Early forms of social media may well have contributed to the English civil war of 1642, the spread of fascism in the 1920s and the storming of Capitol Hill in Washington DC in 2020. And the coffee houses that spread across Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, where provocative pamphlets were first distributed and digested, may have indirectly accelerated the development of the slave trade.

But social media can also be a major boon: for consumers, brands and businesses. And for education, culture and society as a whole.

In this article, we look at the opportunities, challenges and impact of social media. And how it should add value to your brand and business. We examine its role, utility and value.

And suggest how to do it right.

The old new. Or the new old?

Simply put, social media is the mass communication of ideas, information and opinions through personal or technological networks. As advertisers, we tend to think that the challenges of creating content that will be circulated by social means are something unique to the present day information technology revolution.

Since the invention of the printing press in 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg, social media has enabled the rapid spread of both valuable and dangerous information. The original printing presses were used to produce the first broadside advertisements, sponsored books and pamphlets, flyers, newspapers with adverts and catalogues.

Mass communicated information, sponsored advertising, influencers and social sharing were invented nearly 600 years ago.

An original mass printed bible, 1455
Thanks Max Polyakov

The Gutenberg printing press produced 200 copies of  Europe’s first printed book, the Gutenberg Bible. 22 copies have survived to this day.

Gutenberg’s statue, Strasbourg by David D’Angers, 1837
Thanks Robert Scarth

The rapid proliferation of printed media formats through social gatherings in Elizabethan times resulted in an explosion of the need for social meeting places. Coffee houses in the 17th century opened faster than Starbucks’ Black Friday offers. This created a more cohesive environment for geographically disparate communities and cultures to mix. And promoted much faster and deeper communication of social, political, consumer and cultural ideas, trends and information. And rumours.

England’s first coffee house opened in Oxford in 1650. By 1675 there were over 3,000 nationwide (in a country with a population of just 5 million).

The adoption and ubiquity of social media platforms has mirrored the explosion in publishing of information in the 16th century.

Thanks The Journal of Economic History

Thanks Pew Research Center (sp.)

What drives this thirst for information and sharing?

Is sharing caring?

The desire to be informed, especially about potential danger, has been a feature of human motivation, as far back as the recording of human reaction takes us.

Robert Peckham, in his recent book “Fear: An Alternative History of the World” describes how humans are more easily coerced by danger and fear than they are by opportunity and greed.

Thanks Profile

Social media is a highly effective tool for us to be informed of dangers that might threaten our hard-earned way of life. Fear of disease, violence, financial shocks, geopolitical risks, religious compliance and more recently, missing out (FOMO) has been a driving force in the spread of socially distributed (mis)information.

In the 1980s, enter personal electronic devices, computer networks and freedom of information legislation. The bedrock for modern, electronic social media is laid. And following the almost 600 years since the invention of the printing press, Mark Zuckerberg launches Facebook, a development with similar impact to Gutenburg’s machines.

Except today, we observe people in contemporary coffee shops, head down, headphones in, scrolling through infinite feeds of promotions, images, news and details of friends’ breakfasts. Whether this is good for society, culture, communities and individuals is hotly debated.

The highly regarded Pew Research Center (sp.) has interesting data on the subject.

Thanks Pew Research Center (sp.)

You can read their full research here

Billions of people around the world  benefit from the availability of information, connections they make and relationships they are able to build, through social media.

Word of mouse

And for brands, whether they be consumer product companies, charities, entertainers, political movements or B2B businesses, social media platforms offer a world of opportunity. Done right, they present an incredible array of tools, from qualitative research, competitor analysis, audience visibility and reach to targeted e-commerce, promotions and customer referrals.

Airbnb, Beautiful Destinations, Dollar Shave Club, Barack Obama, Spotify and Taylor Swift can all attest to the power of social media. They have all used it to great effect to variously increase awareness, improve consideration and give them a platform for learning about their audiences. Quickly and cost-effectively.

Create a great social campaign and your customers will do the work.

The power and simplicity of sharing experiences, information and products through social platforms has driven a whole new way of reaching relevant audiences, building brand trust and learning more rapidly about your audiences.

Some of the most successful social media campaign examples include:

President Obama’s 2008 social media campaign. This was a major contributor towards his win. To this day, he has the second highest following of any X account.

