For the first time since social media became a thing, we’re starting to see reports that usage here in North America is down.

At the same time, the popular conversation is that we’re spending more time on our devices than ever. If our time spent online is up, but social media usage is down, then where is all of that extra time going?

The answer is that social media usage is not actually down, it has just shifted and our ability to track that time hasn’t kept up. Earlier this year we wrote about the move to private social, where we pointed out the fact that we have collectively become less likely to post regularly into our public newsfeeds, and instead choose to share those photos/links/memes to private groups of friends.

The promise of social media has always been that we can connect with people, and many of us are now choosing to limit that connection to the people who are close to us, or share common interests, rather than to publish to the crowd, risking trolls, spam, and backlash. Pair that with a general concern about privacy and data security and it’s logical to think that the majority of conversation is now happening in the dark, away from the prying eyes of analytics tools and social media managers.

Rather than stick to the properties owned by Facebook (Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram DMs) a lot of users are spending some of their time with a growing number of startups that have seen the behaviour change and are capitalizing on it. A few of the most notable examples include:

  • Marco Polo – asynchronous video chat that replaces group texts with video-based messaging
    Marco Polo social video
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  • Cocoon – a family-focused app that lets you know where your loved ones are, what they’re up to, even what the weather is around them
    Cocoon family social media
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  • NextDoor – a location-based app that’s meant to connect neighbors and connect communities by sharing events, news, and chat
    Nextdoor neighbourhood social media

Add those to interest-based social media channels like Strava (fitness), Goodreads (books), WAYN (travel), and Untappd (beer) and we start to get a sense of where all of that screen time has been going.

For the past decade, we as marketers have been sold this idea that the best strategy to connect with our audiences is simply to publish high quality content to the public, so what does this shift to private mean for our social media strategies?

Simply put, it means that in order to earn people’s interest, we need to be interesting. While people are sharing less in the main channels, they are still consuming content there. Facebook is where the majority of people get their news, Instagram is for window shopping and YouTube is where we get how-tos, entertainment, and more. Through that lens it’s clear to see that our content is needed and necessary, but we need to rethink how we create, how we measure, and how we engage.

It also means that we need to think more broadly about what we mean when we say “social media strategy”. The best brands have always created content and moments worth sharing, now that sharing just happens to be taking place behind privacy gates. Great brands, great content, and great experiences show up in private groups the same way that they do in public, we just can’t measure the first-order results like views, shares, and comments.

The shift may be painful, because we’ve gotten used to the public way of measuring our work, but the net result will be positive for the brands who pay attention. That result will be to pull focus away from public metrics and instead to the results that we’re actually trying to drive. Were we trying to create brand awareness? Run a before-and-after market poll to measure actual awareness data. Was it about brand trust and loyalty? Survey your customers to measure their feelings about the company.

If it’s sales you’re after, then that’s where we get to be really creative. Try using promo codes that can only be found in the social content that you’re trying to spread, landing pages that are only linked via your social posts, or offer exclusive products that people could only know about because they saw your content, wherever that may be.

In many ways likes, views, and comments have been tools that have allowed businesses to think far too narrowly about how people learn about brands, share content, and make purchase decisions. I’m excited about this shift because I’m already seeing it opening up conversations about how social media can be just one part of a much larger strategy to reach and engage with our audiences.