Social media platforms have been in the headlines quite a bit lately. What does that mean for community-based telcos and power providers?
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: With all of the headlines you may have seen recently, what is the state of social media right now, and what does it mean for your utility? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns with WordSouth. I’ll be your host once again for this one. I’m joined today by another new coworker, Gus Wagner. He is the Director of Legislative and Special Projects for the new parent company with Pioneer Utility Resources, ARC Media, and WordSouth all kind of merging into one. Gus, that was a mouthful, but thanks for joining me.
Gus Wagner: Sure thing. Glad to be here.
Andy Johns: So Gus is our go-to guy for most things social and everything legislative. He follows politics very closely, long history in Missouri with folks there. But Gus, there’s been a lot of headlines lately about social media. There was with Twitter and the president and, like usual, we’re going to try to avoid politics, for the most part. Try not to get too deep into anything there. But, Gus, what are some of the headlines that — there’s been a lot of noise — but which ones, what are some of the stories that you’re kind of watching that really matter to folks in the telco or power world right now when it comes to what they need to know about social media?
Gus Wagner: Sure. Well, to paraphrase every president ever, the state of social media is still good. We are in an era where everybody’s trying to compete for the little bit of advertising dollars that social and Google Web hasn’t gobbled up. So when we see all these controversies around social media, look at the people who are causing the controversy or promoting the controversy and understand what their ulterior motive might be.
Andy Johns: Interesting, I hadn’t really considered that. So in the last couple of weeks, you and I have both written a little bit about social media. Back before Christmas, I had written a little bit about kind of an answer to some questions we’ve gotten about utilities being on Parler. My advice was to not spend time on Parler because we didn’t know what was going to happen, and I’m feeling pretty good about that opinion at the moment. We’ll see how things turn out. And then you’ve written quite a bit — the blog post recently — about stick with social, even though the headlines kind of make your head spin a little bit. But you still believe that it is still a very important place for telcos and public power providers to invest time and effort.
Gus Wagner: Oh, totally. Yeah. When it comes to Facebook specifically, but social media in general, there’s no more affordable, manageable, editable communications platform available to the co-ops or the broadband [providers]. So, you can control your own media messages going out to your subscribers and your members out there. You can promote what you want to promote and set your own budget and decide who it’s going to reach. And you can do all this from your phone. You can do this from your desktop. You can do it from your tablet, wherever. It’s just the best means of communicating to the folks that our clients, the people we do business with, who they do business with.
Andy Johns: Exactly. So the news and I was surprised, you know, reading your blog post. So Twitter is the one kind of where I mean, I guess there’s a lot of turmoil in general as social media, but Twitter seems to be one where kind of the, I don’t know, is it fair to say kind of foundations are a little shaky right now. But your advice all along has been that that’s not really the spot for a lot of the co-ops that we work with to be anyway, right?
Gus Wagner: Yeah, completely. I’ve got written down in my notes right here. Delete Twitter. Which is a shame because it used to be my favorite social media platform. And full disclosure, Jack Dorsey grew up about 20 miles away from where I grew up. We’re different ages, but he went to school here in Rolla. That was his college studies were at what is now Missouri State, Missouri Technical…I forget what it is, technical and engineering…the Rolla campus in the Missouri system. So the foundation of Twitter exists in eastern Missouri, which is where I’m from. So I was always a big fan of the platform. But currently it’s just devolved into people hiding behind anonymous names, anonymous pictures and trying to incite people. Those are commonly referred to as trolls — whether they’re real people or robots or what have you. There’s too much risk of getting trolls engaging with your content for the type of businesses that we work with. So I understand it’s a place where influencers reside, but there’s a lot of different ways to reach those influencers and to reach the members at the end of the line and at the end of the remote control then Twitter.
Andy Johns: Got it. For me, it’s great for sports or kind of live events happening at the time, but otherwise I’m not logging in very often. So folks have heard about and they may use plenty of other platforms, whether it’s TikTok right now or Snapchat or I mean, there’s plenty of platforms out there. But for getting bang for your buck and for getting the eyeballs, you know, even while Twitter and Instagram and plenty of other platforms, you know, they’re getting their fair share. But the 800 pound gorilla in the room, from everything I’ve read and heard from talking with you, is still Facebook, right?
