Dr Zoetanya Sujon, acting programme director in communications and media at London College of Communication, UAL, looks at last week’s decision by cosmetics brand Lush to quit social media.
In an increasingly connected world, the idea of a leading brand quitting social media seems unthinkable. But that’s exactly what happened last week when Lush announced its decision to bid farewell to its social channels, explaining that “increasingly, social media is making it harder and harder for us to talk to each other directly”, is “tired of fighting with algorithms” and “does not want to pay to appear in your [consumer] newsfeeds.”
These aren’t particularly unfair statements from Lush. The algorithms of social channels are making it increasingly difficult, not to mention expensive, for brands to reach their communities’ news feeds, with most abandoning chronologically-ordered content in favour of “relevancy”. Lush won’t be the only brand with these frustrations, with the general consensus being that the primary social networks’ motivation behind these changes to their algorithms is to encourage more brands to pay for ads rather than improve the quality of user experience.
But is this a reasonable decision by Lush? By far, the biggest danger of quitting social media is alienating your community and potentially damaging client loyalty, something that can already be seen in response to Lush’s announcement. Indeed, alternatives for user engagement exist, including live chat, but social media is by far the most popular medium with consumers, so being absent from it could mean losing out on potential new customers, as well as excluding those unwilling to interact via Lush’s own channels.
Mediums such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram allow brands like Lush to appeal to ordinary users, as well as those more closely aligned to the brand’s products and values, so are hugely valuable. Critics suggest Lush should be concentrating on working the algorithms in its favour by creating posts that drive comments, engagement, and likes, rather than excluding its existing customers who interact with the brand on social media.
Lush certainly risks losing some customers as a result of its absence from social media, but with the rise of fake news, mass surveillance by government departments such as the NSA and GCHQ, and non-consensual collection of personal data, such as Cambridge Analytica and shadow profiles, people have become wary of social media's sometimes questionable data practices. Lush, in this sense, is forging a new direction, one that echoes an underlying trend resisting social media's ever-prying eyes and constant data collection – something which could work in its favour.
Should others follow suit?
The news of Lush quitting social media is unlikely to influence other brands too much in the short term, unless they were already planning to jump ship themselves. The truth is, the importance of social media is different for every company across various industries. Wetherspoons quit social media in April 2018 and has shown no signs of regret; being a budget proposition it is likely that a lot of the feedback it received via social media was negative-skewed and, ultimately, just damaged its brand. Conversely, exclusively online businesses just cannot afford to lose the visibility and engagement social media provides.
Will Lush’s departure from social media have an impact on sales? For many, this is the key question, and only time will tell. There is visible backlash on social media, but if Lush is tapping into the deep-seated frustrations that consumers have about this medium's invasive data collection practices, it will develop an even more loyal and passionate audience – so watch this space.
In many ways, whether Lush’s sales will be significantly impacted shouldn’t be the key question arising from this development. The brand’s decision to leave social media is especially interesting because it is much bigger than just business – this is a social, cultural, political and economic issue. Social media has become the dominant place for businesses to reach consumers and for people to connect with others. The fact that Lush is rejecting this dominance and risking engagement with its community and client base reflects the control that big tech and social media – namely Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google (in terms of advertising and the digital landscape) – have on the financial health of businesses. There is not enough regulation on this kind of control and brands like Lush are beginning to resist social media as the default place for social interaction and engagement. In my view, it's about time.