Thanks X, @POTUS44, and Rolling Stone

Whilst platforms like TikTok and Youtube have to an extent democratised entertainment, it’s the bigger names in the media and sports worlds that are really benefiting; as will brands that associate with them.

The number of musicians earning over $1,000 a year in royalties on Spotify has more than doubled in the past six years,  but the number earning over $10m a year has quintupled.

Thanks The Economist

Shotgun or sniper

Thanks CNN

Like the early pamphlets distributed in the 17th century coffee houses, your social media campaigns need cut-through and to be joined-up with all of your other media. Far too often, we see social media posts that seem to be randomly published, ill thought through and bear no relationship to the brand that they are representing. Content is often published just to “get something out there”.

If you are going to post, sponsor content or hire an influencer, make sure it’s distinctive, relevant and authentic to your brand. And gets you the reaction that your brand deserves.

Reaching the right audience is important. Reaching it with the right creative idea, message and tone of voice is equally as fundamental to the success of the your campaign. There’s so much content published every day, distinctiveness and cut through driven by creativity are essential to social media success.

Thanks United States Library of Congress

Early examples of material produced by printing presses shows the thought that went into the art direction, image quality and messaging.

Different strokes for different folks

An effective social ad can have 4x the impact of the average industry campaign performance. Important factors which improve the effectiveness of your campaign include the consistency of the ads or posts, especially with other media campaigns; the video length; quality of the photography; simplicity of the messaging; audience targeting; scheduling and the social media platform itself. In a nutshell, brilliant creative development and excellent media planning.

Today we have highly effective and accurate ways of measuring the success of campaigns, across all media types.

For example, data shows that Nifties* are more inclined to interact with video format ads than younger generations.

Thanks Pixability

*(“Not intentionally fifties”, see our previous article on this untapped consumer group here):

So if your audience is Nifties, produce ads, campaigns and information that they like to consume, in the way that they like to consume it. Short form, commentator style videos may be ideal for Gen-Z, but for other generations, more story-telling formats might be needed.

Is size important?

Whilst many in the social media marketing world seem fixated on the number of likes, shares and followers, we strongly advocate assessing the quality of interactions that your audience has with your campaigns. They should increase the propensity of your audience to want to buy from you at a higher price, as well as increase awareness of your brand and motivate a willingness to introduce you to new customers.

It’s all very well having high click-through-rates, but if your conversion rate is dropping off, or you are cannibalising your margins through social media promotions, we might argue that you are doing lasting damage to the value of your brand.

And surely loyalty is one of the most important factors that affects a brand’s value. In a survey carried out by Forbes:

Only 37% of Gen Z fell into the loyalist category. This is quite different from the 56% of Boomers who did so.

Thanks Forbes

The data shows that there is a clear bias of younger generations to use social media:

Thanks The Pew Research Center (sp.)

Like all good campaigns, media selection is as important as your message and your creativity.

Now, no article referencing a communication revolution in Elizabethan times would be complete without a nod to Shakespeare.

The greatest influencer of modern times

Influencers. They’ve peddled everything from hair growth gummy vitamins to green protein powder supplements and exercise regimes that will give you championship winning abs in just 15 minutes.

Influencers now generate over $20bn in media revenues (Thanks McKinsey). And there have been some notable successes of new brand and product launches in driving immediate sales. But we question the authenticity of many influencers. If you really want prospective audiences to be influenced, use real customers to influence them. It’s much more powerful and will add long term value to your brand.

Nearly 90% of consumers no longer trust influencers

Thanks The Drum

We’re putting the brand back together

Thanks Change.org

Thanks World Today News

Don’t compare your brand’s performance  with PewDiePie’s or Cristiano Ronaldo’s social media presence

We finish with how social media can add value to your brand. And like all tools, it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it.

1. Social media offers an unparalleled opportunity to listen to your customers. Whilst social media provides a cost-effective and rapid way of finding out more about them, their attitudes and behaviours, there’s nothing like listening directly to them. We would argue that getting them into a room and running a focus group is the most powerful form of attitudinal and behavioural research, but social media offers a way of distilling down key themes and trends that affect the value of your brand.