Gus Wagner: Sure. And 800 pound gorilla is kind of funny since I’ve been all wrapped up in the “Godzilla vs. Kong” movie trailer today.
Andy Johns: Oh, I had not seen that. I need to check it out.
Gus Wagner: Oh yeah, look it up. It’s going to be a good time this spring. So, yeah, Facebook pretty much dominates everything. As far as the number of users, they’ve broken three billion worldwide users. Time spent on the platform — Facebook users generally spent about 38 minutes a day on the platform, whether that’s in one sitting or 38 one-minute increments. That’s the average across the platform. But most importantly…
Andy Johns: Uh-oh, I’m sorry to say that puts me above average.
Gus Wagner: Finally, you got something, right?
Andy Johns: Finally I’m above average in something. That’s great, yes.
Gus Wagner: I hope your first grade teacher is listening to this. But most importantly, it’s where the greatest number of the members and subscribers are, and they’re also transparent with who they are. Mary Jones is Mary Jones. Jim Wilson is Jim Wilson on Facebook. And it’s just the greatest place for us, for our clients, to reach the folks who need to do business with us on the broadband side and who are members of the co-ops on the electric side.
Andy Johns: Now, I believe it was something you mentioned in your blog post. A lot of the time, and somebody like myself who came from the print background, from newspapers, it’s easy to think of these platforms as new media. But really, I saw something in a timeline while I was spending more than 30 minutes a day on Facebook the other day, I saw something in a feed and it said that had happened 14 years ago, and it happened on Facebook. And it was like, wow, this has been around a while. It’s not really new media anymore, and it’s definitely maturing.
Gus Wagner: Sure. Now, Facebook existed before 2007 when it was just available to the college students on college campuses and such. It broke out to the general public in 2007, the same year that Twitter rolled out to the general public.
Gus Wagner: So you saying 14 years kind of shook me because I’m used to saying 12 years. But, yeah, it’s 14 years now. Wow. I was just going to say just to show the dominance of social media and digital media. 80% of ad spend, all general ad spend these days, is spent on Google and Facebook. So digital placements, search engine marketing and Facebook ads is where everybody from the local small business to the Top 10 of the Forbes 500, that’s where they’re putting their advertising dollars at.
Andy Johns: Got it. And we’ve got a podcast coming up next month that’s going to really dive into digital advertising that I’m excited to share with everybody. So what does that mean for the platform? The way that a business might have gotten on to Facebook — we can say 10, 12 years ago, eight, nine years ago, whatever time frame you want to use — how has it changed the way…It certainly got a lot more sophisticated in the way. I know some of the things that you do, that ARC helps folks do, how would you say that it has gotten a lot more sophisticated in the last few years as the media has matured?
Gus Wagner: I’d say it’s just a fact of daily life now to engage on social media for the end users — the people who are scrolling, thumb scrolling, mouse scrolling or whatever they’re doing. Which is interesting as well, because according to our stats, 98% of the interactions that take place across our co-op and broadband clients on Facebook is on a mobile device. 98%. And that tracks pretty well with Facebook’s numbers as well. They’re a little bit lower, but ours have been tracking around 98% for years now.
Gus Wagner: Things that have changed and the platform. The biggest change from 7-10 years ago is organic reach is dead. Absolutely dead. There used to be times where you would reach with an organic post just posting to your Facebook business page, you’d reach 15-20%, and that great number has gradually gone down over the past decade plus. And now we see somewhere around 5% potentially, meaning that your post, if you’ve got 100 fans on your Facebook page, you’re only going to reach five of them organically. And that’s put a lot of consternation into folks using Facebook for their marketing platforms. But we have a lot of strategies. We have a lot of tools at our disposal on our side behind the curtain to make sure that we’re reaching more of the members and subscribers than 5%. Additional changes would be the type of formats. Everybody’s doing stories these days, but photo and video uploads. Video wasn’t a thing when Facebook first rolled out to the general public, so you could only post still images and such. That came out of 10-11 years ago. And that has just grown and grown to be the biggest engagement tool, the type of post that gets the best engagement on Facebook is video posts. So those are two big ideas or two big changes.
