This guide on social media marketing was created by Bethany Phillips, a University of Montana student.

What is Social Media?

If you consult Google, the definition of social media is this:
so·cial me·di·a
websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.



Social Media does have a practical use, but it also serves a purpose today that was never before predicted. Today, people use social media to communicate, influence, and promote themselves, brands, and communities around the world. It opened up the door for unique communities to connect and for leaders to influence social issues across the globe. As of 2019, around 50% of the world’s population is online and using social media. However, social media is not at its peak. Although it has changed society since it began, social media usage is beginning to stall. In this guide, we will take a deeper look into the trends of social media. First, to understand how it developed, we should take a look at where it all started.


It all began in 1997 with a website called SixDegrees, which was very similar to what Facebook is today. You were able to make a profile, create connections, and even send messages within networks. From there, a site called Hot or Not popped up on the internet in 2000. This site encouraged people to submit photos of themselves so others could rate their attractiveness.

Further, in 2002 Friendster launched, which allowed users to create profiles and share connections. The site quickly gained popularity but users eventually left due to slow servers as a result of increased traffic. In place of Friendster, Myspace quickly took over. Myspace users created customized profiles that were available to anyone on the site. By 2005, the site had around 25 million followers.


Everyone on the internet has heard of Facebook. It is one of the most successful, if not the most successful social media site that exists today. The creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, first began his entrepreneurial endeavors when he launched Facemash in 2003. Zuckerberg intended Facemash to be Harvard’s version of Hot of Not. Soon after, “The Facebook”, now known as just Facebook, began. It started as a social networking application for Harvard University to allow students to meet each other online. It then expanded to be an all-universities application, soon after becoming available to anyone who wanted to join.

Since then, Facebook has changed the social media world. It first acted as a connection for people, allowing them to have a platform to share their interests and opinions. Today, people can join online communities within Facebook, share pictures and videos, and post about whatever crosses their minds. It serves as a great tool for marketing exposure if used correctly. Despite controversy in recent years over privacy issues with Facebook, they have remained the biggest social media application in the world.


After the launch of Facebook, different social media sites started blowing up across the internet. In 2005, both YouTube and Reddit launched. YouTube was the first popular video site to emerge and remains popular to this day. Reddit’s popularity also grew from 2005 and now has around 330 million users as of 2018.

The last popular site to the social media game was Instagram, making its debut in 2010. Instagram users were able to create individual profiles to share photos with the public. The site has around 100 million followers as of 2019.

A Timeline of Popular Social Media Platforms
For more information on what social media is and its current trends today, here are some resources:

The History of Social Media: 29+ Key Moments
The History of Social Media: Social Networking Evolution!
The Evolution of Social Media
The Evolution of Social Media: Info-graphic
Mary Meeker on Social Media Usage

 What Role Does it Play in Marketing?

It would be hard to find a relevant company today that does not use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and even Snapchat to market their brands. As previously mentioned, half of the world’s population is on social media today. Brands that are internationally well-known and marketable have the potential to reach an audience of about 3 billion people.

Additionally, social media is something that people tend to view throughout the day. If a company can get customers to follow their pages, they can constantly be promoting their brand to this audience at all hours. Without social media, companies are missing out on ample opportunity to brand themselves to their target market directly and consistently.

Uses in Today’s Society

Social media is a great tool for businesses to use because it’s free advertising. Companies can still buy paid advertising on social media, but having accounts on popular platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter costs them nothing. Once they get their target audience to follow their pages, they are reaching a large number of viewers, all for free. Of course, any well-known brand will be on social media. Additionally, the free price structure allows small companies to have a presence on the platforms.

Social Media Pages

Almost all companies today will have the basic, free social media pages. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn are all examples of pages a company may have. Most are updated daily with promotions and information about what the company has going on that day.

