Will an economic recovery pummel social media?


I’ve had the great privilege of teaching a college-sponsored class on social media marketing and as usual, I’m learning more from the class than what they’ve learned from me … but that will be our little secret, OK?

As I was providing examples of how you can leverage content across various channels to increase awareness, I had to admit that I didn’t practice this very well myself.  Why?  I just don’t have the time.

My marketing consulting practice has been very strong, and as I strive for an ideal work-life balance, something has to give.  Time spent on incremental efforts like Facebook and Twitter has to take a back seat to family and customer needs.

This may seem like heresy from somebody who lives and breathes marketing, but I think this will be reality for more and more people.  As the economy heats up, unemployed, or under-employed, individuals spending vast amounts of time on the social web and networking will have to make new choices as they return to work.

Here’s my hypothesis:  The growth of social media will slow as the economy improves.  And in areas where the economy is doing extremely well, social media usage may actually decline slightly.

Other possible implications:

  • As people return to work, the prime activity level on social media will be more heavily-weighted to the evening hours, since many companies restrict social media usage in the workplace.
  • The number of channels in which people participate will narrow. This may hasten the decline of some platforms like MySpace.
  • There may even be a slight shift in advertising budgets BACK to traditional media (drive-time radio?) since access to Internet-based impressions will be limited in a workplace.  How do you see a Facebook ad when you’re working a construction job?

I believe that use of the social web will still grow overall as people and companies find clever new ways to make the underlying technologies more useful and fun. But I think it is unavoidable that an improving economy will temper this growth.  The best environment for social media growth is when people have a lot of time on their hands and a shift is in our future.  Do you agree?

Note:  In addition to some wonderful comments below, you can find a nice counterpoint perspective on Gregg Morris’s related blog post: http://bit.ly/3tQtiW

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  • I agree, Mark – I just disagree about the rate of change!

    Most analysis I’ve read forecasts a very slow consumer recovery. Until I see some acceleration in decreasing unemployment, I have to agree.

    I applaud your work-life balance commitment and practice. And, if those I follow are correct, you will need to stay committed to it. Businesses, small and large, B2C and B2B, are going to be increasingly hungry for new solutions to a very slowly improving economy throughout 2010.

  • Mark

    I think unemployment will take a long time to come back … in fact it’s still going down. But it’s interesting to dream about it right? : )

  • CK

    Let me FIRST say… an improved economy? BRING. IT. ON! (so happy to see posts, news and stats showing growth–as these last 2 years need to be in the past already ;-).

    Now, onto your hypothesis. It may very well come to pass as people need to work, and many will be in catch-up mode for a good looooooong time so they’ll work more, and at multiple jobs (moonlighting, etc.). But here’s the thing: companies are looking more and more to SM so the amount might balance out a bit as we see more corp. movement/energy/content… but, to your point, it might be more ‘company/brand-focused’ than individuals.

    I do think that FB and twitter will keep humming as it’s just a faster way to post and at this point so ingrained in ppl’s routines.

    And thanks again for talking recovery, I am glad that the patient that is our economy has moved from the ICU to the recovery room as I’ve seen too many good, hard-working people lose so much.

    PS: So glad to hear about your amazing class, that is so cool pal. I get to be a student on your blog but do wish I could audit your class.

  • Mark

    I was thinking about the corporate aspect of this, too. And even if the corporate stuff keeps going, who will be reading it? Not the people at work. There are still so many limitations at so many companies about us SM on the job.

    For most people, SM is still an optional, incremental activity. Will be interesting to see what happens when the incremental time goes away.

  • Carla Bobka

    Busy execs are some of the last to “get” the power of social media. That isn’t because the aren’t smart. It’s because they’re too busy to experiment with it for themselves. When the idle/throttled down workforce ramps back up, they will be both time crunched, and socially savvy. The result will be a shift of when it’s most effective to reach audience, a decrease in some of the noise on Twitter (except for those hanging with the smokers to get a social media break on their smart phones), and an increase in effectiveness of social campaigns. These folks are going to go back to work full of ideas and talk to companies in search of ideas and skills to elevate their brands. Marketing depts will be looking everywhere in their org’s to find participants and relationship builders. They will have a ball together.

  • I think you may be right that social media will slow down, and there may be a shift in how it’s used. I certainly know that I got a lot more active when I was unemployed, and I’m having to work hard to keep up with what I started now that I am employed. I know a lot of other people who are active in social media because they aren’t working.

    On the other hand, I don’t think all these new members will give up social media entirely, and the growth that’s occurred will drive further growth, as it increases awareness. Since people’s time is limited, I expect we’ll see a shift toward tools and sites that can help filter (especially on Twitter). And maybe there will be a lot less junk and more quality, as people post and tweet less frequently and only when they have something useful to say!

