The Visual Communications Age
The past few years has seen a boom in visual communications across social media. An estimated 2.3 billion people now use YouTube every month. Instagram and TikTok have around 1 billion monthly users each.
Visual social media of this kind – be it in the form of still images or video clips – are transforming the way in which we communicate. Part of this change is simply a function of accessibility. Technology has made it far easier for people to create visual images and make short video clips and mini films than ever was the case, even ten years ago. And now there are more social media outlets than ever before where it is possible to publish such material.
It is incredible to think that twenty years ago Facebook, YouTube and Twitter did not even exist. How much the world has changed!
However, we should not be tempted to think that social media platforms will continue to grow forever. There is a finite limit to the number of users any platform can attract, after all. Like in any other market, market growth will inevitably give way to market maturity at some point.
Facebook’s owner Meta Platforms recently recorded a record daily loss on the stock market. This came in the wake of the news that Facebook’s Daily Active Users fell to 1.929bn in the three months to the end of December. This compares to 1.930bn in the previous quarter.
This is the first time Facebook has experienced such a fall; a clear sign that this particular platform is reaching its mature phase. Of course, it was bound to happen eventually. After all, there are only so many active daily users you can have from a global population of 7.7 billion (some of whom do not have good internet access).
TikTok’s owner ByteDance, by contrast, saw revenues grow by 70% in 2021 (although even this is slower than the spectacular growth seen previously).
Facebook is primarily about written communication, albeit pictures, images and gifs are often shared on the platform. TikTok is, of course, mainly about the short form video clip. The BBC recently reported that Facebook’s owner has warned of pressures on revenues precisely because of stiffer competition from TikTok and YouTube.
Are these signs, therefore, of a wider trend? Are we seeing a real sea-change in the way in which we communicate? A transition from a culture of communication based on the written word to one where visual images and video become the dominant mode of interaction?
A visual future?
Are these portents of things to come? Of a world where communication is primary achieved with the video clip and the streamed podcast? Some would argue it is already happening, after all it is now quite easy for anyone to broadcast their own content on YouTube, TikTok or Twitch and it will only become easier with each passing year. Now everyone is a content publisher.
There are also signs of generational differences. Anecdotally we are hearing that younger people are more likely to engage with social media like TikTok and YouTube. Social media such as Facebook, with its higher reliance on written content, still has an appeal for older generations but is, perhaps, less suited for a generation addicted to the video clip.
But can we put any hard numbers to these claims?
A Synchronix survey from last year looked at social media use amongst gamers. We wanted to understand the extent to which people of different ages engaged with social media to discuss or exchange information about gaming. The results showed some clear generational differences in terms of preference.
YouTube: Emerges as the most popular social media platform for gamers under the age of 45. Older gamers also engage with it extensively but, for the over 45s, is relegated to the number two spot.
Instagram: is the second most popular media with the under 25s. It is less popular with the 24-35 age group but still ranks 3rd overall. Its popularity clearly diminishes with age, especially amongst the over 45s.
TikTok: If anything, TikTok illustrates the most significant generational differences of all. It is used by nearly 40% of the under 25s, placing it neck and neck with Instagram within this age group. This drops to 26% amongst the 25-34’s (still significant). However, its popularity wanes markedly in older age groups.
All three brands of visual based social media reflect the same overall pattern. Their popularity is greatest in the youngest age groups and lowest amongst the over 45s.
Facebook: Despite the recent slight dip in use, Facebook is popular with all ages. However, it is not even one of the three most popular platforms for the under 25s, although this soon changes when we start to consider older age groups. It is the second most popular platform for the 25-44 age group and the most popular with the over 45s. Its higher reliance on written content lends it greater appeal for older audiences.
Twitter: Twitter is fourth most popular in the under 25s but drops in popularity with older age groups (especially the over 45s). This is interesting as it shows that Twitter, which is primarily text based, demonstrates that written communications retain a certain degree of popularity with the younger generation. The short form tweet, with its soundbite feel, is still able to resonate with generation Z in a way that other forms of written communication appear to struggle to do.
One thing is now clear. Visual media has become critical for effectively communicating with Gen Z. However, they are not entirely abandoning the written word. Their preference for Twitter above Facebook is likely influenced by a texting culture in which short soundbites are strongly preferred to longer written posts.
The recent dip in Facebook usage likely reflects this generational behaviour shift. However, the downtick in Facebook engagement should not be exaggerated. The fact is that Facebook remains very popular amongst the over 25s and the most important social media for engaging with the over 45s.
As newer generations of internet users reach adulthood, it is likely that different generational preferences will become increasingly marked. Marketeers will increasingly need to adapt strategies to employ a different mix of social media channels depending on the generation of customers they are aiming to communicate with.
So, a campaign aimed at the over 45s may need to focus more on Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp. However, a campaign aimed at a Gen Z audience would need to take very different approach, and would do better to focus mainly on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.
Given the rapid pace of change we have experienced in the world of social media over the past decade, we can expect further significant changes over the next few years. The next TikTok is likely to be a platform that facilitates video and/or audio interaction rather than something more reliant on the written word.
As Gen Z comes of age and as younger generations follow, we will move to a culture highly dependent on streaming, video communication and visual interaction. Perhaps we will eventually see this evolve into virtual reality driven experiences. In fact, I’m sure this will happen at some point. And although I suspect it is still a good way off, I would not be surprised if we found ourselves living in such a world twenty years from now.
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Playbook – UK Gaming Market Report 2021, Synchronix Research