Although Meta’s ad revenue is recovering, retail media may prove its biggest competition

Retail media is poised to be Meta’s next great competitor.

With ongoing layoffs and shopping features shuttered this year, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company has struggled with user growth and slower ad revenue for the last year. Now, even as Meta returns to single-digit ad revenue growth, it’s facing a whole new threat to its ascension: retail media networks that are gaining popularity.

Spending on retail media may offer an advantage to brands — by letting advertisers reach consumers “closer to the point of purchase,” said Debra Aho Williamson, analyst at Insider Intelligence. 

This means RMNs, as well as Amazon, may “scoop up” ad spending from companies over time, Williamson said in a provided statement. “Meta has yet to fully confront this threat.”

Why there is a shift to retail

The value of retail media lies in the data. RMNs are becoming a “significant competitor to Meta and other social platforms” because of first-party purchase data, explained Sifat Ullah, vp of performance media at Exverus Media.

Buyers are shifting dollars from social into retail media with DTC brands that are growing their retail distribution, Ullah said. Additionally, “consumers have not taken to direct social shopping on Meta as the industry expected, which has had a bigger impact on DTC brands,” Ullah added.

Meta’s global ad revenue is expected to grow 6.3% to $120.82 billion this year, giving it 20.1% share of the global digital ad market — still behind Google’s 28.4% of the share, according to Insider Intelligence. While Facebook owns 13.4% of that share, Amazon has the next largest share at 7.5%. This year, Facebook’s global user growth is predicted to be “essentially flat compared to 2022,” with 2.07 billion monthly users, per Insider Intelligence while Instagram is estimated to reach 1.34 billion users globally, up about 4.7% compared to last year.

Amie Owen, U.S. head of commerce at UM Worldwide, agreed that the current trend shifts more dollars toward retail and away from Meta — but is difficult to quantify by just how much, and depends on the client. Owen explained that while retail media started emerging in the 1970s, it has become repopularized because of the added tech and data capabilities. And RMNs provide richer retailer data compared to Meta.

“The truth of the matter is that we are seeing an influx in retail media spends, because we’re getting other pieces that are not just media,” Owen told Digiday. “When we look at success in [commerce media], it’s conversion — and did someone convert online or in store? We need to make sure that we’re closing that loop, and right now Meta doesn’t do that with a lot of partners.”

In one example with a food and snack client that Owen declined to name, investing in retail made more sense than social for the product to be “closest to the shelf” where purchases are actually made.

“But we also know that there’s a component that you might not be buying this product on that platform, so you need to be elsewhere,” Owen said.

Different uses and advantages

Though this varies depending on the client type and advertising objectives. Ullah noted that Meta and social media are stronger at driving awareness and engagement, whereas RMNs are strategic in driving lower-funnel sales to their own platforms.

“The two channels are not always a 1:1 swap, as they work best at driving different outcomes,” Ullah said. “That said, we definitely see the trends going up for retail media investment and sideways to down for social investment as we look at brand behavior in 2023.”

There is also a question of the type of audience clients want to target, Owen added. In some cases, the younger audience targeted will be on social media rather than a retailer’s website. But if the audience is on both platforms, then it makes sense to follow them on both “as the shopping mindset is different.”

“If you’re sitting on Facebook or Instagram … you’re not really necessarily in the shopping mindset. But if you’re going on, say a Walmart or a Kroger or even Amazon, you are in the mindset to find whatever you’re looking for, and you’re using it as maybe a search platform,” Owen said.

Allysun Lundy, vp head of retail media strategy at Publicis Commerce, also said she uses both strategies with clients — and they aren’t always a direct comparison. “[Social media] should be complementary or part of a retail media plan, not competitive,” Lundy said. “With RMNs needing to grow offsite spend, social sites overall are a key component.”

Challenges Meta needs to overcome in social commerce

For Meta to compete in social commerce, the company needs to help advertisers see the upper- and full-funnel reach impacting sales, said Andrew LaFond, vp and executive director of media and connections at R/GA. Retail media investment takes priority when agencies are driven by sales objectives, but Meta can still play a role to get a share of the budget.

“The challenge for Meta and other social platforms is to continue to innovate and iterate on social commerce features, while they are prioritizing investments in other crucial areas,” LaFond said. “They can continue to push social commerce forward, but progress will be incremental.”

Publicis Commerce’s Lundy said social platforms still need to make it simple and seamless for shoppers to purchase, but are challenged to convince consumers to go from watching an Instagram video to adding those items to their cart at a retailer.

“TikTok and GoPuff have enabled this, but widespread adoption is needed across multiple social sites and retailers — and ensuring closed loop measurement is provided,” Lundy said.

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