In 2018, we saw the ugly side of social.

After a year marked by scandal and backlash, a medium meant to foster connection has left people feeling more divided than united.

According to Sprout Social’s most recent Brands Get Real report on social media and connection, four out of five consumers believe our society is more divided today than ever before. And while a large percentage (68%) of people blame government and political leaders, over half (55%) say social media is to blame.

Fortunately, all hope is not lost. The vast majority of consumers (91%) believe that social still has the power to close this growing divide and reconnect people with one another. But people don’t expect partisan public figures to do it. Instead, they want brands to lead the charge. Seventy-eight percent of consumers want brands to use social to bring them together.

In 2019, brands will need to pivot their approach to social by prioritizing connection, building relationships and seeking to unite people through their shared human experiences. Sound familiar?

For those of us who’ve engaged with social since its inception, this isn’t as much of a new trend as it is a return to social’s original purpose of connecting the world.

In the beginning, social was social

I’m probably dating myself here, but my first memories of social are of Friendster and MySpace. In those early days of the medium, social was truly about connection. This new technology meant you didn’t have to travel to meet people from different states and different countries. You were able to broaden your perspective of the world—and of people—without ever leaving the comfort of your home.

When Facebook first came on the scene, you had to have an .edu email address. For those early college users, the platform was all about finding and connecting with new friends at your school, or neighboring schools, as well as staying in touch with old friends from grade school and high school.

That’s what it was for me: a way to keep in touch with all my friends from over the years. I share the widespread opinion that fewer people attend school reunions these days because they’re already keeping up with each other on social media. Social is our school reunion.

Then things got personal

Shortly after, the mindset on social shifted. User interaction became more one-sided. People used new platforms to broadcast their feelings rather than their connections.

Twitter, for example, started as an online activity log: “This is what I’m doing,” which quickly evolved into, “this is what I’m feeling.” And it wasn’t just the platforms that were changing, but also the people on them. A person’s generation and/or life stage influenced their usage. While younger generations might have used social to meet new people, older generations (myself included) used it as a way to document our lives.

As status updates and photo albums became more popular, social became less about connection and conversation and more about our own personal broadcasts—which is where I think brands took their cue in the beginning. Many marketers just pushed their messages out rather than focus on creating or maintaining relationships.

But we need to talk

Whether it’s due to the growing societal and political divide, or dwindling face-to-face interaction, the pathways of communication on social have since opened back up. These days, both people and brands find value in two-way discourse.

But where there’s conversation, there’s conflict. While the beauty of social is that it gives everyone a voice, we don’t always like or agree with what those voices have to say. As our social networks grow increasingly emboldened to speak out on topics that are naturally divisive, we’re led to grapple with (and in some cases confront) opinions that may be vastly different from our own.

This is why we have to make a change. Disagreements around our differences may build walls between us, but connection around our commonalities tears them down. And based on the latest Brands Get Real findings, consumers think brands have the most power to create the shift. Nearly four in five consumers (79%) agree brands are well positioned to connect people of varying backgrounds and beliefs.

And brands need to listen

In order to create real connection with and among their consumers in 2019, brands need to start listening. And not just to what people have to say about their products, but to what matters to them. Social listening allows brands to discover who their audiences truly are, and what they care about.

Our report reveals that consumers feel a deeper connection to brands when they create, participate in or even host relevant conversations online. Brands will benefit from shifting their social strategies from revenue to relatability.

As a result, we hope to see more brands raise awareness around social/political issues, humanize an otherwise faceless company and build private online communities for consumers—all on social.

Start connecting now

The data from our most recent Brands Get Real report tells a compelling story of the current state of disconnection and division in our society, consumers’ enduring faith in social to repair and reconnect our relationships and the expectations and opportunities for brands to lead the charge.

Looking forward, connection must become our focus as marketers. We may have strayed away from the more humble and benign beginnings of social, but for today’s brands, there’s hope.