So what are the key trends that social media marketers need to look out for in 2016? While we all expect certain platforms to introduce certain updates, it's arguably more important to understand the wider context behind such changes, the implications of those specific updates in a wider sense. It's one thing to know that Facebook's introducing a new emoji toolbar, it's another to grasp why they would do it and the expanded implications of emoji and how social media users are moving with this trend.
While the updates in themselves are important, thinking over why those shifts are occurring can provide marketers with a better platform to work from, a better level of preparedness and audience understanding from which to operate. And if you can anticipate the 'why' that motivates such changes, you'll be better placed to stay ahead of the curve and shift your marketing activities in line with audience attentions.
So what are the key trends to look for in 2016? Here are five key drivers to keep an eye on.
1. The Growth of Emoji Analytics
However you feel about emoji, whether you like them or not - whether you use them yourself or don't - their influence is undeniable. Driven largely by younger users, emoji have become a core element in social; research conducted by Instagram, and published in early 2015, showed that in some nations, the amount of Instagram posts with emoji characters now exceeds those without: "If the overall trend continues," the researchers noted, "we might be looking at a future where the majority of text on Instagram contains emoji."
Emoji have become a key communications tool, a way for people to express sentiment quickly and easily, without having to explain the full context in so many words. This is particularly important when you consider the impact of the mobile shift - as more and more people are conducting more interactions via mobile, any tools that can provide efficiency on this front are valuable, and emoji do just that. Now, rather than fumbling with tiny keypads are battling suggestions from auto-correct, you can paste in a single image and convey the intended sentiment. Communication efficiency is crucially important in this application.
But one of the wider questions around the rise in emoji use - and one that will become increasingly important in 2016 - is 'how do we use this trend to better understand our audience?' Can emoji habits and behaviors be used as an indicator of interest and engagement? Absolutely they can, but extracting the specifics of how and why emoji are used, and in what context, will become a much bigger focus in 2016.
Which emoji are more closely related to click-throughs and conversions? Do sad emoji responses correlate with lower readership? Does the use of certain emoji characters lead to more shares? These questions will be important, particularly as Facebook moves to roll out Reactions more widely and Twitter seeks to implement their own emoji toolset. You may not care about emoji, but the numbers suggest that your audience likely does, and increasingly so every day. How they're used in isolation is not important, but what they mean, in a wider sense, could provide crucial insight.
2. Identifying Relevant Metrics
This one has been a common thread over the past couple of years, but in 2016, it may finally see real focus.
Back in the early days of Facebook, The Social Network encouraged brands to build their Page Likes in order to increase reach - it was even included as an ad objective:
The basic principle makes sense - when people Like your Page, it indicates to Facebook that those users want to see content posted by your business, so more Likes means more reach. But over time, and as we all know, organic reach has fallen dramatically - nowadays, a Page would be lucky to have 10% of their total audience see any one of their Facebook posts, which makes Page Likes a less effective target to strive for, and thus, the wording of the ad objective has been changed to de-emphasize this element as a target. Because it's not - and really, it never has been, at least, not in a wholistic sense.
While metrics like Likes, followers, re-tweets can all be used as indicators in certain contexts (and should definitely not be dismissed as a form of assessment, particularly in awareness campaigns), the real numbers that matter are conversions. Click-through rates, subsequent actions taken, purchases made - these are the numbers that truly matter. While shares and engagements play a part in that process, the real numbers relate to the bottom line, and that, increasingly, is where we're going to see the focus of social media metrics in 2016.
We're actually already seeing the next stages of this play out - Facebook's 'Conversion Lift' metrics go beyond the basic implications of soft numbers and aim to show businesses exactly how their on-platform efforts contribute to their bottom line results. Twitter's implemented a similar system, using both on and off platform data to provide a more accurate overview of campaign results.
Through this, we're moving more towards the next level of social ROI, where marketing teams can provide definitive links between their social efforts and real-world results - a measure that's crucial to truly understand and maximize social marketing performance.
As noted by Jay Baer:
"The goal is not to be good at social media. The goal is to be good at business because of social media."
3. Focus on Engagement (Not Virality)
Along a similar line, 'going viral' is going to less of a focus in the new year. Why? Because 'going viral' is a result, not an aim - you simply cannot plan on creating viral content.
We've all heard it many times, companies that want to create a 'viral' video - I've even seen it written down in marketing plans ('we're going to create a viral video and that'll get the word out"). And you can understand why - who wouldn't want to create infectious content that generates thousands, even millions, of impressions through organic reach? Everyone wants that level of success, but the thing is, you can't make it happen. There are elements of viral content we can study and better understand, sure, there are learnings we can take away from the latest viral post that can help increase our chances of creating highly shareable material. But planning on going viral is like planning on winning the lottery - if it works out, great, but if not, you're gonna' be left with a big hole in your marketing plan.
As social media matures, we're seeing a move away from viral content and more towards creating content that resonates with your audience. This is a far more viable, and valuable, approach, as the people who are most likely to see your content on social are the people who already like your brand to begin with. Those are your core fans, the ones who really want to know what you have to say, who are attuned to your aims and message - so why not use that as the starting point from which to build your social brand?
