PMG Digital Made for Humans

How Social Apps Are Evolving

6 MINUTE READ | September 9, 2021

How Social Apps Are Evolving

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Abby Long

Abby is PMG’s senior managing editor, where she leads the company’s editorial program and manages the PMG Blog and Insights Hub. As a writer, editor, and marketing communications strategist with nearly a decade of experience, Abby's work in showcasing PMG’s unique expertise through POVs, research reports, and thought leadership regularly informs business strategy and media investments for some of the most iconic brands in the world. Named among the AAF Dallas 32 Under 32, her expertise in advertising, media strategy, and consumer trends has been featured in Ad Age, Business Insider, and Digiday.

During the past 18 months, social media apps experienced dramatic growth and saw significant in-app user behavior shifts as public safety measures and regional lockdowns curbed in-person social activities, and people increasingly relied on social media for entertainment, staying connected and engaged in community, organizing for social causes, and so much more. 

Platforms adjusted to these trends by ramping up their own digital transformations, unveiling innovative features and technologies to increase engagement and time spent, and to stay ahead of the competition. Like Twitter Fleets, some were short-lived, while the rapid adoption of others, such as Snap’s immersive AR experiences, demonstrated staying power. From easy-to-use social commerce features to the rise of livestreaming, along with new ways to support creators across platforms, social media continues to shape culture and influence commerce.

In recent weeks, shopping via social media has become a lot more seamless, with platforms including Instagram, Pinterest, Snap, and TikTok releasing new social commerce features just in time for the holiday season. Retail social commerce is already big business in the U.S., as social shopping features such as Instagram Shops drove nearly $27 million in sales last year, with total sales across platforms expected to top $56 billion by 2023, according to eMarketer. Projections by App Annie are even more optimistic, as the app analytics company expects social app spending to reach $78 billion as soon as 2025 in the U.S. 

Though the adoption of social commerce features in the U.S. is growing, the industry still lags behind China and Russia, where 51.5 percent and 49.5 percent of all social media users respectively have reportedly purchased a product via a social app. 

Pertinent to the rapid adoption of social commerce is the growth of the buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) industry, with recent headlines including PayPal’s $2.7 billion acquisition of Paidy, Affirm inking an exclusive deal for Amazon shoppers, and Square acquiring Australian fintech company Afterpay for $29 billion. BNPL and other digital payment offerings are likely to serve as a competitive advantage as some households continue to feel the financial impact of the pandemic heading into the holiday season. 

“Brands that have a fully integrated social commerce strategy will be set up for success for the holiday season,” said Carly Carson, Director of Social at PMG. “By ensuring all activity organic strategies, influencer, and creative partnerships, as well as paid media are working as one brands will be able to connect with customers at the key points in their shopping journey.” 

Recent partnerships and social commerce product releases include: 

Since the onset of the pandemic last year, TikTok’s popularity skyrocketed across international markets through widespread adoption. TikTok is currently available in more than 150 countries, with over one billion users, and more than 200 million downloads in the U.S. alone. 

According to App Annie, TikTok tops the charts as the most downloaded social and entertainment app globally in 2020 and 2021.

TikTok recently shared new insights into usage trends and audience behaviors, citing that TikTok’s “feel-good vibes prompt users to take action, from participating in hashtag challenges to exploring new ideas and products,” which has made TikTok one of the most popular destinations for advertisers looking to connect with its audiences. 

TikTok continues to take “share of clock” away from other entertainment activities, as Kantar Media found that 35 percent of TikTok users are spending less time watching TV or video content since they began using TikTok. By giving TikTok their undivided attention, TikTok users reportedly are spending 45 percent less time on dating apps since they started to use and spend more time on TikTok. 

With this in mind, it’s no surprise to learn that TikTok recently surpassed YouTube in average watch time across Android devices in the U.S. and U.K. while making “significant strides in South Korea” against YouTube watch times, according to App Annie. The app analytics company attributes TikTok’s meteoric rise (and staying power) over the past few years to the app’s short video format and low barrier to entry, authentic creators and content, as well as its robust livestreaming and in-app payment features. As of June 2021, U.S. TikTok users watched more than 24 hours of content per month, compared with 22 hours and 40 minutes on YouTube. Across the Atlantic, TikTok overtook YouTube in May 2020 as U.K. users reportedly watched almost 26 hours of content a month, notably more than the 16 hours of content watched on YouTube. 

Social apps are racing to test and release new features to meet the unique needs of advertisers, creators, communities, and consumers as they seek unique ways to keep users engaged and advertisers spending. Earlier this summer, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri reinforced that Instagram is “no longer just a square photo-sharing app,” as the company focuses on building features across four key areas: Creators, Video, Shopping, and Messaging. Mosseri cited that people are increasingly looking at Instagram for entertainment, and competitors are following suit. 

Recent headlines:

  • Earlier this summer, TikTok enabled users to create longer videos — up to three minutes — and the company is reportedly testing five- and ten-minute options. 

  • Facebook and Twitter have launched live audio and newsletter products to compete with Clubhouse and Substack. 

  • Twitter released Super Follows, a similar feature to Instagram’s “close friends,” but one that allows creators to charge users for access to extra content, bonus tweets, and subscriber-only conversations.

  • LinkedIn is saying goodbye to LinkedIn Stories in favor of a yet-to-be-announced video experience at the end of September. 

In addition, social apps have been quickly developing and expanding in-app payment systems via “gifting” and “tips” for content creators during livestreams. While Twitch has long used ‘Bits’ as a virtual good that gives viewers the ability to ‘cheer’ and financially support their favorite content creators, other platforms like TikTok and Twitter have partnered with start-ups or released their own monetization tools in the form of virtual coins and payments. Platforms like Instagram, Snap, and YouTube are also building back-end tools and standing up creator funds to help creators optimize their finances, produce content, and partner with brands in support of the burgeoning creator economy

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As the lines between advertising, ecommerce, and social media continue to blur, new opportunities to foster brand engagement and drive sales are increasing, as social becomes a one-stop-shop for users to tap into inspiration, discover and shop new products, and connect with their favorite brands and communities, all within the same digital environment. For brands preparing their social strategies for the upcoming holiday season, it will be more important than ever to ensure social programs are working cohesively across platforms and features as the customer journey from discovery to purchase diversifies across the digital ecosystem.

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