Good news for the economy might be bad news for social media

Back in 2009, I wrote a blog post forecasting that when the economy finally improved, it would have a deleterious impact on the social web.

My premise was simple. Time spent on incremental, non-essential activities like Facebook and Twitter will take a back seat to family and business needs as our economic fortunes improve.

The rise of the social web coincided with a period in the world economy when a lot of people had time on their hands. So, it stands to reason that the growth of social media will slow as the economy improves and we have less time for Farmville and entertaining ourselves with YouTube videos.

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 as incremental time dries up. This may hasten the decline of some marginal platforms and may make it even more difficult for new entries.
  • There may be a slight shift in advertising budgets BACK to traditional media (drive-time radio? billboards?) since access to Internet-based impressions will be more limited in a workplace.  How do you see a Facebook ad when you’re working a construction job?

As the economy begins to show some signs of life (at least here in the U.S.), it seems that people are telling me that their businesses are coming back and they are happily “swamped.”

I don’t have stats to back this up, but anecdotally, people are saying they now have less time to read blogs, comment, engage in online communities, and immerse themselves in new platforms like Google+ than they did two or three years ago. One data point — page views are up on {grow} but the number of comments are down about 25% from a year ago.

I believe that the 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.  Do you agree?  What are you seeing out there?

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  • Simple premise that absolutely makes sense…Sharing…

  • I’m not ‘seeing’ much yet (in Europe / Belgium). Build on your premise I’d say Social Media has had a wonderful opportunity to root itself in our daily lives.
    Maybe when the economy gets better people will use it more effectively and perhaps more professionally. We could do with a little less Farmville if you ask me., it’s not really productive.

  • With the growth of mobile and the integration of social into our living rooms through our TV it will be hard to work out what is social and not social. Also with frictionless sharing tactics with companies like facebook we may be social but not directly involved in sharing out this information. So it makes sense to me that people will have less time on their hands if they head back to work but it also makes sense there will also be some growth as social is built into all technology.

  • If you are considering only the “entertainment” side of the coin, then you may be correct, though most social media feeds are essentially “free” at this point. If you are looking at marketing, however, I think you continue to see an increase for a very long time. If you are business, and you need to get customers, this is where they are. They are not reading the newspaper, they are not using the “yellow pages” – they want something, they look on their phone or their computer. They ask their friends – on the computer. “Build it and the will come” only works when it includes signs and calls to action that show up where the people can see them.

  • My first thought when I read was: “So mobile trends will continue to increase.” I love Ian’s response too. Mobile phones are an extension of us, so it’ll be easier for us to participate – during the commute on the way to work, lunch breaks, or way back home. Blogs and websites have to be updated in responsive design, possibly better email campaigns (when I’m on the go, I still will read my favorite blogs via email updates – and wouldn’t it be cool if we could comment directly on the blog from the e-mail? Maybe that’s possible but I’ve never tried anyone?), and possibly print ad campaigns (dang, the big bucks), yes, but including ones that are about apps in order to get people to download more or improved apps so they can still participate in social media. The idea has to be it won’t flood you or your lifestyle.

    What am I seeing? (Many of us see the same thing) Someone said, the social media industry is flooded but I see people talking about the sick smartphones coming out and comparing app stores. The screens are bigger so we ‘feel’ like we can do more on the phone. I think there will decrease in social media maintenance but as Ian says, there will still be some growth or maybe evolve is a better word…

  • A very accurate approach and it is the real thing that happens when economy moves towards growth. But, still a country like Pakistan has good opportunities for social media to grow and the growth is excellent. We can create and build markets (online) in these nations as well boost our business as website is a shop that covers globally

  • As I read my first impression is to agree, with qualification. I does stand to reason that as people become busier other things will sacrifice, and social media may be one of those things. But more and more people are taking their lives with them via smartphones that I think the fall off won’t be that dramatic. People will always need a break from their work and come back to it with a fresh perspective. And during those breaks, social media will play a role in clearing our minds before getting back to business.

  • Thanks Steve!