Influencer Marketing

Influencers are people who have a large following on social media. Brands will often pay an influencer to wear their merchandise or promote their brand to reach new consumers through a credible and reliable channel. Some followers have issues trusting the authenticity of influencer marketing, especially because they are getting paid to talk about the brand. However, influencer marketing is growing and here to stay.

An Influencer sponsoring jeans in her post
Influencer marketing being used in action to promote a brand on their Instagram.

Lots of companies, depending on the nature of their work, will have a blog that is connected to their main social media pages. Blogs can be used to inform users of certain topics, advise consumers about how to best use their products, or even talk about lifestyle choices. It all depends on what the business is offering, but they can most likely start a blog to add value to a customer’s experience and reach a wide audience with their influence.


Vlogging, or video blogging, is often used today to reach consumers in a personable and lively fashion. Video blogs can contain information about the company, its products, promotional events, or lifestyles. These video blogs allow the company to be “face-to-face” with a consumer, establishing a brand identity with them. Some companies even outsource this to influencers to create video content about their brands. This can then be shared on social media to reach viewers.

Unique Uses for Branding

So we have established that social media is free and companies have the potential to receive tons of exposure to their brands through social media marketing. However, some brands use social media in creative ways that show, they just understand social media. Anyone can start a Facebook page, or post a picture of their product on Instagram. Not all companies know how to use that power to go viral. Here are some unique ways that companies have used social media to bring awareness to their brand:


In 2017, KFC quietly unfollowed everyone they previously followed on social media and followed only 11 people. 5 Spice Girls and 6 guys named Herb. This was a gesture to their “secret recipe”, which consists of 11 herbs and spices. Of course, this blew up and went viral across the internet. Although most of us are familiar with KFC, they found a way to tap into social media in a unique way that turned into a viral meme.

Someone Tweets about KFC's follower humor
The Tweet about KFC after they removed all followers except for 11 herbs and spices.
Mercedes Benz

Although slightly older, in 2013, Mercedes Benz chose 5 Instagram photographers and let them drive a Mercedes on a trip for a couple days. Each influencer had to take periodic photos of their experience, and whoever received the most likes on Instagram for their trip got to keep the car for free. Mercedes got thousands of people exposed to their car model and one person got to keep a car for free!


Similarly, in 2013 during a power outage at the Super Bowl, Oreo released a quick-on-their-feet advertisement talking about how you can “still dunk in the dark”. The immediate response to an already viral event was a brilliant way to get people talking about their brand and quick-wit.

Oreo responds to the Super Bowl blackout
Oreo’s response to the blackout at the Super Bowl.


Here are some more resources that look at how social media plays a role in marketing today:

Social Media Marketing: The Ultimate Guide
The 30 most influential companies on social media in 2019
6 standout social media marketing examples for 2019
23 Benefits of Social Media for Businesses
How to Grow Your Brand with Influencer Marketing and Partnerships
10 Types of Social Media and How Each Can Benefit Your Business
5 Outstanding Social Media Marketing Case Studies
31 Brilliant Social Marketing Campaigns


Controversies that Exist around Social Media

Although social media has blown up in popularity since it began, it does not exist without its controversies. This year, it was rumored that social media use was declining.  In recent years, the media has been reporting on how the frequent use of social media is impacting younger generations, and how frequent use is also impacting the population overall.

Frequent scrolling through social media platforms is known to be time-consuming and even addicting. Society is starting to feel as though time should be spent elsewhere and that too much time on social media can lead to mental health issues. You see, this is because social media filters out the reality that comes with every-day life. When we visit someone’s social media page, all we see is their life highlights, instead of the reality that lies behind it. This can lead to a disassociation from real life, and instead, make us feel as though our life is not as good as others.

There has been so much controversy around the impacts of social media on mental health that many young people have decided to spend less time on the applications, or even delete their profiles altogether.