Andy Johns: Sure. So I had just three things left for you here. How has the the pandemic impacted things that you’ve seen? I mean, I know that there’s not many aspects of life that the coronavirus pandemic has not impacted in some way. So if we’re talking about the the state of social media or kind of where things are with social media right now, I would imagine that has to play a role, too. So what have you seen the pandemic? What ways have you seen it influence the way people are interacting or kind of the world of social media right now?
Gus Wagner: You know, I think the biggest changes since the pandemic began worldwide is that the social media platforms themselves have instituted some changes, and what can be done or what can be said. Just trying to control some of the negativity out there. Of course, in the United States the pandemic coincided with the presidential election, so that just doubled the amount of potential negative content that’s out there from people posting. So Facebook, Twitter and everybody else has been clamping down on this type of content. The algorithm that powers all the social media tools. There’s constant adjustments, probably a daily adjustment to those algorithms which allow your content to be seen. And when it is going to be seen and such. We saw a drop in late summer, early fall of 2020, but that was completely due to Facebook making some adjustments on their side, not anything that the pages and such would do. But overall throughout 2020 and heading into 2021, I think our engagement numbers pretty much were the same as 2019. I think our reach numbers actually increased in some areas of the country. You know, we did not see from the co-op or broadband perspective, any real negative engagements or interactions and stuff, but it’s always a risk that we look out for with people commenting on the posts that we make or sharing it [inaudible] their own editorial content and such. We try to monitor that negativity very closely.
Andy Johns: Sure. Speaking of of negative, obviously, what we alluded to at the beginning of the conversation with the headlines. I don’t want us to get too political here, but I know that you follow this as closely as anybody. With the changes that are being made, you know, there was talk about the… Just to run through a few of the headlines. First, we saw the former president being banned from Twitter. There were a lot of folks that said they were going to jump off and Parler had kind of risen up as a place where a lot of more conservative-minded folks were using that to a small degree, I guess, big picture. And then it seems like just wave after wave, there’s been a lot of headlines up and down since the, whatever we want to call it, that happened at the Capitol a few weeks back. So we talked about how things have changed during the pandemic, but how have you seen things just in the last few weeks change, if anything, on social media related to the events at the Capitol a couple of weeks back?
Gus Wagner: Well, I’ll back it up a little bit further in the past. The day after the election, Facebook shut down any advertising related to politics, public policy, anything that could come around the government sphere of influence. So we can’t even promote content related to the coronavirus right now, much less targeted campaigns towards elected officials. That blackout has been in place since the day after the election, and it is going to exist for an undetermined time. I’ve been saying until we can all play nice together.
Andy Johns: Right, we’re all in time-out.
Gus Wagner: Hopefully, that day comes soon. As far as people getting shut down or locked out or kicked out of platforms and stuff, we do have to understand that we are all playing on rented ground. Facebook is a publicly traded. Twitter is publicly traded. These are not First Amendment issues as far as people getting kicked off the platforms and such. So it’s Facebook’s right to censor. It’s Twitter’s right to censor. It’s TikTok’s right to censor. And they’ve all taken various steps to make sure that content inciting violent, content that is urging attacks against elected officials, for example, that content does not get published out to the general public. But they have not done anything outside of the advertising restrictions that would impact the electric co-ops or the broadband telcos at this time.
Andy Johns: Gotcha. In terms of overall user-ship or user numbers, have you seen any… There’s talk about people who are going to boycott this platform or that platform. Have you seen anything to indicate that the numbers are slipping on any particular platforms?
Gus Wagner: No, not really. We are not seeing any great loss of fans. So people may have gone to other platforms, but they did not delete their Facebook page or profile, for example. And we’ve seen that consistency across all the key metrics that we track.
Andy Johns: Got it. Now, the last thing I had for you, I don’t know if you have a chance to get out your crystal ball, and let’s look into the future a little bit. Obviously, it’s tough to predict anything coming up. But going back to the election, both sides were kind of taking swings at big tech from time to time. There’s talk of regulation, policy and things along those lines. There’s also, it seems like a new social platform arriving every few weeks that we need to pay attention to. But what do you see as we look forward into 2021 and beyond? What do you see as some of the things coming up? If you are not comfortable predicting they’re going to happen, then at least things are trends that folks need to kind of keep an ear out for and pay attention to that might be coming up in the short or mid-term.
