The 5-Year Effect: How Brands Fall Behind on Social Media
The top issue we see with businesses on social media is that they are slow to adapt, noticeably falling years behind the platforms and consumers. Maybe you’ve noticed it as well. While these brands may have started off on-trend and part of the conversation, they have grown overconfident, leaving them uninformed and outdated. So much so that they are half a decade behind the demands of today’s audience. James Dowd aptly coined it The 5-Year Effect and it’s becoming increasingly apparent. Brands will have done their research, set a strategy, and made an attempt to stick to it, periodically adopting new platform features as they're released. These brands are proactively planning evergreen content, aiming to show an aspirational life. Their formula is simple: use key lifestyle moments with a strong tie back to the product in order to boost sales. When you see their channels, you may think, “Wow, their feed looks so uniform. Look at those perfect photos.” Their target response on social media is clearly, “I want that life.”
But, that’s so 5 years ago. Why?
Back then, the audience's expectation was curation. Control of the feed, unified photo filters, aspirational lifestyles, forced product relevance – people couldn't see the power of social media beyond acting as a digital portfolio. Social doesn't look the same as it used to 5 years ago. It doesn't even look the same as it did last week! The content choices your brand makes is an easy indicator of how far behind the times it is because the way people post, comment, share, etc., is constantly changing. It’s often generational, with younger ones dictating new trends, style, and meaning, which platforms are quick to reflect.
So, what does a modern approach to social media look like today? It’s deeply reactive to current events. It’s on-trend, striving to evoke a target emotion. It’s deeply dimensional and transcends being a mere reflection of the brand. It works to represent the existing and potential community that extends far beyond the brand.
Why does the 5-Year Effect happen?
On the brand side, there are many reasons we see The 5-Year Effect emerge, but these are top of our list:
- Lack of knowledge or resources to keep up: Sometimes it’s due to content creation limitations, ignoring the importance of interactivity beyond the feed, unrealized missing pieces within their brand, or simply falling behind on emerging trends and algorithm shifts. Some brands think social media is something one person can handle. Those brands are likely well over half a decade behind.
- Forgetting to come back to the bigger picture: Oftentimes, brands set a great big social strategy and get stuck in a cycle of making content and tweaking strategy on a post-level along the way without revisiting their big picture to reevaluate their social investments. It’s pretty common to see that this leads to brands veering off from the overarching primary goal of being on social: being social. Alternatively, some brands start off great, but then get stuck in the trap of instant gratification, which brings us to our next point…
- Misuse of social media: When brands fail to see the value and purpose of social media, instead seeing it solely as a sales generator and not as a series of social communities and an opportunity to grow brand ambassadorship. This results in them not truly engaging and instead speaking at people, not with them, and falling behind in how people truly engage with the platforms and how the platforms evolve to match. Remember, there’s a time and place for social commerce.
- Lack of purpose: Brands are often on too many channels, just to be on them. Every channel, every post, absolutely every asset that hits feeds should start with “why” and work to evoke emotion or a reaction. Brands are no longer just “on social.” They are investing in it. Each platform they are on should be treated as such, with deep consideration for why they choose to use (or opt out of) each platform feature available to them.
- Taking a metrics-first or metrics-only approach: We'll frequently see brands get disconnected from their why and get stuck focusing solely on the metrics. This is wildly dangerous! The most common issue we see is brand that become overly reliant on giveaways because of the instant gratification that comes with their boosts in followership. The problem there is that they're building a community of deal-seekers, not potential brand advocates. Those brands are digging a hole for themselves and it takes a lot of work and a lot of bravery to stop, back up, and risk losing followers in order to grow the right type of audience.
How to battle The 5-Year Effect
Unfortunately, we expect this 5-year effect to become a 1-year phenomenon in the near future, meaning brands will fall behind in less time as platforms are evolving algorithms, cannibalizing features, and responding to current events more quickly every day. A simple shift in mindset could help battle that for your brand.