The Frequency of Use is Diminishing Each Year

As this stigma behind social media addiction and mental health issues continues to formulate, we see a decline in social media usage. In 2018, it was reported that the average time spent on social media per person decreased by one minute. This may not seem like much, but the industry had been seeing steady growth for years before this decline. Additionally, beasts like Facebook are starting to see the number of users on their platform decrease due to younger generations turning to other social media platforms instead. Lots of high-schoolers today do not even have a Facebook profile.

In recent years, it has been predicted that people are leaving social media platforms due to their increasingly political nature. The term “Fake news” has been popular within the last year on social media. It has caused much controversy and division between people in the United States, and most of it began circulating on these platforms.

The issue here was that no social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, which are heavily content-focused, were immediately acting on the removal or control of “Fake News” on their platforms. This caused a rift in trust between the platforms and users. The idea that the news circulating in their feeds was easily fake and not at all fact-checked was considered a breach of trust.

After all, if the platforms were not going to take action upon those issues, how could users ever trust what they saw on their feed?

Being absorbed into social media in every aspect of daily life.


The Impacts on Society: The Good and The Bad

It Gave Everyone a Voice

Once social media arose, each person with marginal views on social and political issues were able to voice their opinions. Not only were they able to voice their opinion, they were easily able to find others with similar views to connect with. Once these groups found each other, communities were created, content was created, and each person felt like they had the power to influence others.

Power of the Masses

Another benefit of social media was the ability to raise awareness for issues that would regularly be hidden by the few in power. For instance, environmental politics, although still widely debated by many, has been able to raise a significant amount of awareness and followers from the internet. Before this power of the masses, issues like this may have been pushed aside by those in power if it was not a priority.


An unfortunate consequence of this culture is that many may be aware of and support issues, but no real change is happening. Most believe that sitting behind their computer screens, commenting, and liking posts is enough to show support. This also causes the bystander effect to take place. Many believe that they agree on social media, but that the leaders of those conversations are going to take charge of making the change. Unfortunately, although people can speak about all issues and raise awareness for their opinions, there may be no actual change happening.

Social Media Protestors


This phenomenon is popular mostly among the younger crowds. The introduction of social media suddenly meant that teens’ whole growth from their childhood to young adulthood was exposed to the world and there were enough “walls” in place to allow them to pick on others with little to no consequences.

Studies showed that a significant amount of teens had been bullied online when social media was becoming popular, and a number even admitted to participating in the bullying themselves. This caused an increasing amount of mental health issues developing early-on in children, such as depression and anxiety. These issues were not exclusive to children, though. Adults have also suffered from increased mental health issues revolving around the perfect-ideation of life that social media seems to set.

Mental Health and Addiction

Because social media keeps people connected 24/7, the potential addiction to social media has been widely studied in recent years. Currently, it is thought that addiction to social media impacts about 5% of people. That may seem small, but 5% of the 3.5 billion users is about 175 million people. Some say the addiction is stronger than that of alcohol and cigarettes.

The addiction is linked to the instant gratification received when looking at social media, and the release of dopamine, which is associated with the feeling of reward when receiving likes and comments. FOMO, or fear of missing out, is also a common issue caused by social media. It can be described as the fear of missing out on fun and rewarding experiences that people in their social circles are having. These things have been known to cause depression, anxiety, loneliness, and low satisfaction, which can be felt by people of all ages using social media.


Another common controversy that has impacted the number of people using social media is privacy. When people first began filling out their profiles with their pictures, birthdays, likes and dislikes, places of work, education, and many other things, they were doing it to share that information with people in their network. Of course, once that data was collected, it was used to understand consumers and market to them. This has caused major controversy among users and platform owners. In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, testified in front of the senate during a major privacy scandal which was investigated by the United States Government.

In addition to the data collection, users see an increasing amount of professional and personal consequences for what they post on the internet. Today, it is known and expected that employers peruse social media before hiring employees. Things as small as pictures of partying can be the difference between employment and unemployment.

Social Media Privacy Issues



One thing that businesses now have to ask themselves when reviewing a marketing strategy for their company is: is it ethical to use social media to reach our customers?

