It's that time of the year again. Time for decorating trees, wrapping and unwrapping presents, welcoming the new year and... prediction lists. That's right, you know they're coming, in the last few weeks of the year we're going to see an influx of prognostications and estimations for the year ahead, with a wide range of experts, spokespeople, bloggers and commentators considering where they think things are headed, and what we can expect as we plan for the next 12 months.
And let's be honest, alot of them will be wrong.
That's not a knock on anyone, it's just the nature of the beast - social media and technology is moving so fast, not even the most informed, in-touch individuals in the world can predict with any significant accuracy exactly what's going to happen.
But just as it's fun to analyze every detail of the latest Star Wars Episode VII trailer and try to work out what you can of the plot details, it's interesting to flex your brain muscles and try to anticipate what you think might be coming based on what we've seen and heard from the platforms and providers this year. So, I'm getting in early - here are my predictions for the world of social media and social media marketing in 2016, starting off with everyone's favorite under-achiever: Twitter.
Actually, it's probably unfair of me to label Twitter an 'under-achiever'. Twitter's actually done really well to get to where they are, and a large portion of the negative coverage they've copped this year is, I think, due to the platform being unfairly compared to Facebook. Chances are no platform is ever going to see the growth that Facebook has seen. Yet they're the leaders, so they set the benchmarks, and Twitter has sometimes come under pressure for failing to keep pace - when keeping pace with Zuck and Co is pretty much impossible. But that said, Instagram's been able to grow its audience larger than Twitter, so the capacity is there - it's not an entirely unjust call.
This year's been tough for Twitter. Growth has slowed, almost stopped in its biggest market, the US. They spent months looking for a CEO to replace Dick Costolo and eventually went with Jack Dorsey, who's now the CEO of two publicly listed companies with Square launching their IPO recently. Under Dorsey, Twitter's been working to introduce new ideas and innovations to spark interest, with things like Moments, Polls and switching the favorite 'star' to a 'heart', showing that Dorsey, despite being a founder of the company, is not afraid to shake it up and try something different.
So what else could Dorsey and Co have on their to-do list which could affect the Twitter experience?
More emoji - Twitter's experimenting with a new emoji reactions tool which would give users the option to replace the heart for 'like' on a tweet to any one of 36 emoji options to be made available. This is similar to Facebook's 'Reactions' tool bar, which does the same thing, but with fewer emoji to choose from. Why would Twitter do this? Because emoji are massively popular - even without making any further changes, emoji are widely used across Twitter, and are generating high levels of engagement. It makes sense that Twitter would look to work with this trend and facilitate behaviors which are already popular among their younger user base. Twitter's a habitual-type activity, if they can hook young users early, they can greatly expand the platform's influence and continue to increase their user base. Expect this to happen in the first half of 2016.
Enhanced Engagement - Along with the introduction of more emoji tools, you can also expect Twitter to look to other 'fun' additions to boost engagement and attract more users. While Twitter's developed into an important business tool over the years, the user base still skews young, and, as noted, it's crucial that Twitter remains a platform of priority for younger users in order to continue its growth. As such, you can expect to see more interactive features added to Twitter, bringing more novelty to the platform. Twitter polls, I would say, is along this line, and branded, event-related emoji will also continue to be introduced. I also expect Twitter to look to Snapchat-style features - Snapchat's obviously resonating with the younger audience, it makes sense Twitter would look to follow their lead in this regard. Maybe we'll see 'Lenses' style additions for Twitter video or Vine?
Highlighting Strengths - Moments is Twitter's way of exposing their audience to the benefits one of the key strengths of the platform, being where event-related discussions happen. How well Moments does this it's hard to say, but I'd expect Twitter to keep going down this path and looking to offer more options to integrate Twitter's real-time content onto other platforms and outlets. Twitter recently introduced an embeddable tweet grid - that's the sort of exposure they're very keen to see utilized. I would anticipate seeing more Moments style activations in ads and on websites.
Data Value - Twitter's also looking to highlight the value of its data. They recently removed share counts from tweet buttons for websites, which, I believe, was aimed at getting more people to use, or at least consider using, Twitter's data arm Gnip, giving Twitter a chance to showcase their data offerings. I'd expect Twitter to offer new data tools and features to help in this regard - Gnip is too expensive for most, but Twitter's losing out to a raft of third-party analytics providers. Twitter will look to supplant some of these by offering their own, official data access, though they'll need to work out the most cost-effective way to do this. There's no doubt Twitter's data is massively valuable, they just need to find a way to better communicate and monetize that, which Twitter's not done well in times past.
