Social media has gone full circle, but what does this mean for brands?

As Facebook turns 20, social media is in the midst of a significant cultural shift

Amy Still

Founder & CEO Whisk


As Facebook, the OG ‘big social’ platform turns 20, the social media industry is facing a significant cultural shift. What started off as a platform to connect Harvard University students has since grown to 3 billion users globally, two billion of which log in every day. But Facebook has gone through some significant changes along the way. No longer a closed network of college students, the platform has become weighed down with ad clutter and lost the essence of what made it so popular to begin with: human interaction. Facebook isn’t alone in this – many of the other big social platforms now have less of a dialogue, meaning users feel more like content bystanders than active members of the conversation. The result is, social doesn’t feel social anymore.

The platform has become weighed down with ad clutter and lost the essence of what made it so popular to begin with: human interaction.

Amy Still, Founder & CEO, Whisk

Instead of flocking to the big social platforms and contributing to the clutter, brands should be looking for new ways to engage their audiences and considering different approaches to marketing their products and services in online spaces. Recently, there has been a rise in closed social media platforms such as private WhatsApp groups, Discord communities and Slack channels. These platforms provide a better user experience, but from an advertising perspective, closed means no ad-supported products, tracking or measurement. Brands need to find the middle ground – where they can reach specialised communities of people that represent their target demographic or share the same values, while being able to create measurable, effective campaigns. 

The new wave of social 

The big social platforms have had their fair share of criticism over the years, particularly around safety, data privacy and the bombardment of ads. At a recent hearing before Congress over alleged online harm to children, Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated his continued dissonance around Meta’s responsibility toward young people’s online safety. So, while his opening statement said existing scientific work showed no causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health, he did directly apologise to the victims’ parents present saying he was “sorry for everything they had all been through”.

Social doesn’t feel social anymore.

Amy Still, Founder & CEO, Whisk

People’s behaviour and relationship with social media may vary, but ultimately, many are looking more carefully at where they spend their time online. Instead of mass, mainstream platforms, the internet is becoming increasingly individualised as people shift to niche, interest-led communities. People would much rather spend their time in ‘the local pub’ where they can have conversations with others who share their hobbies or values, than in the busy ‘town square’ listening to someone shouting on a soapbox about a topic that doesn’t much interest them. 

The power of communities 

These specialised communities are all about authentic engagement, and there is an opportunity for brands to help, educate and entertain audiences. These are safe spaces. They aren’t a place to behave obnoxiously or be the loudest voice in the room – no one wants to hang around with the person who’s always talking about themselves. There are ways of turning up in these communities as brand partners that involve much more interesting and effective communications, where they can find creative ways to promote themselves appropriately and with respect. Here, brands can appear authentically – a natural fit within a community.

Starbucks took a really interesting approach when it wanted to reach the LGBTQ+ community. Through insight, it identified a very high propensity toward iced coffee – at all times of the year – among the LGBTQ+ community. So, we ran a campaign across several LGBTQ+ online communities to tap into this behaviour for its new range of iced coffee. Different, nuanced activations were targeted at specific communities in a way that felt natural for Starbucks, such as on an LGBTQ+ dating app. Each iced coffee variant had its own persona and profile within the community, and personality ‘badges’ were created to show off people’s favourite iced coffee.

The combination of big social becoming an increasingly toxic environment for some LGBTQ+ people and data rules meaning you can’t target people based on their sexuality, means communities offer more of a safe space as well as offering all of the benefits of online communication and interaction.

After two decades, we can learn a lot from the early days of Facebook – a community created solely to bring together a network of Harvard students. So although much of Facebook has changed enormously – out with the profile pages and pokes, in with the Marketplace and events – the rise of specialised communities shows us that in many ways online platforms have come full circle. Marketers can take what they’ve learned about social media over the past 20 years and apply this to more relevant and authentic engagement within the communities that better align with their brands’ interests and values.

Guest Author

Amy Still

Founder & CEO Whisk


After more than fifteen years in the advertising industry, Amy founded Whisk to help brands find and engage their audiences in community platforms they didn’t know about. Amy’s career began with the digital agency Outside Line - built in the early days of social media - and she helped grow the company’s portfolio to include clients including LG, Budweiser, and British Gas. Eventually, Outside Line, based in London, exited with its sale to Saatchi & Saatchi in 2012. She stayed with Saatchi & Saatchi London for four years following the acquisition, integrating digital media into accounts including Toyota, EE, HSBC, and P&G, and eventually running the global campaigns for VRBO. The company moved Amy to New York in 2016 to set up its U.S. digital advertising offering, where she built a team of more than 50 people working on digital strategies for companies like Wal-Mart and Cadillac. Amy began consulting for scale-up community platforms and saw first-hand the resource challenges they faced in pitching their businesses to brands and agencies. She was inspired to find a better approach to this process, and unlock the value that exists in these community partners - and Whisk was born. Amy has been an early adopter and advocate for community media, and understands the native social and digital landscape deeply. At Whisk, she helps brands understand which communities fit the brief and their audience, and how to create a campaign that maximizes reach and impact through unique campaigns.