  • Pavel Konoplenko

    Very interesting point that I agree with. However, as many commenters here noted, mobile is increasing, which means that we no longer have to be tied down to our computers or WiFi hotspots. Furthermore, less time for Farmville doesn’t necessarily mean less social, simply means less unproductive social. Finally, there may be a temporary slowdown in the growth, but as the economy improves and business begin expanding operations again, they’ll want to distinguish themselves from others. Interest in social media for businesses will continue growing as businesses will continue understanding the full benefits of including social media in their marketing.

  • Interesting Patrick. But let’s play this out. If people are spending ess time on social media, will businesses spend MORE time there? An interesting discussion.

  • Look forward to hearing more about that Umer. Very exciting to connect with you and see the growth in these areas!

  • Very valid point Anthony and there is so much growth left in that area too.

  • Ah but that is the beauty of the social web, right? We can make of it what we like! Many thanks for adding your comment Rogier!

  • Really great intelligent observations here Anne. I think this an interesting notion that the technology will evolve to enable social media consumption. I think you’re right. Makes sense.

  • Brilliant point here Ian. Wen you think about the amount of money at stake, these companies are certainly incented to keep “social consumption” up. Well done!

  • Very valid points Pavel. Thanks for adding your wisdom to the discussion!

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  • The researcher in me reacts with “As the social space matures into the mainstream the user profile/demographic changes considerably. With highest growth now being in older audiences those users obviously have very different behavior patterns than early adopter, technology-centric, audiences.” That doesn’t necessarily change your premise regarding disposable time being affected by unemployment, but it does beg the question of how we define the audience that we are attempting to analyze I think.

    Great point!

  • Very interesting. As I think about it, I for one would gladly accept a decline is social media in exchange for a stronger economy and better business environment. I think the two are so much more intertwined than in 2009 that it’s no longer an either-or situation. The way we use social media on either side of a business relationship is evolving and as the economy hopefully rebounds, it may become a more valuable tool than ever. It just depends on whether you use it to waste time or get more work done.

  • markdisomma

    Mark – I think your hypothesis is interesting, but let me
    proffer an alternative explanation – that fading interest is potentially a stronger
    driver for decline than lack of access. In fact, I would argue that mobility
    makes the access argument moot. The half-life of any technology today is so much
    shorter than it used to be. If interest in social media is commoditising, the
    effect would be the same as what you have charted, regardless of access.

    When people say they’re swamped, my experience is that “swamped”
    doesn’t necessarily mean too busy overall. It can just as easily mean
    distracted by something else or that an activity or interest is now reprioritised
    downwards. Everyone, I’ve found, has time for the things that fascinate them.
    Conversely, no-one has time for the things that don’t hold their attention
    anymore. What we could well be looking at is a fall-off, or flattening off, in
    engagement. Now that could be in specific social media (most likely), or it
    could play out in social media generally (although I doubt it).

    Every market evolves, and the interest in that market also
    evolves. Also, to umer’s point, different markets evolve at different times and
    at different speeds. I’m fascinated by the potential effects all those changes will
    have on awareness, engagement and of course influence. (ROI 2, Mark?)

  • Alain-Marie Carron

    Am I wrong or the author makes an assumption based on the idea that the american economy is improving, and jobs situation is improving, which is entirely wrong ? This paper is surrealistic, which would be fun if it was not misleading. Sorry Mark I usually admire your work.

  • It’s all in the utility. Be useful and you add value. Be so useful that people can’t resist sharing your content and ….

    If you can add fun and utility into the mix then the skies the limit

    I think you word echo this Talk from Google my Mike Yapp. I included a link the video and the slides. Utility is certainly high on Google’s agenda.

    I know I think about utility every day, which is why your closing remark really spoke to me.

    “find clever new ways to make the underlying technologies more useful and fun”

  • Without a doubt a very interesting point for further discussion and analysis Mark. Social media is already part of everybody’s life around the world, directly or indirectly, that is a fact. While organizations (mainly large corps.) are very slowly evolving into social businesses, it will still take some time and education to get to point of convincing the masses of the importance of social technologies beyond entertainment. Social Media use might experience a temporary slowdown, but with the big push from businesses/govs, mobile and a growing awareness of all the possibilities it will very quickly catch up and keep its steady growth.

  • profalbrecht

    Spending time on social media is now an ingrained habit. Doubt working will put a dent in time.

