Is It Time to Adopt a Social-First Strategy?

By Jane Ainsworth on 12th February 2020

December 2019 will be remembered for playing host to a fierce general election. The timing was unprecedented in modern times, with the last winter vote having taken place almost 100 years ago,
both journalists and psephologists wondered how the unusual date might affect campaigning which, until recent times, had predominantly relied on leafleting and door-to-door canvassing.

Yet as the campaigns progressed it became clear that much of the battle was being fought online. Strategies were launched across different platforms to target select audiences and supplement the ‘ground war’ taking place in neighbourhoods across the UK. While this kind of work had been used before to great success, the difference was so apparent in 2019 that many news outlets dubbed it the ‘social media election’.

Clearly the UK’s media consumption habits are shifting but to what extent? In late 2019 WPR polled 2,000 members of the public to answer this question and determine whether effective PR and
content marketing strategies should now take a ‘social first’ approach.

A Moving Picture

We’re told that traditional media formats are in a period of prolonged decline. As digital platforms have evolved to support different types of content, the numbers of people picking up a paper to get their daily news fix has plummeted. Even the steady popularity of broadcast, as this article from The Times reports, is now under threat as more people move over to streaming or subscription-based services.

Respondents to our survey, however, painted a more complex picture. When asked to list their preferred methods for following national and international news, more than 61% of the sample chose television. The websites of newspapers and broadcasters were the second most popular choice at 33%, with radio and printed publications rounding off the top four at 30% and 24% respectively. These results were largely the same when people were asked to list how they got their news five years ago. Television again came out on top, with printed news swapping positions with radio.

Surprisingly, social media scored much lower as a source for national and international news. This finding runs firmly against other studies, like the annual media consumption report from Ofcom, which reports a firmly upward trajectory for online news. While television was also reported by the regulator as the UK’s most popular source, usage had dipped by 4% in the last year alone. Social media, on the other hand, rose by five points to 49%.

The Generation Game

On first inspection then, there appears to be a problem with the data. In some cases, WPR’s survey lines up with the much larger sample from Ofcom, yet in key areas it diverges from established national trends. However, this issue becomes much clearer when looking at the weighting of the different age groups.

In the WPR poll, the over 55s were double the size of any other age group polled. There were more than 750 respondents in this category, while the others had an average of 300. The oldest generation accounted for 38% of the total vote, while those aged 18-24 only represented 11%. Some might argue this skews the results and misrepresents the true nature of current media consumption habits in the UK, particularly when there are almost as many under 20s as there are baby boomers. Yet it also helps to demonstrate a clear generational divide and therefore a useful lesson for businesses looking to build brand recognition.

Examining the survey results by age range is telling. Twitter and Facebook, for example, were wholly unpopular with over 55s – only 6% in that category said they used the latter for news updates. Traditional formats were far more popular. 80% of over 55s polled said they used television as their preferred source for national and international news, while 37% also selected radio.

The difference between these results and younger age groups couldn’t be clearer. Just 15% of the 18-24 group said they preferred a printed publication for news. The most popular choices in this cohort were television, followed closely by Facebook, Twitter and the websites of newspapers and broadcasters. It’s also important to note that every social platform and digital source had grown in popularity with respondents across all age groups when compared to five years earlier.

Social First?

It would be premature to completely discount traditional media. While clearly on the wane, they still serve a useful function in today’s climate. Print newspapers, for example, are now used for in-depth analysis that is impractical on micro-blogging sites like Twitter. They also appear to be held in higher regard, as respondents to our survey generally ranked television, newspapers and radio as more trustworthy sources for online news.

However, if the goal is reach and impact then the importance of digital cannot be overstated. Our results show those aged under 55 are far more likely to turn to social media for news, and it’s safe to assume this trend will continue with emerging generations. Not only do social platforms hold the key to a growing audience, they’re also capable of targeting specific types of traffic, which is much more difficult to do offline. On these grounds, then, it’s fair to say ‘social first’ is the most effective strategy for PR and content marketing today.

Feel free to carry on the conversation by connecting with me on LinkedIn.

The author: Jane Ainsworth is managing director of WPR. She has over 20 years’ experience in developing and delivering communications strategies for consumer brands including Dunelm, Tesco, Mothercare, Greene King, John Lewis, Bullring, Beaverbrooks and Westfield.