Is social media really all about socializing?

A new study by GlobalWebIndex shows that the number of social media accounts individuals have could plateau, and social media is more about brands.
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Although social media is dominated by a few key global players – Facebook and Google being the first that come to mind – the average social media user has nearly nine different social media accounts, according to a recent study by GlobalWebIndex.

In North America, Gen Z leads the way, with an average of 9.1 social media accounts per person (for the purpose of the study, GlobalWebIndex considers chat platform WhatsApp and video platform YouTube social networks). That total may seem curious as this extends beyond the number of mainstream social networks and even secondary networks such as Reddit and Tumblr. However, Gen Z is the generation of multiple accounts, particularly on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, with teen users often creating separate accounts such as “spam” accounts and so-called “Finsta” (fake Instagram) accounts.

Millennials aren’t far behind their younger counterparts, at an average of nine accounts. Next is Gen X, with an average of 6.1 accounts, and finally Baby Boomers with 3.9.

But GlobalWebIndex notes that the use of numerous social networks and accounts could be plateauing. While the average number of social network accounts has previously grown at much higher rates (between 2014 and 2015, for example, the average jumped by 31.25%), it grew by its slowest rate yet last year at only 10%.

For individual platforms, Gen Z leads the charge on usage of Instagram and YouTube (with 74% and 89% reporting usage on the platforms, respectively, in the past month). Millennials lead – but in some cases, only by one to six percentage points – on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

Most of the platforms show a correlation with age – younger people are more likely to report usage than older users – except for Facebook, which is a lot flatter across various generations. Gen X and Z are even on the platform at 77% usage, Millennials top out at 78% and Boomers aren’t far off at 69%.

That said, the oldest cohort is driving lift on Instagram. In three years, Boomers have seen a 60% lift in Instagram penetration, a greater increase than any other generation (although with usage rates already higher, Millennials and Gen Z have naturally plateaued earlier).

That said, the reasons for using social networks appears to have changed, in fact the name “social” media has become a bit of a misnomer compared to three years ago.

Over the years, the number of respondents who say they use social networks “because a lot of my friends are on them” has gone down by 16% (now at 31%). Those who use social networks primarily to communicate with friends are also lower, down 9% to 40% of users. In tandem, the number who use the networks to network for their professional lives has gone up by 9%.

But the good news for brands is that there has been a major lift in those who use social networks to research or find products to purchase. Now, 30% of social network users say they use the platforms for this purpose, a 30% lift from three years ago.

These networks aren’t even in terms of where they fall on the purchase journey. In general, social networking plays a less vital role in the brand discovery stage (at a low of 20% for Boomers and 37% for Millennials) and purchase drivers (a low of 13% among Boomers and 25% for Gen Z) but is much higher in brand interaction (a low of 43% for Boomers and 65% for Millennials) and product research (31% of Boomers and 64% for Gen Z).

More Gen Zers use social networks for online product research than search engines (although just barely, 68% use social networks and 67% use search engines), although the other generations still prefer search engines by a wider margin.