  • Thanks for sharing the dissenting view. I appreciate it!

  • Thanks for the dissenting view Ernesto. I do think you make a good point about the power of companies in this mix, but they also need to be seeing results. If people get busy and spend less time on the web, will they become impatient?

  • A strong point Nick. And certainly there is amazing utility in the stuff that Google has put out there. I think that is a very sound strategy. However, so much of the social web use is not for utility but to wile away hours on Farmville and YouTube videos. Will be interesting to see how this unfolds!

  • I think the assumption is that it WILL improve at some time right? : ) We are starting to see some life in the housing market, employment has improved, the stock market was improving (until last week!). Thanks for the comment and the disagreement.

  • An extremely well-thought-out comment Mark. A lot of wisdom and insight here. Thank you! (and no, probably not ROI 2 — need to move on to another topic but thanks for the encouragement!)

  • Wow that is a really interesting point. Could the opposite affect be true? I’ll have to think about that one Billy! Thanks for the great comment!

  • Very interesting observation Matt. I do think there is a lot of potential organic growth ahead for Facebook with the older population, a non-US population and of course their latest foray into sub-teens (ugh). Could this growth make up for any loss due to people actually doing work? Will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  • One other point to consider is that here in 2012 more businesses are actually allowing their employees to use social media. Fewer are blocking those sites (which is somewhat fruitless with the adoption of mobile technology), and more businesses are actually using the social web as part of their overall marketing mix and business model. So perhaps we might not see so great a decline, but more of a shift to the ways in which we use the social web.

  • Tim

    Work and social media discrete entities? No way. Everyone needs to read Euan Semple’s Organizations Don’t Tweet People Do.

  • I think that is pretty insightful, Mark. It addresses that perhaps more people are becoming employed, so no free time surfing LinkedIn/job boards in between Facebook posts and Pinterest Kitty pins. On an individual basis, I would see the decline in usage like what you’ve described. Overall, I would expect social media usage to still grow as companies continue to place more focus on having a social media presence that involves true engagement, though. Those billboards and radio spots are still expensive!

    Of course, until companies are willing to dedicate resources to social media, there will be a decline as more “real work” comes into the business and companies try to run a lean operation versus hire additional resources.

  • The article mentions world economy and then seems to zero in on the US economy. I’ll add my comments from a US economy perspective.

    You hinted that there may be other factors to consider and I believe those factors may have a greater impact on social media than you might imagine. First of all, from my perspective the article seems to assume that the majority of those using social media are unemployed or underemployed with all this extra time (and money) to use the Internet. Even with the gloomiest estimates on unemployment numbers I would challenge that overall logic. Many people who have maintained their jobs through the rough economic times. And of those not affected many have actually turned up the wick to try guard themselves from being the next to get the ax. People who hav elost their jobs are not necessarily sitting around playing with twitter and Facebook. That is a huge stretch. The lack of “economic fortunes” due to the loss of a full-time employment does not necessarily mean a person will spend more time on social media. Sometimes it means exactly the opposite because they spend more time at work. More time at work because they are forced to take multiple part-time jobs that pay less per hour than their full-time job did.

    Other reasons for changes in some social media interaction could simply mean that people are consuming the content differently (i.e., moving from PC to Tablet, or using Apps instead of browsers), they are bored, or they are switching to other forms of social media.

    For instance, take a look at the following for a picture of the growth of audio podcast consumption in the past 5 years:

    Audio is just one example. People could be reading fewer blogs in the future because they can keep up with their favorite blogger via audio. Look at He launched his new podcast a few months ago. During the promotion of his new book and after only a dozen episodes of his podcast he reported that he had an audience of over 90k subscribers to the podcast.

    I have personally launched two new podcasts in the past year and have also done very well. My podcast listeners have outpaced my blog readers by far. Now as a content creator, converting that listening audience into an interactive audience is a little more tricky than with a blog. I can’t just add a comment system. The creation of audio content is more complicated as well. It is even more so for video producers.

    I agree with other commenters that mobile is also changing things. All-in-one devices like smart phones and tablets are changing the way people consume and contribute online. People are also viewing more video than ever as you suggested in say we are “entertaining ourselves with YouTube videos”… because we can view from just about anywhere via a smart phone or tablet.

