Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 Leadership stories of 2015. See the full list here.
There are now more than 2 billion active social media users worldwide, and that sum is growing at a brisk clip of 25% each year. Businesses haven't failed to noticed the runaway expansion of social media. Nine out of 10 U.S. companies are now active on social networks. The same overwhelming percentage of those are reporting seeing increased exposure as a result, and more than half say their social media efforts are boosting sales.
So what’s in store for 2016? Here’s a look at five trends that appear set to change how businesses use social media in the year ahead.
For years now, we’ve been promised that a new generation of internal social networks—for use within companies by employees—will put a swift death to email. No more hunting through your inbox for information. No more endless reply-all threads from hell. And yet email has lumbered on.
But maybe not for long. Slack has proven a game-changer. Its intuitive interface, built around themed chat rooms and searchable archives, has propelled it to more than 1.25 million active business users in just two years' time, from the team at NASA to the team at your local coffee shop. And Slack already has a sizable cohort of competitors going after a piece of the pie.
Meanwhile, Facebook at Work is currently in trial mode with select companies, and it may soon be opened up to general use in the coming year as a freemium tool. Considering that much of the world is already on Facebook, expect adoption to soar once Facebook at Work finally becomes available.
Nearly 80% of businesses now have a dedicated social media team. But many still struggle to reach an audience. 2016 will see companies turn increasingly to an underused resource in the effort to get the word out: their own employees. Employee social advocacy programs, which encourage staff to share updates about the business on their own social media accounts, have grown by 191% since 2013 and are due to take off in the year ahead.
When done right, the payoff can be impressive; companies not only expand their social media reach dramatically, they also get measurably better results. Content shared by employees, by one recent measure, gets eight times more engagement than content shared by brand channels. A new generation of tools to facilitate employee sharing (including one we developed here at Hootsuite) should help this approach go mainstream in 2016.
Here’s an eye-opener: There are nearly 4 billion global active users of messaging apps, from WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to WeChat and Kik. In fact, the top five apps in the world in terms of frequency of use are all messaging apps. Users are popping them open more often than even Facebook or Instagram.
What does this mean for companies? So far, not much. Messaging remains largely in the murky realm that's come to be known as "dark social." Right now, it’s kind of a mystery as to what type of content is being shared among messaging app users and how that affects web traffic and "conversions." Intrepid brands—from Hellman’s to Absolut to HBO—are testing the waters, but by and large messaging’s huge potential remains untapped.
Still, 2016 may well be the year that analytics and insights become more readily available, allowing companies to develop full-fledged strategies around social messaging. All the major social platforms now have messaging components, and it’s only a matter of time before they figure out how to make that data available to businesses for marketing purposes.
In the meantime, messaging is already emerging as a key channel for one-on-one social customer service. Twitter lifted its 140-character limit and follow requirements on direct messages earlier this year with customer support in mind, and Facebook Messenger has been busy piloting customer service features of its own.
Haven’t noticed the exponential increase in ads on your social media feeds? That probably means they’re working. In contrast to old-fashioned banner ads, the new generation of "native" social media ads like sponsored posts on Facebook and Instagram and promoted tweets on Twitter look and act a lot like normal updates from friends and followers. They’re also targeted with increasing precision. Advertisers are now able to drill down not just by age and gender, but by interests, location, company affiliation, role, and more. So the ads you get are probably the ones you actually want to see.
For all those reasons, companies ramped up social media advertising in 2015, with spending increasing 33.5% to nearly $24 billion—a figure that's all the more impressive, because just a few years ago that number was $0.
Expect to see those trends continue. By 2017, social media ads may account for a full 16% of all digital ad spend globally. Fueling the growth is a host of new tools that let small businesses design and pay for social media ads in a few clicks, simplifying a process that was once the exclusive domain of high-priced media buyers.
In case you missed it, social video is exploding. Last year, Facebook more than doubled its daily video views to 8 billion, reportedly overtaking YouTube. Twitter launched native video of its own in 2015, while Snapchat now reports 6 billion daily video views in its own right. In total, adult users now consume a total of 66 minutes of online video each and every day.
Expect that total to climb to lofty new heights in 2016. Facebook is preparing to roll out features like Suggested Videos and maybe even a dedicated video feed, and Snapchat Stories are growing ever more popular and feature-rich. Little wonder that 70% of companies now say video is the most effective tool in their online marketing belts, and two out of three businesses expect it to dominate their strategy going forward.
Despite these stats, many companies are still reluctant to get into the social video game for one reason: The cost of professionally shot video can be prohibitively expensive. But alternatives are multiplying. Shorter formats, from eight-second Vines to 15-second Instagram videos, not to mention streaming video like Periscope and Meerkat, offer a hassle-free entrance into the arena. Meanwhile, crowdsourcing campaigns and tools are gaining popularity as a way for companies to create and share video content.
The biggest trend of all for 2016, however, hardly requires a crystal ball to see. Around the world, social media is quickly becoming standard operating procedure at companies. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other networks have fundamentally changed how companies reach and interact with customers, offer products and services, communicate with employees, and—in a nutshell—do business. And that wave hasn’t even begun to crest.
Slideshow Credits: 02 / Photo: Flickr user Alper Çuğun; 03 / Photo: Flickr user Ian T. McFarland; 04 / Photo: Flickr user Jan Persiel; 05 / Photo: Flickr user Japanexperterna.se; 06 / Photo: Flickr user Anthony Quintano;