How do you do this? By learning and understanding what your key audiences want and expect from your business. You deliver that, and those people will like your content, they'll comment, they'll share it among their own networks, and that's how you'll see increases in the reach of your brand messaging. Word of mouth is amplified immeasurably by social networks - for example, this image below shows an average Facebook users' network.
And while, as noted earlier, organic reach has fallen, and not everything you post is going to be seen by every one of your followers (this relates to both Page and personal posts), you can see how word-of-mouth can spread your message from one person to another within that graph and work to greatly expand the reach of your messaging over time.
The key to social is delivering excellent customer experiences - excellent experiences lead to happy customers, happy customers, over time, become advocates, and advocates help spread your brand messaging throughout their own extended networks, thus using the potential of organic social reach to best advantage. Paid reach is, of course, another avenue to help build upon that, but the real truth is that social media is best suited to turning people who like your brand into people who love your brand. That's the best base to build from, the best way to maximize the use of social media's connective capacity.
'Viral' is great, but 'advocacy' is a much more realistic, and likely beneficial, strategic aim.
4. Evolving Customer Service
As more and more people use social networks, more and more are also turning to social platforms to resolve customer service concerns. In fact, according to research by Socialbakers, social media customer service requests have increased more than 2.5X in the past two years, with the vast majority (80%) coming in via Twitter.
Questions are being raised on the platforms where people are spending more of their time - so it makes sense, then, for brands to be paying attention and meeting customers where they are. As such, expect to see a big focus on social customer service in 2016. I mean, it's already relatively big, but expect to see both brands and the platforms themselves moving to better facilitate this over the year.
We've already seen Facebook moving on this, working to make Messenger a more effective platform for customer service interactions, adding in additional capabilities for brands to respond to Page comments via private message, to add a Messenger plug-in to their websites so users can send them a Facebook message without disrupting their browsing experience, while they're also exploring the capacity of AI in this regard, working to develop new, smart systems that would enable brands to automate parts of the customer interaction process, making it easier and more effective for people to get relevant information quickly and via the platforms which they're already using.
This evolution will be an important trend to watch in 2016, an important, new battleground for social platforms to consider. As noted, Twitter's currently leading the way, in terms of requests for social customer service, but the popularity of Facebook, and Messenger specifically, could see The Social Network take big strides on this front very quickly. Either way, the end result will be more tools made available for brands to better service their customers, likely through more intelligent automation options. And that development, which would reduce the expense of having real staff respond to such queries, while also improving customer outcomes through better system response, could prove significant for a great many brands moving forward.
5. Think Mobile - Always
And the last trend of note is one which requires little further build up, but is worth noting either way - the mobile shift is one of the most significant marketing trends of the last century, and one which every brand has to factor in when considering their social media marketing plan.
Not sure that this really applies to your brand? Well let's take a look at the stats:
- Facebook currently has 1.55 billion monthly active users - around one in every five people in the world is active on The Social Network. Of those users, 1.39 billion access the site via mobile device - more than that, Facebook has over a billion daily active users, 900 million of which also access the site via mobile.
- Mobile usage has overtaken desktop usage, with a study by comScore showing that American users now spend the majority of their time consuming digital media within mobile apps. This data has been reinforced by reports from Pew Research and the reputed Mary Meeker Internet Trends Report:
- And in one of the more telling stats from 2015 - last year, Google search volume on mobile finally exceeded desktop numbers in more than 10 nations (including the US).
The mobile shift is happening, it's undeniable - if you're not optimizing your content or considering the mobile experience of your users when constructing your online presence, you're missing out.
While this trend has been in effect for some time, in 2016 it'll move to the next level - mobile will become an absolutely essential consideration in all campaigns and digital programs. If you can't afford the investment of re-vamping your website in order to optimize mobile performance, you'll need to start considering how to better integrate mobile options like Facebook's 'Instant Articles' and 'Canvas', which offers an immersive mobile ad experience, all built into Facebook itself. Now that, of course, also means building on 'borrowed land', which can be risky (particularly if Facebook decides to change the rules), but it may be the best option, particularly if that's where your audience is at and the comparative level of mobile experience they're getting from other providers is evolving beyond your own.
It'll also become increasingly important for brands to understand how their audience is discovering and accessing their content. Much of this data is available via tools like Google Analytics, but those in-depth stats will become more critical in providing insight and mapping the customer journey - knowing the when, where and how people are connecting to your brand will form an essential part of any planning and will guide strategic direction. It's nothing new, I'm not telling you anything you haven't heard before on this front, but it's important to note the growing mobile trend - and particularly how that trend only looks set to increase as the next generation of digital natives moves into your target demographic brackets.
While there are numerous other, audience-specific trends what will impact your business, these five key trends will play a big part in the wider social landscape in 2016. Video, too, will be important, visual trends will continue to evolve over time - the next 'selfie' movement is right around the corner. But these larger shifts are likely to influence the social space more generally over the next 12 months - staying on top, or ideally ahead, of these will have your brand well-placed to maximize social marketing performance.