Customer Service - From a brand and marketing perspective, Twitter's big focus will be on showing brands the value of the platform for customer service. A significant amount of customers turn to Twitter for customer service queries because it's quick and simple. Twitter's been working to better facilitate this, removing the character limits from DMs and introducing quote tweets to help keep track of relevant conversations. The next evolution on this front might be to incorporate a more encompassing Twitter customer service platform offering, or, thinking even more broadly, Twitter could look to implement their own form of AI driven assistant service to streamline customer service interactions even further. Twitter acquired AI provider Whetlab in early 2015, so they are working on some level of AI. They have masses of data on customer queries and responses, and there's a clear audience demand for improved customer service on the platform. The next level of customer service by tweet will be a big deal for the platform.
And Google... - And, of course, the last element to consider on Twitter is Google, and whether Google - or Alphabet, more accurately - might consider purchasing Twitter. At the moment, the two companies are working together on several fronts, with Twitter providing Google with data to power search results and Twitter's small business group teaming up with Google ads on a new campaign. Google definitely sees the value in Twitter, and they're keen to bring in a social element to replace Google+ and ensure they don't lose ground to Facebook, particularly on social search. For Twitter, if they were to be acquired it would remove some of the external pressure and allow them to get on with what they do best. I think it's very possible that Google could buy Twitter at some stage in 2016. Jack Dorsey will be given some time, but if results don't improve, expect takeover speculation to ramp up mid-year.
Also, Editing Tweets? - Yeah, they'll trial this. Twitter's said they're concerned about the potential impact of giving users the ability to edit tweets on embedded content, as small edits can make a huge, contextual, difference. But you can embed Facebook posts and you can edit them, I don't think this'll pose a significant problem.
Where to begin with Facebook? The Social Network is operating on so many fronts, it's hard to know which will develop fastest and which will get the most focus. Here are some of the things you can expect from The Social Network in 2016.
Oculus - Will 2016 be the year for virtual reality? Kind of. The development of virtual reality is moving fast, and it's amazing to think that we'll soon all have our own VR headsets which can transport us to other worlds all from the comfort of our couch. But while the first Oculus headsets will come out in the very near future, the real evolution of VR will probably take some time to bed down. My estimation is that 2017 is far more likely to be the year we really start to the impact of VR on how we do things, where we'll start to see virtual reality movies and shopping options, etc. In 2016, we'll see alot more 360 degree videos on Facebook and the rise of VR gaming - expect to read alot about how VR is the future and how we all need to be buying camera belts and developing VR ideas, but it'll take some time before it becomes a transformative technology, at scale at least. But just imagine experiencing someone's live-stream from a major event in VR. It's not immediately possible, yet it's not as far off as it may seem.
Reactions - As with Twitter, Facebook's Reactions will roll out more widely, giving users access to a whole new way to communicate. The most interesting thing, for marketers, will be to see how those Reactions correlate with buying behaviors and engagements. Does the sad emoji mean people want to see less of that content? Is the 'Haha' emoji a good or bad response? The truth will be in the data - we'll eventually be able to track how each response correlates with website visits and, ultimately, conversions, and that's what truly matters from a business perspective.
Conversion Lift - Along that same line of thought, Facebook will continue to evolve their products to provide definitive ROI. As social media marketing has evolved, its contribution to the bottom line has remained a consistent query. Facebook's been working to introduce tools to clarify the connection, with tools like Conversion Lift, which matches data from Facebook ads to actual conversions, and this is where I'd expect to see Facebook put significant focus in 2016. There's no question anymore that brands should be on social, there's no doubt that it's a powerful marketing tool when used well. But exactly how powerful is what we need to clarify - Facebook will be working to introduce more tools to help marketers measure and improve their efforts, as the platform works to win more ad dollars by highlighting the effectiveness of their ad offerings.
On-Platform Content - Facebook will continue to emphasize the benefits of posting content direct to Facebook in an effort to get more people spending more time on the platform, as opposed to following links to other websites. Instant Articles will become more prominent and Facebook will also look to emphasize their on-platform blogging option - the recently re-vamped Notes - by adding new features and making it a more attractive option for content creators and brands. Facebook has the best audience reach, better mobile functionality, more interactive options - why wouldn't you just post direct to Facebook and maximize your reach? The question of whether you trust Zuckerberg and Co as your content landlords will be pushed even harder in 2016, publishers will need to work out their response.
Messenger for Brands - Messenger has become a monster network of its own, and Facebook will look to introduce more Messenger integrations for brands in the next year. Already Messenger is working on arrangements with airline KLM to provide tickets, updates and other details all through Messenger, and these are the types of experiential offerings Facebook will be looking to build into the Messenger experience. Facebook's also working on buying options for Messenger, with ad products built into that experience. These will likely be introduced over time, rather than having ads randomly thrown into the Messenger mix.
