network’s future and tools such as Instagram’s Close Friends are gaining traction. All this means that the news feed, while still important, certainly isn’t the only place of relevance any more.

This is the new social: harder to track and more difficult to reach. But it also poses an interesting challenge to marketers who have historically relied solely on a lazy paid approach to social content, more focused on the media spend than the creative idea. It’s a shove back to reality for those with social in their DNA – to remember that this industry used to differentiate itself on conversation over interruption.

The rise of more discreet, intimate spaces offers an opportunity to talk to people where they’re more emotionally engaged and open; people are more liberated and connect more naturally. Our research with GlobalWebIndex last year found that almost half (48%) of people were comfortable "being themselves" when sharing on private channels, compared with 13% when sharing publicly to a news feed of followers.

Adidas – which we worked with on its Messenger-focused Tango Squad work – recently spoke about how it builds direct relationships with relevant communities using WhatsApp. It claims the use of the dark social platform allows for a less directly transactional approach. Likewise, the Telegraph offers its readers WhatsApp updates and it has found that users are 12 times more likely to become paying subscribers than the average reader on its home page.

Private social done well also allows marketers to harness hive minds and build communities. Brands can now join and participate in Facebook groups, allowing research teams to gather qualitative information from niche-interest communities. Starbucks uses private groups and accounts on social media to better engage with consumers around product development. Netflix builds communities around lifestyle and interest topics, breaking off its flagship original shows into their own niche groups, such as "Strong black lead" for African American pop culture and "NX" for sci-fi fans.

All these examples have something in common: they don’t rely solely – if at all – on a media budget to get people interested and engaged. Communication in private spaces forces marketers to think more creatively, as the traditional pay-to-play model just doesn’t work. When brands such as Procter & Gamble have said that marketers should "start thinking about a world with no ads", this has got to be a good thing. Others appear to agree with P&G; more than 30% of marketers in a recent Warc global study say they are changing their media strategy in response to the rise of ad-free media.

Social media is now a mature marketing channel, but we shouldn't forget that it offers so much more than a paid-only approach. As intimate spaces gain favour over public ones, the brands that understand the value of conversation over interruption will be those that succeed.

-------

This article was originally written for Campaign Magazine by our Chief Strategy Officer, Mobbie Nazir