    Other contributing factors to changes in social media usage are Apps that allow people to syndicate content across many social media sites. Apps are allowing people to be in more places at once. Many people post on blogs, Facebook, and/or twitter while they are at work by scheduling through WordPress, BufferApp or HootSuite. Twitter in particular seems to be turning from conversational to more of a fast scrolling classified ad system for everyone’s links back to junk we have all already seen: Here is a link to an article about how boring nearly 2/3 of tweets have become:

    All that said I don’t believe that enough people are unemployed or underemployed to support a coming swing in social media use that the article suggests. Based on what you said there are just too many other factors not included in the calculation to make this “bad news for social media” prediction accurately.

    A better economy may put more smart phones in the hands of more people. Those who cut back due to the economy may now finally upgrade to that smart phone or add a broadband plan rather than relying on open wifi hotspots. They may buy their kids more ‘connected” devices like game consoles and tablets. They may purchase more apps, games, and videos that could fuel more conversations on social media. The upward change in the economy may actually be good news for social media if more people have access and use that access as a result.

  • I cannot tell you how much I agree with this graph. When I was laid off, I dived into social. I was able to spend time both looking for a job and networking but also building my blog, writing original content and connecting in the social networks. It’s a lot tougher with full time job where my ‘job’ is not focused on being social or being the social advocate for my company. I have things to do so I often wish I could tweet and interact and comment – like Im doing right now – but I dont have time! Plus, I start to feel guilty that I am on my company’s time while I am doing things for my own personal brand.

  • Interesting theory. From the UK perspective, many people access social media only from work, so a return to employment would by the same principle increase usage, perhaps ofsetting the decreased usage from those with no access during the working day.

    A vast proportion of users access social media from mobile devices. I rarely see anyone standing in a queue these days without taking the opportunity to check their tweets or update their status.

    Is it not probable that the focus of conversation would shift more noticably than the frequency; gossip from the workplace increasing versus updates on the job search? I’d envisage the biggest impact being on more time consuming, less instantly accessible media like blogging, but that too can be done from a phone or by email. Perhaps quality will suffer more than quantity in that respect.

    Fundamentally, people now feel a pressure to be part of the social media network in a keeping up with the Joneses way. You’re as likely to hear someone say “well, I put it on facebook” as you are to hear “I’ll tell you all about it”. There’s a stigma attached to not being part of it and I think it will be accessed at every opportunity regardless of economic status.

  • vince

    Hi, I’m a small business.
    I sell antiques, and unique items.
    Each item sold no longer exists in my stock… so social media participation can only be fruitful in terms of my general recognition, not a sales channel. As a sales channel, it’s just not worth the bother.

    When my website was being setup, I used SM a lot.
    When I got it profitable and useful, I cut back the SM, and used it as an afterthought.
    Now that it’s a mainstay of my business, and B&M store… I don’t give SM a thought. I plug something occasionally. All contact with my customers comes direct from phone, store, website.
    No time for SM when I’m busy, so I’d agree with the post here, in general.
    Only move I’ll make in future is creating responsive website, but it’s pretty low on my to-do list on any given day.

    I’m sure commodity products businesses and service businesses will see a different viewpoint, but as I said, I’m a SMB using very little SM — does that leave me as just a “B” (profitable business?)

  • Honestly, I think the time move is inevitable and I’ll bet Facebook didn’t account for it in its IPO. Probably showed the good old hockey stick : )

  • We’ll have to agree to disagree — which is perfectly fine! I am not suggesting that “most” social media users are unemployed. I’m only saying what seems to be common sense: As employment increases, time for incremantal activities will decline and social media is an incremental activity for the most part despite what the gurus say. To most people, social media is Farmville and and Mafia Wars.

    I don;t think we will ever really now for sure because as you say, I think there will be too many confounding factors to every really determine the singular impact of employment,

    I sincerely appreciate the well-though-out dissent! Thank you!

  • Thank you for being my living, breathing case study Christina!

  • Brilliant points. A very valid perspective indeed. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this issue Juliet!

  • Thanks very much for that Vince. You make some good points about SM differing in importance for different businesses.

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