With all things considered that make social media controversial, a company’s use of social media to connect with their consumers may be viewed as condoning or merely bypassing the issues at hand.

Furthermore, using social media to market a brand can be hurtful to the brand if their target market feels negatively about it. Some companies have even suffered from using social media due to their lack of popularity being a sign of incredibility. Although social media reaches a large crowd, it may be valuable to ask if the consequences that come with it are worth it.

Here are some resources around the controversy of social media today:

Average Time Spent on Social Media Declines
What is the Major Impact of Social Media?
Anxiety, Loneliness, and Fear of Missing Out: The Impact of Social Media on Young People’s Mental Health
Facebook Data Privacy Scandal: A Cheat Sheet
7 Fundamental Ethics of Social Media Marketing
Ethical Issues in Content and Social Media Marketing

Social Media and Your Business

What Platforms Should be Used and Why?

This guide, Social Media Marketing for Businesses helps to identify good strategies for businesses looking to use social media in marketing. Depending on the industry and the tone that a company is trying to set for their branding, they need to pick which platforms are suitable to convey their message most strategically.

For instance, Facebook is a social gathering platform used for promoting events and promotions. In the below example, Starbucks uses its Facebook to promote its annual giveaway of reusable holiday cups. However, when promoting on Instagram, they use a more visual tone for their advertisements to allude to their promotional and seasonal beverages. Instagram was created solely to share images, and therefore, it is perfect for sharing aesthetics that set a tone for a brand and its promotions.

Starbucks Different Social Media Platforms

The Good and Bad for Brand Image

On one hand, social media is a great opportunity for a company that is attempting to establish an online presence for their brand. We have seen the current role it plays as well as the potential benefits that is has to offer for brand awareness. Social media can be great if it is used in all the right ways. Unfortunately, there are also ways in which it can negatively impact a brand.

Social media can cause a lot of controversy. We live in an age where things are misconstrued over the internet all the time. And unfortunately, once something controversial has been said or done, someone now has a picture of it and they are sharing it all over the internet. Social media offers no privacy. Once up, a post can be taken down, but will likely exist on the internet forever. It is important that whatever is posted by the brand is well-thought-out.

Additionally, just as with people’s lack of satisfaction from not receiving enough likes and shares, brands can suffer from a lack of attention to their social media. People may think the brand is not credible or well-liked if posts are not liked and shared.

However, it is not all bad. If a company’s social media strategy is well-thought-out and executed, there is a potential to gain the attention of thousands of customers and build a great brand image. With that being said, it is important to plan, plan, plan, and make sure the social media set up for the company aligns with the brand’s values and culture.

Here are some more resources for social media marketing for your brand:

Social Media’s Impact on Your Brand: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Myths Behind Social Media Marketing

You Must Be Active on All Social Media Platforms

This myth is easy to believe because many people associate quantity with success. But this is not the case. Not all companies fit into each platform. Trying to do that will hurt the business by wasting time and resources on advertising on an irrelevant platform. It is imperative to stick to platforms that are relevant to the nature of the business and its target market.

You Must Focus on Gaining the Most Followers

This will detract from a company’s social media presence. We want people to follow the brand because they want to, not because it is irrelevant to them. Trying to gain irrelevant followers could come back to bite a company when they complain about the brand spamming them. Stick to the target market.

You Must Delete All Negative Feedback and Comments

This will lead people to believe that the brand is hiding something, or treating customers poorly. If there is negative feedback, we need to try to respond as helpfully as possible. This will show people that we are dedicated to the customer experience and not trying to clear our feed of anything negative that others could see.

Social Media Can Replace Your Company Website

This is often done and leads to frustrated customers. Social media should be used to build and promote the brand. All other necessities about the business should be listed on the website. The website gives people a home-base. We need to keep it on the company platform.

Here are some more resources on social media marketing myths:

5 Social Media Marketing Myths You Should Stop Believing
17 Common Social Media Marketing Myths

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