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Are social media platforms the new Google?

Since the launch of Google in 1998, we’ve asked the search engine how to tie a tie, play Pokémon GO, plan a trip to Bali and countless more probing – or, indeed, banal – questions. But is quizzing Google for answers slowly becoming a thing of the past?

Twitter is a popular source of breaking news, while YouTube provides visual explanations for some of our most common quandaries. TikTok is fast gaining favour, even releasing advertisements promoting the app as a search engine.

Emily Wade, a lecturer at Deakin University’s Faculty of Arts and Education, says Gen Z – people born between 1995 and 2009 – are especially drawn to visual media, which is helping social media platforms to overtake Google as a search tool.

‘We know that Gen Z use YouTube more than Google as a search engine because they prefer to watch than read on mobile,’ she says.

Information seeking in the age of influencers

Influencers dominate many social media platforms, particularly Instagram. So powerful is their authority, especially as we often find them organically with the assistance of algorithms, that influencers are beginning to usurp search engines in the quest for information.

‘We are in an age of influencers when even if social media users don’t personally know someone who is promoting a product or brand, they are more likely to trust messages from those who appear similar to them,’ Wade explains.

Before social media we needed to seek out new trends – now, thanks to influencers, they come to us.

If you’re using a platform such as TikTok to search for a new recipe, you might watch an influencer sharing the recipe. And even if they aren’t a stereotypical social media influencer, they may still yield considerable authority.

AFL player Christian Petracca shares cooking videos on TikTok. Even though he isn’t a professional chef, he uses his platform to encourage his followers to cook. As a result of the success of his videos, many are now sponsored by food brands.

Why watching trumps reading

Gen Z use social media more than any other generation, and this digital savvy cohort’s preference for watching over reading is reshaping the way we search for information online.

‘The data points to people, especially younger generations, spending huge amounts of time each day consuming video content. There are no signs of this trend slowing in the near future,’ Wade says.

This is largely because we’re increasingly more likely trust visual evidence over written reviews. ‘Visual support in the form of images or videos can validate online reviews because most users will perceive visual evidence as harder to fabricate than written reviews or social media posts,’ Wade says.

On the back of the success of TikTok, YouTube and Instagram have increased their video content presence.

‘Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts are examples of short-form video developed in response to the success of TikTok that have strengthened this medium overall,’ Wade says.

Harnessing social media as a branding tool

The shift away from Google towards relying on social media platforms as search tools has profound implications for businesses and brands, explains Wade.

‘It’s very important for brands to be aware of and harness social media platforms as part of their overall communication strategy,’ she says. ‘Jumping on particular trends can be really effective, as long as they fit with the brand and its audience’s preferences and values.’

Brands that piggyback on social media trends and make advertisements relevant and relatable can gain traction and build a strong reputation.

‘Many of us are spending significant amounts of time on social media where we come across a combination of paid ads and friends’ posts on those platforms – many of which relate to products, businesses or experiences,’ Wade says.

Word-of-mouth has always been an effective way to spread the word to friends and family about a new business or trend, and social media makes it even easier. A simple share of an ad or video on TikTok or YouTube, known as eWOM (electronic word-of-mouth), can have a big impact.

‘In traditional marketing, the power of word-of-mouth marketing has long been recognised, and eWOM can be equally as powerful,’ Wade explains.

this. featured experts
Ms Emily Wade
Ms Emily Wade

Teaching Scholar, Communication,

Faculty of Arts and Education,

Deakin University

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