A Year in Social Media: Five Updates That Shaped 2021

If a week is a long time in politics, where do we begin summing up a whole year in the fast-paced social media sphere?

In our latest Reading Room blog, WPR’s senior social media strategy director, Alex Mansell, looks at the social media developments that had the biggest impact for marketers in 2021 and considers what that means for future strategy planning.

1. Tracked Data Usage

This year put tracked data firmly under the microscope, with the topic cast in both a negative and a positive light.

On the one hand, we had Apple introducing its data update in July, giving users on iOS 14.5 or above the power to opt out of digital platforms tracking their online activity. This saw an (unsurprising) backlash from platforms such as Facebook. These channels are now required to ask for users’ permission before their data can be monitored and used for advertising purposes.

With ad personalisation, tracking and retargeting all hindered – and monthly reports no doubt suffering as a result – this has been detrimental to brands’ digital marketing efforts.

At the other end of the spectrum, the first week of December saw a celebration of data collation, with social media feeds suddenly filled with stories of users’ Spotify Wrapped, a personalised annual summary of individual music tastes. The feature from the streaming platform is nothing new, having started in 2015, but this year undeniably saw a much stronger desire from users to share their results.

Brands too jumped on the trend, sharing creative versions of their compilations to drive interactions and be a part of the conversation.

With tracking cookies set to be scrapped by Google next year – and rumours of an even more invasive replacement – tracking data will no doubt continue to form a major part of the marketing toolkit.

2. Live Shopping

Just about every platform brought live shopping to their feeds this year, with many releasing the update ahead of Black Friday and the festive season.

Facebook launched Shops and recommendations within groups, allowing members to view and purchase products. ‘Top Product Mentions’ in the news feed saw users discover items recommended by fellow members of a group. And members could now ask for advice on products and receive quick guidance via the ‘Add Recommendations’ button.

Pinterest TV went live in November, inviting users to participate in live shopping events, with discounts available via the individual TV episode.

One of our favourite iterations of the trend has to be Twitter’s unique collaboration between Walmart and Jason Derulo. Their take saw Derulo hosting a variety show on Walmart’s Twitter page, where users could shop the featured products as they appeared on screen.

Walmart is clearly keen on this format, having previously used TikTok to host live shopping events back in December 2020, so it looks like the hybrid shopping/entertainment model is only set to get stronger.

3. Video

Before you protest that video is old news (and you’d be right), we can’t ignore its continued rise in prominence, in large part due to challenger brand TikTok as well as national lockdowns.

Who knew that there would be room for yet another social media platform? And yet, after a slow emergence onto the scene in 2016, its indomitable growth skyrocketed during the spring 2020 lockdown, which brought with it a desire for new sources of entertainment in the home.

Both the prominence of TikTok and the surge of video viewing during lockdowns saw the release of video features such as Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and Twitter Fleets – all of which were added in 2020, setting 2021 up as a year in which consumer demand for video increased. Indeed, Ofcom’s Online Nation report from June 2021 found that the average number of social video services used daily by UK internet users aged 13+ is 2.82.

Tiktok’s stealing of market share is no doubt one of the reasons Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said back in September that “Instagram is no longer a photo-sharing app”. This was a huge shift away from the channel’s heritage, which has well-known roots as a place to curate beautiful photography. Marketers suddenly had to shift gears, adapting their strategy to align with the new algorithm, which now favoured the likes of Reels over static content.

For 2022 and beyond, video will undoubtedly continue to play a major role in how social platforms position their offering.

4. Analytics

Social media analytics form a key part of any marketer’s toolbox, so it was great to see various channels update the level of data available.

Earlier this year, LinkedIn introduced employee advocacy stats to identify the impact team members can have on the success of a company page. This data is based on activity such as employees’ own posts and engagements, how many people they reach and their function and seniority in the business.

Twitter updated its analytics with more detailed data on individual tweets, including additional information on engagements and greater analysis around where impressions come from. The granularity of such an update means brands can be better informed about how people are responding to their content – and how they can improve it.

November saw YouTube roll out Search Insights, a feature that enables businesses to see what their audience has been searching for on the platform over the past 20 days. Content creators can now look at viewer searches relating to certain keywords across thousands of topics on YouTube, informing their own content strategy. The update also included the introduction of ‘content gaps’, areas where users struggle to find information, opening the door for brands to provide the answers.

Platforms are clearly understanding the need to empower businesses with more metrics, so we hope to see even more updates in the year ahead.

5. Live Streams

With Covid-19 taking events firmly off the agenda, 2020 saw the rise of the live stream. Audiences became accustomed to national news channels interviewing over Zoom, meeting rooms were replaced with random Teams backgrounds and the four walls of our homes became a hub for all manner of live streams.

This showed no signs of stopping as we moved into 2021. Indeed, LinkedIn finally released its much-anticipated Live feature earlier this year and brands were suddenly able to host their webinars, events and talks at the touch of a button.

The service mimics the likes of Facebook Live and YouTube Live, enabling real-time comments and other interactions to create an ‘in-the-moment’ feel and bringing brands closer to their audience.

With LinkedIn claiming that Live videos receive on average seven times more reactions and 24 times more comments than native videos produced by the company, it’s no surprise that the format became a popular option.

And with corporate events making a slow comeback in 2021 – and the threat of Covid variants potentially scuppering plans as we move into 2022 – we may well see businesses continue to opt for the ease, predictability and lower cost of a live-streamed virtual version.

If you’d like to find out more about social media strategy, feel free to reach out on LinkedIn.

The author: Alex Mansell is a senior social media strategy director at WPR who specialises in using Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter to keep clients ahead of the curve when it comes to social media marketing.