Gus Wagner: Sure. I think the first thing is that there’s been a lot of conversation around Section 230. That’s the federal statute that protects social media platforms from liability for content that’s published on their platforms by ordinary users or extreme users or what have you users. I do not believe that will be removed, which would make Facebook, Twitter, etc. liable for any content that would incite violence or incite personal attacks.
Andy Johns: That would be a major game changer there.
Gus Wagner: That would be a major game changer. I do not believe that’s going to happen. There will be congressional hearings as we head further into 2021. But, you know, Facebook and Twitter have both said that they are open to greater regulation of their platforms by the government. So I think if there’s anything coming down the pipe as far as changes made by regulation, it will be something that all parties agree to and all parties work from. Because everybody wants the good story of, hey, look what we did to slow down Facebook or what we did to slow down Twitter, etc. So there’s going to be a lot of political theater regarding social media and televised hearings and such. And and the traditional forms of media will cover that in great depth and and make sure those are headline stories or front page stories, because that’s their competition.
Andy Johns: Got it. Now, I’m notoriously bad at this. I was convinced when Vine came out that Vine was going to be it. It was going to be like the platform everyone was going to love. And then on the flip side, when I heard about Instagram, I was like, yeah, that’s not really going to be a thing. So I missed both of those. But are there any platforms that you see at varying stages of, maybe there are some folks that have heard of them, maybe they are not. Is there anything kind of coming that you see as kind of a growing platform or an emerging platform or one that you expect to kind of make any moves this year in terms of growth?
Gus Wagner: Sure. I think, there’s always new platforms coming out or platforms that exist in other countries expanding into different countries or new areas of the world. The one we’re hearing the most chatter about right now is called Clubhouse. And Clubhouse is only for Apple users at this point. There’s no Android app available at this time. What Clubhouse is, it’s basically an interactive podcast. You create, if you’re lucky enough to get an invite to the platform because it’s still in beta stage, people can go in there and find different rooms and then have actual vocal conversations with people, be they leaders or hosts of a room or what have you. There’s no limit to what kind of topics are on there at this time. That’s the shiny object that people are chasing right now. I don’t really see the public latching onto it because it involves listening, sitting still and focusing on a conversation. So, you know, I don’t see that catching on with the general public, but that’s the shiny object right now. I think that, you know, other things that you’re going to see improvements on the different social media platforms. On Facebook, they’re very, very big again this year into virtual reality. They have their Oculus system, and that’s gaining a lot of steam. And we’re starting to see more games and more real life experiences. It’s been very popular during the pandemic because people can set up virtual tours and slap on their Oculus goggles and go see the zoo or go see what have you through that system.
Gus Wagner: Twitter is still trying to figure out what it’s going to be now. They’ve recently bought some companies that could increase their footprint into video and audio as well. They’re working on an offering called Twitter Spaces, which is going to be a Clubhouse type of tool. They’re already trying to kill Clubhouse, but it’ll be a place where people can go and vocally engage through Twitter on various topics. But in the grand scheme of things, the user base is still there, and they’re going to try shiny objects. We all get attracted to shiny objects. But the user base, the most popular social media platforms, is going to stay where it’s at.
Andy Johns: Got it. Well, that makes sense. I appreciate all of that insight. Those are definitely things to keep up with, and I appreciate you vocally engaging with me, as it were here. I guess we’re ahead of the curve there, but I appreciate you taking the time to join me.
Andy Johns: He is Gus Wagner. He is the Director of Legislative and Special Projects for ARC Media, WordSouth, and Pioneer Utility Resources. I am Andy Johns, your host. We’ve got some great podcasts coming up. I’m excited. I’ve got four or five more scheduled, and then I’ll give a little teaser here, Carrie Huckeby is working on a special series that we’ve got coming out all about customer experience that we’re looking to come out in April. She’s talked to some heavy hitters in the marketing, communications and member relations, customer relations area at telcos around the country. I’m really excited about how that comes out. We’ve also got, if you’ve not checked out our Rural Broadband Today podcast, it has plenty of policy experts, and if you’ve enjoyed the talk here about getting into policy and politics a little bit, they’ve got some great guests on there as well. Rural Broadband Today is the name of that podcast available on all of your favorite platforms. Thanks again for listening. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.