We recently wrote about the power of listening directly to your customers:

2. Don’t mistake the number of followers, likes or shares with brand value. Your brand value should be measured by the quality of your interactions with your customers and your ability to earn more margin from them than your competitors (we’ve written about effective ways of measuring brand value previously).

3. Don’t compare your brand with PewDiePie or Cristiano Ronaldo. It doesn’t matter that your social media rankings are 40,000 places below a youth subculture esports commentator. Benchmark yourself against your brand’s history: is the value of your brand growing, in absolute terms? Social media can help with growing value, but it’s arguably not the best way to measure it.

4. More recent Social Media platforms (Snap, TikTok) are not designed as platforms to build lasting brand value. They are designed in the most part for short attention spans and to deliver instant gratification.

Fortune favours the brave

Queen Elizabeth I was renowned for being brave, charismatic and a brilliant communicator. After years of religious unrest, war and poverty, she restored stability, unity and prosperity to England.

With her exotic and cosmopolitan courtiers, promotion of literature and art, and belief in the power of communication, we wager that the Virgin Queen would have had a TikTok following to rival Taylor Swift.

And finally, our recent, highly popular article on the power of simplicity.

ChatGPT 4 version of this article:

(incidentally, our brand and copywriting team are busier than ever).

Screen video, by popular demand is here:

And the GPT-4 text response is here:


Addmustard: What parallels are there between the invention of the printing press, dissemination of written ideas, opinions and information in coffee houses and the advent of social media


ChatGPT: The invention of the printing press, the proliferation of coffee houses as centers (sp.) of information exchange, and the advent of social media all signify pivotal shifts in the way information is disseminated and how people communicate. There are several notable parallels among these developments:

  • Democratization of Information:
    • Printing Press: Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century greatly reduced the cost of producing books and other printed materials, which made information more accessible to a wider segment of the population, breaking the monopoly of the literate elite.
    • Coffee Houses: In the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee houses became popular as places where people from different social classes could gather to discuss ideas and news, effectively democratizing knowledge.
    • Social Media: Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit have further democratized information by enabling anyone with internet access to share content and opinions with a global audience.
  • Speed of Information Spread:
    • Printing Press: Information could be reproduced and spread more quickly than by handwritten manuscripts, allowing ideas to travel faster than ever before.
    • Coffee Houses: Served as hubs for the rapid exchange of information and were often used as venues for the dissemination of news and gossip.
    • Social Media: Has accelerated the speed of information dissemination to almost real-time, with news and ideas spreading instantaneously across the globe.
  • Impact on Society and Culture:
    • Printing Press: The widespread distribution of printed material contributed to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution, fostering a culture of learning and intellectual debate.
    • Coffee Houses: Were often credited with contributing to the Enlightenment by providing a space for intellectual exchange, and they played a key role in the development of financial markets and journalism.
    • Social Media: Has had a significant impact on culture, politics, and personal relationships, influencing everything from how we consume news to how social movements are organized.
  • Challenges to Established Authority:
    • Printing Press: Enabled the spread of ideas that challenged the Catholic Church and absolute monarchies, leading to religious reforms and political changes.
    • Coffee Houses: Were sometimes viewed with suspicion by authorities because they allowed for the free exchange of ideas, some of which could be subversive.
    • Social Media: Has been used to organize protests and even revolutions, challenging governmental authorities and traditional media outlets.
  • Creation of New Industries and Jobs:
    • Printing Press: Created a whole new industry around book publishing and also increased the need for writers and editors.
    • Coffee Houses: Became centers for trade and commerce, facilitating the exchange of goods and information and giving rise to the service industry around them.
    • Social Media: Has spawned new professions and industries, from digital marketing to influencer careers, and has transformed advertising and commerce.
  • Misinformation and Regulation:
    • Printing Press: The spread of printed materials also meant the spread of misinformation, leading to various forms of censorship and regulation by authorities.
    • Coffee Houses: False rumors and politically charged discussions in coffee houses often led to attempts at regulation or suppression.
    • Social Media: Has been criticized for enabling the spread of fake news, hate speech, and extremist content, leading to calls for regulation and self-policing by platforms.


While the contexts of these developments are different, they all represent significant leaps in the capacity to share, influence, and shape public discourse. They illustrate the ongoing evolution of communication technologies and their profound effects on society.

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