Myth: "One piece of content works everywhere”
It’s no secret that content that feels native to a platform has a significantly higher chance of performing well. Great content conveys brand messages organically, in a non-intrusive way — success is based on relevancy, engagement, and share-ability. That means that stock content will only take you so far, and custom shoots need to be done right. If you’re thinking, “sure, but custom shoots are expensive,” then your brand is years behind too. Where we once had productions with a particular usage in mind, the modern approach is to shoot with multiple, varying usages — some that may have not been considered yet. For example, instead of shooting for a single campaign, OOH billboard, or Facebook/Instagram series, our team shoots for everything — emails, paid ads, and all social channels. But, this modularity of the production and subsequent assets doesn’t mean we’re just wildly shooting. It means we’re preparing channel-specific content on set, including overlays that provide safe areas and visualization of future content. Plus, multiple content creators are shooting at once, on various devices, creating even more channel-specific content, sometimes even in-app. The goal? To have a single production that delivers more long-term value while still producing assets that feel native to each unique platform.
Myth: "My content is about me”
Shift your mindset when it comes to followership. When a user follows you on social media, they are investing in you. They are saying, “you just might be worth my time.” Now, it’s your job as a brand to prove them right and to exceed their expectations. That means that what you post must always add value. So, what does value look like to your followers? Let’s start by looking at the top reasons US social media users share publicly:
- To make other people laugh
- Express their view or opinions
- Share a memory
- Feel connected with others
- Show support for people/cause
- Comment on news / current events
- Join a conversation
- Advocate for a product/brand they like
- Promote an account they like to follow
When creating content, think about how you can make your audience want to share it. Your goal should not be to make “post-worthy” content. It should be “share-worthy” through the lens of your followers. The “inform me/entertain me” content type won’t be going away any time soon, so your brand should lean into it to get that boost in organic word-of-mouth. Remember, each social platform is an interconnected web of micro-communities and few to none are there for you specifically.
Myth: "I’m not on TikTok so I don’t need to think about TikTok”
It’s no secret that video content typically performs best with most algorithms because of its ability to capture a viewer’s attention for longer stretches of time. TikTok-style content, specifically, translates to other platforms really well, but not necessarily the other way around. Tik Tok, along with Google, is setting a precedent for where algorithms are going, so you need to keep an eye on it and be prepared to shift your social strategy along the way. Remember, social media platforms give an extra boost to new features to encourage adoption – many of which are now video-related. Don’t worry, your video content strategy doesn’t need to be overwhelming or expensive – often the simplest, most authentic concepts can work best.
Myth: "If I post it, they will come”
Unfortunately, having the right content and posting it simply isn’t enough these days. What you do behind the scenes is equally important to what you post for your followers. The more you interact– follow users and hashtags, comment, and search– the more the platform knows about you. Why is that important? Because their post and account recommendations are based on look-alike content engagement and consumption. For example, the Instagram algorithm assumes that the more similar your interests are to other users, the more likely your account will become preferred content for those users. This is why engaging more deeply beyond your followers helps with organic discovery. It’s a time-consuming undertaking that needs to be done consistently, so a dedicated resource for outreach is recommended. Brands often make the mistake of hiring a single person to manage all content on all platforms, all of the time, which means they are spread thin, disconnected, and not functioning fully native to any specific platform.
Myth: "If I just do ____, I’ll get results!”
Gaming social media algorithms is like doing taxes: the platforms know the formula to win, just like the IRS knows how much you owe in taxes, but it’s still up to you to take your best shot and keep your fingers crossed that you did it right. It could be an infuriating process, but we encourage you to treat it as an opportunity for learning and a reason to be brave. We encourage you to experiment and accept failure as you leap forward in your content, instead of small, insecure baby steps that will leave your brand behind and on a path to The 5-Year Effect. Sure, there are plenty of universal best practices by platform, community engagement strategies, and content trends that brands should adhere to, but it takes courage to try new things and stamina for the endless game of Test and Iterate. You’ll need a creative partner with a lot of energy and heart for making content and deploying strategies that cut through the ever-growing noise.
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