As we wind down the year and look back on 2016, we find that social media is on everyone’s lips - but perhaps for different reasons than we social media marketers would imagine or prefer. The discussion happening around social media at the end of the year is about responsibility and control.
The outcome of the EU Referendum in Great Britain and the American presidential election was no doubt influenced to a greater or lesser degree by social media - from President-elect Donald J. Trump’s insistence on using Twitter as an unfiltered direct communication channel with his followers and critics, to the soul-searching happening in some quarters about the role social media played in serving up news stories to the American electorate.
Social media is also being mentioned frequently as the major news and polling organisations come to grip with the fact that their predictions did not see a Trump victory as a serious possibility - while those monitoring the two campaigns on social media saw how much support the Trump campaign was able to muster, and how much Trump’s controversies galvanised his supporters rather than hindered his path to the presidency.
In the world of social media marketing technology, there’s been plenty of talk and soul-searching about social media, too, though in quite a different way.
There is no question that the platforms are maturing both in terms of business models and technology. They are behaving much more like traditional media in their approach to advertising - paid media is becoming the prevalent model.
In a world of abundance, of distraction and entertainment all available on a supercomputer that everyone carries in their pocket - aka the smartphone - user attention becomes the new currency of success. And companies that are active on social media (that is nearly everyone these days) need new forms of support to make this powerful marketing channel work for them. Just thinking about the scale, Facebook alone has 26% of all attention in the US through its platforms and audience network.
Since social media has such a large share of online activity, companies are seeing social media as an important component of their digital marketing and wider marketing strategies. And it’s not limited to just marketing. Customer service, human resources (recruitment and employer branding) and other departments are taking a stake in social, too. This is helping to increase social media’s importance in the organisation and spur hiring.
According to research by McKinley Marketing Partners, digital marketing expertise has been leading the pack in 2016 for the most desired skill sets. McKinley found 90% of all marketing roles required some digital marketing experience or analytical skills. Social media is a must-have nowadays, and not a nice-to-have. I predict it’s going to become a business-critical function within the next year or shortly afterwards.
We have been seeing the social media channels themselves mature in terms of the kind of advertising technology they offer. The targeting, flexibility, and media buying options available from major social channels is allowing advertisers to target and reach users with unsurpassed precision.
The range of advertising options on major social channels is playing a pivotal role in helping to make 2017 a watershed year for marketing, when many expect that digital advertising spend will finally surpass TV ad spend for the first time.
This shift will be driven to a large degree by the massive amounts of money flowing into social media channels. This influx is driven largely by a significant lag between the share of time users spend on social media and the overall share of budgets invested in this channel.
As we look ahead to 2017, there are a few pivotal changes we expect to happen to take the industry forward and demonstrate how social media is, and will be, truly critical to businesses.
Leveraging data to make the next best action with data-driven recommendations
On social media more than on any other marketing channel, data has been part of the equation from day one - and understanding your data is mission critical to both improving your performance and delivering greater value from social channels. In 2016, companies have their own platform data in one tool, competitor data in another, ads data in a third, customer service data in a fourth, and so on.
Data silos will need to be broken down and connected to one hub in order to create one cohesive ecosystem of data. Only then will it be possible to tap into all of the relevant data and move past time-consuming manual analysis.
With a single ecosystem of data, powerful algorithms crafted by data scientists will pull all of your data together on their own, analysing it on the fly to present companies with tailored recommendations for what is the next best action they should take.
Tools to make life easier for customers
Following on from the point above, it will be essential to create a single ecosystem of all of your data in one place. That means moving from using 3 to 5 tools to building one single robust, powerful tool. In 2017 we will see a continuing trend of tools moving towards a more open and comprehensive offer - combining the services of the most important disciplines for the clients and connecting through APIs.
In addition thereto, we will see the now-fragmented industry continue being consolidated by larger players who ‘tuck in’ many of the smaller, niche players.
For the client, this makes a lot of sense. Only then will they be able to move past manual analysis of various data outputs (listening, competitor analysis, ads, etc.), decreasing both the amount of work they have to do and the number of tools they have to use to do it - working far more effectively and efficiently.
We see a coming reduction in the number of tools but an increase in staff resources, as cross-product collaboration will further drive this consolidation.
Automation will become a must-have feature of any consolidated tool
As these new systems are able to have a comprehensive view of all of your relevant data and present analysis and recommendations from that data much faster, these machine learning algorithms will only continue to get smarter and smarter as you ‘teach’ them by selecting the best among the best options they present you with. The next step is simply automation. It’s not too far off, and it’s not too hard to fathom.
Having said that, everything starts with a clear definition of goals: What do I want to reach with my investments and how do I measure it? Only with clear goal definition and constant measurement, can we allow algorithms to do their magic. In 2017 we will see a strong evolution of the ‘science/knowledge’ of how to successfully maximise social ROI.
Once goals are defined, use cases can be programmed. Imagine that you create a performance threshold for automatic post promotion of your organic posts on Facebook: any organic post that performs better than y in the first 6 hours after you post it should be promoted with a budget of x. Pretty simple, no? The instructions you give can be as simple or complicated as you like.
In 2017 content will remain king. Many people think that with the proliferation of paid media model, the important of content creation goes away. It might be counter-intuitive, but content quality has never been more important. Why? Platform algorithms respond to content quality as they want to serve content to the user that is not perceived as irritating or a distraction.
So the price that you have to pay to place your content in front of your audience depends on how well the content actually resonates with the audience - culminating in a simple formula: good content has much higher reach and lower price than content that is not appreciated by the audience. This is a fundamental change and marketeers will need to adapt.
Generating and sharing content across different platforms and audiences is becoming key to success. This cries for machines to take care of the heavy lifting of timing, audience, budgets so that marketers can focus on generating great content for their customers.
It’s not too difficult to imagine automation taking over many of the routine tasks social media teams perform today - from customer care to content creation, to ads placement and post promotion. In fact, it’s already happening and so there are engines / algorithms that are driving hundreds of thousands of different content variations and optimise what works best. Automation is going to save you significant time, and it will only get better as you use it.
The social revolution we have seen in 2016 - from the rapid growth in live streaming and video, to the unprecedented social groundswell we saw in the US elections - clearly demonstrates that social is a more and more pervasive medium in our lives.
I don’t need a crystal ball to tell you that in 2017 social media is only going to become more important and influential, both in society and for marketers like yourselves. The key to taking advantage of this will be in the tools. Businesses will invest more and more in social and as such the tools they use will need to be smarter, more integrated and easier to use.
The writer is Robert Lang (pictured), Socialbakers CEO.