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Should businesses pay for social media?

4 minute read

The recent talk by Jaron Lanier, a computer philosophy writer, at TED 2018 has got everyone talking. He spoke of the perils of social media and proposed that the problems we see across social platforms, (high volumes of paid content, irrelevant advertising) can be traced back to just two major factors that formed right at the beginning of the internet. One, that the internet was “built on a socialist model that everything should be free and accessible to all”. Two, the internet was also built on “celebrating visionary tech entrepreneurs who made it big with their world changing ideas”. Lanier then posed the question “how do you celebrate entrepreneurship when everything is free?” 

The first point got us thinking about one of Lanier’s proposed scenarios: “what if we paid for every Google search and Facebook interaction? Sometimes if you pay for stuff, things get better.” What if businesses had to pay to use social media? Could it improve the way they interact with online consumers, or could it limit free online presences that are so valuable for some smaller companies? 

Could paid social media work?

Subscription models

Subscription models are not new, take Netflix for example which had 125 million streaming subscribers worldwide in just the first quarter of this year. Some apps are finding big success in offering paid for subscriptions, something which is also creeping into content on the web with websites offering exclusive content and features to paying users. For example, recipe and cook website Cook’s has expanded what once was just a print membership to an online paid version offering members exclusive content and unlocked features like the ability to save recipe ideas. Does this present evidence that making social media a paid model could work?

Better quality of content

One of the last points in Lanier’s talk was around how paying for social media could help improve the quality of content. Social media is certainly not lacking in quantity when it comes to content and users are often overwhelmed by advertising, fake news, and hoax accounts. Paying for social media could help deter these fake accounts and be a leap forward in serving high quality, real, and trustworthy content to users. Lanier spoke about how advertisers and brands currently interact with users on social, I assume referring to these as the third person in his comment: “we cannot have a society where when two people wish to communicate, the only way it can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them”.

Having social media as a paid for model could also improve advertising for both advertisers and users. Indeed, the cost of advertising may be affected, but could this first commitment to paying to be on social media limit the amount of annoying, irrelevant adverts shown to us every day?  

Current algorithms mean businesses are already paying for reach

Most interestingly for me is the thought that in some respects businesses are already paying to be on social media. Take Facebook’s algorithm which now prioritises interactions between friends and family than businesses, meaning the organic reach of a business’ Facebook post is nearly non-existent. While this is not necessarily a bad feature for Facebook users as they are seeing more posts from the people they care about, businesses are having to run paid advertising campaigns to get any eyeballs on their content.  

The negative effects…

There’s a similar amount of argument on this side of the fence too, especially when we start thinking about the impact on smaller businesses.

Impact on profits for smaller establishments

Paying to have a profile across social media might not be a big deal to bigger businesses, but for smaller businesses, charities, and new start-ups it could have a significant impact. These types of organisations often don’t have big budgets and social media is currently a great, free opportunity to reach a large audience, speak to consumers, and collect reviews. It’s not hard to imagine that paying for social media could impact profits of smaller businesses or the self-employed, especially if they have to pay per social platform, with many businesses having accounts across multiple platforms.

Less accessible social media advertising

On a similar note social media advertising is often pitched to this group of businesses as a cost-effective way to reach new audiences, especially with people who have just started a new business solo. For example, a makeup artist could reach hundreds of potential customers with a budget as small as £50.

If users and businesses start paying for social media would the cost of advertising increase because the value of eyeballs is greater? If users decide only to use their favourite social platform, say Instagram, as they are paying for it, compared to free accounts across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, would the number of social users on platforms decrease? Probably. This means the potential reach of an advert would also decrease, making each interaction more expensive driving up the costs of clicks, leads, or engagement.

Rise of free ‘look-a-like’ platforms

We recently covered the rise of Vero, the social media app, that found unexpected success when Instagram made a change to their latest algorithm. When it comes to social media, users are not averse to having accounts across multiple platforms and when you combine this with keeping up with the latest trends, it means that having paid for social channels could potentially lead to the rise of more free ‘look-a-like’ platforms. No doubt the switch to paying for popular social media accounts would lead to a sudden flurry of free platforms that claim to offer the same functionality and features. It’s most likely that these would quickly take off and just as quickly die down again, just like we’ve seen with Vero, and this poses some concern on whether small businesses would struggle to keep up with which social media platform they needed to be visible on.  

In summary

It’s an interesting scenario and one where there seems to be an equal amount of pros and cons. While staying as we are fighting ad fraud, irrelevant advertisements, and fake news on social media can’t continue would paying for social media really make things better? Or would people still be able to find ways around the new model, from creating look-a-like free platforms to trying to find a way around the algorithms?

I think that the impact to not only users but also trustworthy and authentic small businesses, charities, and start-ups who would have to pay even more to get visibility online could cause more smaller establishments to slip under larger businesses with bigger budgets, a real shame.

The biggest question in my mind is it too late to try and turn around the social media space? Has it gone too far to bring back with paid solutions? Join the conversation with us on social media, I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can also watch Lanier’s talk here: 

Zoe works as a Content Marketing Executive at the UK Domain. Previously working in advertising and the sporting industry, Zoe has over four years experience in marketing.

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