And M... - And, of course, there's 'M', Facebook's AI assistant feature. The difficultly with M, which Facebook well knows, will be scale. Right now, M is 'learning', it's developing its capabilities by answering questions and having human trainers oversee the responses and help the system choose the right ones. Even if M proves to be unscaleable, learnings and AI features developed through M will be used in other applications - you can imagine the above-mentioned KLM integration, for example, with AI capacity built in to answer all your possible queries about your flight. My prediction is that M will be scaled back from providing 'everything' to answering more specific queries, and that it'll be rolled out across some new regions in 2016, but not everywhere.
Specific Platforms - Facebook will also look to introduce content-specific platforms to the wider Facebook experience, using their deep understanding of user behaviors and intent to create more focused, audience relevant content hubs. For instance, Facebook has rolled out an early version of its own video platform, which will show you all the videos posted by or liked by your friends - so if you want to watch video content, it'll be specifically tailored to your interests based on your News Feed preferences. They're trialling a similar shopping feed. These specific platforms have huge potential and will likely get more focus as Facebook looks to highlight its strengths in knowing what you're interested in.
New Users - Facebook will also continue to gain users in new regions, thanks, in part, to internet.org and could make inroads into China, which would be a massive move for The Social Network. 2016 could be the year on this front.
Instagram was the darling of 2015, but there might be some changes in the next year. Here's what might happen:
Slowing Growth - Instagram growth will slow in 2016 due to the introduction of ads. Instagram's working hard to educate advertisers on the best performing content on the platform to avoid the intruding too much on the user experience, but inevitably, those ads are going to have an effect. Instagram's seen major growth in recent years, so a slow down wouldn't be a huge step back, but I expect the advent of promoted content on the platform will cause it to lose some sheen.
Ad Restrictions - As a result of this, Instagram will look to implement tighter controls on ads to reduce the amount of junk getting through. Facebook's done similar with their 'no more than 20% text' rules, I'd expect Instagram to implement similar rulings and restrictions as a means of instituting better quality guidelines on the platform. Instagram will also look to introduce better, more engaging ad features to help businesses make best use of the platform.
Improved discovery - One of the more interesting developments to watch will be the introduction of a new Instagram search feature which uses image recognition to find content. Facebook's made big steps in their image recognition AI, and with Pinterest introducing their own form of image-based search, it won't be long before Instagram does the same. Expect there to be questions about accuracy, but for it to improve to become a crucial element of Instagram search, which will add a whole new element for brands as they'll be able to advertise in a heap more places. For example, Instagram's image search might be able to identify what shoes someone in a shot is wearing, down to the brand. This will lead to more subtle ads and product placement - and a more difficult aspect for ad regulators to track.
Smarter Search Tools - Pinterest surprised quite a few recently when they introduced their search by image function, which enables users to select an element of any Pinned image - like, for example, a lamp - and Pinterest will use the details of the image to show you related pins based on that item. This is where Pinterest will look to enhance their experience, adding in new search features and improving their 'Guided Search' functionality to uncover more relevant, related content on the platform, which will likely lead to more eCommerce transactions.
More Buying - As Pinterest improves its search capacity, Buyable Pins will also increase in value, and you can expect Pinterest to improve their on-platform commerce options to facilitate this in 2016. Using on-platform behaviors as a guide, Pinterest will be able to build more intelligent, accurate search matches that lead people to the products they want - the better they can do this, the more Pinterest will contribute to eCommerce, so expect Pinterest to introduce more options to streamline and facilitate the buying process using the preference data and insights they have available.
Effective Data Utilization - LinkedIn doesn't tend to move fast with developments and changes, and 2016 will be no different - don't expect any wide-ranging UX updates from LinkedIn. Where LinkedIn will announce some big changes is in data utilization. Recently, at their Talent Connect 2015 event, LinkedIn detailed an update to their Recruiter platform which will enable recruiters to use LinkedIn's vast professional databanks to find better matches for their open positions, based on career history, education and any number of other data points. This is where LinkedIn can change the game on recruitment and talent acquisition - they have more career and education insights than any platform in history. This is the first time they've looked to utilize such insights in this way, and it's the first step towards providing more accurate and intelligent career matching functionality based on these factors. In 2016, we're going to hear a lot of talk about this and where this development could be headed.
Tougher Year - While Snapchat had a pretty great run in 2015, I expect the platform to face a few more challenges in 2016 - through, largely due to factors beyond their control. Earlier this year Snapchat was valued at $16 billion - a huge amount by any measure. It's pretty unlikely that valuation will be upheld, despite Snapchat's strong hold on the Millennial market, and as a result, Snapchat will get marked down and perception will shift - Snapchat never valued themselves at that price, but the market response will put the company under pressure to produce. One of Snapchat's key problems in this regard is that they may be close to reaching the limits of non-intrusive monetization - or at least, monetization at a reasonable enough scale to contribute significantly enough to boost their value. Snapchat has a heap of revenue generation potential - and I think we'll see the platform reduce the price of their ad products and improve their analytics in order to build a more sustainable business - but it will be tough to match the high expectations of the market.