  • Hey, interesting thinking. Although you (your class) may be correct that the volume of Social Media activity might slow down, I think a lot of that slow down will come from casual users, not the core of those using it for commercial, product review and truly business purposes.

    In fact, as the economy recovers, the use of the really “commercial” applications should actually increase as consumers will be in a better financial position to purchase goods. They’ll likely spend more time online researching these purchases than they may have because of the potential familiarity gained during a period of unemployment. Also, since they’ll likely be busier at work than in prior periods, online activity may be the only vehicle they have as time to go “shopping” may not be available.

    For this reason, I agree with Carla that we may see a shift in usage timing, but I really believe the volume and value will increase significantly as the economy recovers.

    Will people be listening to more drive time radio because they are now commuting? Likely, but this will probably have more to do with the escalating movement towards eliminating cell phone use while driving.

  • Mark

    Great ideas! I especially like the concept of the SM-savvy unemployed taking their skills and passions back to the workforce. Interesting perspective and certainly another valid implication! Also good point that as purchasing power goes up, reviews, etc. will be even more important. Man you guys are smart. I’m humbled as usual!

    Building on Neicole’s point about a shift in usage — specifically it might affect that big time-soak of blogging?

  • Mark, my sense is that ‘economic recovery’ will be incremental at best. As a result what you predict as a potential decline in social media usage may likely in fact translate to social media practices already starting to be embedded in some culturally advanced work environments or, in the very least, being explored continually and incrementally by others. Also, we may in fact see the notion of great amounts of time being devoted to social media transforming as it becomes part of the regular work-life cycle. The very strong and evident push of smartphone and wireless technologies will allow us to remain ‘in touch’ with the social sphere, and those adept enough will learn to keep a pulse without getting too enmeshed in online social interactions that currently consume much of their time. Good thoughts on this post..just my 2 cents thought 😉

  • Mark, speaking from personal experience, I totally agree. As you said, we all have priorities and choices. Twitter and blogging are hobbies for me. And when family crisis struck recently, it was the first to go. I had to take a couple weeks off work and have been busting my butt to catch up. Again, my hobby has taken a back seat to that.

    Regardless of unemployment, as companies ramp back up the current employed will become too busy at work to use SM. Companies will require more productivity and become more stringent in limiting SM at work. That being said, most marketing already occurs in the evening (prime time TV) and I see people shifting more and more to online content rather than TV. SM will continue to increase in the evenings. TV advertising is dead. We watch all of our shows on DVR delay. Even if we are watching TV live, we’re on Twitter or Facebook during commercials.

  • After I read a recent article about dopamine now labelled as the “search” chemical in our brains, and a very loose connection that Twitterers and Facebookers are essentially addicted to dopamine – I don’t see SM slowing down any time soon. (Create a product people become addicted to. Genius!) LOL

    In all seriousness: the fascinating aspect is how SM will evolve as many of it’s users head back to work. Sure, many companies ban SM, but you still see plenty of folks tweeting away on their smart phones. SM could rightly become the communication of choice from workers to the outside world. The more big corporations ban the usage of these sites – the more this alternative form of instant communication will take hold, some way, some how. IMHO

  • Mark

    The theme here is that SM will at least “transform” as heavy-users migrate back to the workplace. Also, I think this is a very good point that usage on smart phones will continue … and be out of reach of employers!

  • As someone very new to the workforce who has been laid off and then gotten job #2 in this recession, I can say that I definitely don’t spend as much time as I did at my last job on my PERSONAL social media accounts. Businesses have grown much more efficient with their use of human resources. I can also say, however, that understanding social media was a huge factor in my getting hired at my current job. And hey — now I’m spending work time posting on a blog! I think as business begins to understand the importance of cultivating an online community they will more and more release the reigns on their employees’ internet surfing.

  • Mark – yet another great post, and I do agree with your fundamental hypothesis about SM growth slowing (when employment finally starts to rebound, that is).

    However, the “quality” of social media traffic (from the perspective of those using social media for b2b marketing and PR) will likely increase as the economy improves. That’s because usage of social media in buying cycles should increase as 1) more people get back to work, and 2) companies also pick up spending on products and services.

    This is one instance where a decline in growth rate would actually be good news for a lot of people.

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  • Social media is somewhat the Wild West now – many are getting in with no objectives and no rationalization that what they do drive some form of business that can be measured.

    Your statement that, “The growth of social media will slow as the economy improves,” makes sense in one area – there will be a shake out of “just do it” social media that will result in an overall decline of social media. There WILL be an increase of successful social media endeavors – those that are integrated into an overall business/marketing plan and are based on traditional business and marketing fundamentals (as opposed to shot from the hip).

    Good conversation stirrer.

    Social Steve

  • Mark

    @Steve I agree and this is a good characterization! Thanks for stopping by to comment today.

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