Lead by Innovation - That said, I do expect to see Snapchat continue to lead the way through innovation and adding in new products and user tools. How much those tools can earn the company will be a persistent query - maintaining engagement is key, of course, and will remain an important part of Snapchat's development, but revenue potential will become more of a focus.
A Challenger? - This is totally a 'gut feel' prediction, but I also think Snapchat's going to be challenged by some cool, new app on the market in the next year. Now, what that app is and how it will challenge Snapchat, I have no idea, but I'm basing my guess on some level of consideration. First, Snapchat's still the cool app, maintaining a level of popularity among younger (and notoriously fickle) users with new features and additions that are fun and engaging to use. But that audience is also most susceptible to the next 'shiny thing' - while other networks have well-established themselves and their utility, Snapchat's audience seems most likely to be 'distractable' - as I say, totally a hunch, but that's one element of my estimation. The other consideration? So far, social media has moved in four year, cyclical shifts. It's a small sample size, but... Facebook was founded in 2004. Twitter, Facebook's biggest disruptor at the time, started in 2006 but started to gain ground in trend with social media more widely by about 2008. Pinterest and Instagram came in 2010, four years after Twitter, while Snapchat came in 2011, but gained significant ground in 2014. It's a pretty loose theory, but basically no significant disruptor has emerged since 2012, and 2016 would be four years. Maybe it's time for a new player?
While live-streaming incorporates various apps and platforms, it kinda' needs its own breakout, as it's gained a heap of attention this year.
Meerkat Gone? - Chris Strub asked me a while ago if I think Meerkat will survive. No, I don't. That's not through any fault of their own, Meerkat's delivered a great product and has innovated with several market-leading features, but Periscope now dominates the market, and newer players like Blab, and now FireTalk, are gaining ground, taking more and more away from Meerkat. In 2016, we'll likely bid farewell to the Kat.
The Looming Giant - Periscope will continue to grow slowly, Blab will continue to gain audience, but all of this won't matter if Facebook decides to come to the party. For live-streaming to grow, they need more audience, and to get more audience, they need more consistent, quality content. And while 'quality' is an objective term, in this sense, I mean 'quality' as in content of mass appeal, material that lots of people will come to see. The problem with opening the platform up to everyone is you get a lot of random and low quality stuff, niche content that doesn't appeal to a big audience. This is the key problem with Periscope's new Apple TV app - you can skip through Periscope streams while you're watching from your couch, but the amount of small audience focused content on the platform reduces the viewer experience. Facebook knows this a problem, in terms of wider take-up and consumption. FireTalk, a newer live-streaming app, has recognized this and has made partnerships with content providers to secure more highly viewed content. Where Facebook's in a strong position is if they can get enough celebrities and high-profile people posting live content - people with large audiences who'll tune in to watch - Facebook could turn their live-streaming option, 'Live', into it's own app or tab similar to Periscope, but their audience appeal and viewership would be considerably higher. If Facebook then decided to open up their live-streaming option to all users, the potential reach of your content would also be considerably higher, as these high profile users would be bringing viewers to the platform, enabling you to potentially reach more eyeballs. Right now, I suspect Facebook's determining if there's enough return on investment in live-streaming before they decide to go in, but you can bet, if streaming does get bigger, that Facebook, or even YouTube, will come in with a bigger, better offering.
Red Will Work - YouTube Red, which is being viewed with some skepticism, will work and will deliver great benefits to YouTube creators. It puts YouTube more in line with Netflix or other streaming providers, and YouTube will need to maintain quality levels to uphold viewership and growth, but additions like being able to watch YouTube content offline are great and will help sell the offering.
Protection - As part of their ongoing battle with Facebook, YouTube will introduce more tools to help protect creators from 'freebooting' and copyright infringement. How it'll work, I'm not 100% sure, but YouTube will work to help creators in an effort to keep them better affiliated with the platform. Also, there'll be no definitive leader in the online video space by the end of 2016.
Ad-Blocking will remain a major point of discussion throughout 2016, but by the end of the year we'll see progress and stability on this front. In the end, the providers will come together to stop ad-blockers, as they'll only hurt themselves by allowing them in. While there will always be options and tools available to the more savvy users, the combined power of Google, Facebook and Apple could come together to restrict access to most ad-blocking apps, making them harder to use. I suspect, at some point, this will happen, and while ad blockers will be around, their impact on business won't grow significantly as time goes on.
So those are my predictions for 2016 - nothing too crazy, more of a balanced, cause-and-effect type approach, with a couple of total guesses thrown in. And of course, there'll be major changes that we can't foresee, things that come in that could change everything. But if had to guess, these are what I'd go with.
Main image via Quka / Shutterstock