Five social media macro-trends all businesses need to know about

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New algorithms. New ad tools. Brand new ways to watch video. Fuelled by intense competition between networks to capture advertising dollars, social media tools and tactics continue to evolve at a breakneck pace. For companies already fatigued by the onslaught of new technology and strategies, the rate of change can be overwhelming. But for those that can keep up, social media promises bigger audiences and more return on investment than ever.

Here’s a glimpse at five trends currently reshaping how businesses use social media (and how to stay ahead of the curve):

Goodbye free reach on social media (for real). For years, companies’ organic reach on Facebook (the percentage of their followers who see company updates that aren’t “boosted” with ad money) has been dwindling, dipping as low as 2 per cent. The dust has yet to settle on the impact of Facebook’s big decision in January to revamp its news feed—prioritising “meaningful interactions,” especially updates from friends and family, while limiting content from brands and publishers. But the writing is on the wall: for companies, “free” access to users is getting harder and harder to come by.

Unless, of course, you pony up. These latest developments are a final, firm reminder that Facebook is now a paid platform for companies, little different in this respect from traditional pay-to-play advertising channels like TV, radio, print or billboards. To reach an audience via the News Feed—any audience, at all—it’s going to cost you. Considering that 51 per cent of companies currently struggle with lack of a social media ads budget, this may prove a harsh wake-up call in 2018. One silver lining: Facebook has pioneered some of the most precision ad targeting tools ever. (Wanna pitch to twenty-something soccer fans living in Phoenix who work in retail and like dogs? No problem.) So, at the least, ad money promises to be well spent.

Video reigns supreme (but going viral doesn’t mean much). It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that video is the future, not just of social media but of the Internet in general. In 2018, Cisco forecasts that 82 per cent of all consumer Internet traffic will be video. Live and recorded video and video ads increasingly dominate our feeds across Facebook and Snapchat, and are surging on Instagram, Twitter and even LinkedIn. Nearly half of businesses are already implementing social videos, with another 26 per cent planning to implement in 2018.

Just one problem. In the race to earn video views and clicks, too many companies are missing the bigger picture. Ultimately, who’s watching your videos—and what they do after they watch—is far more important than how many people are watching. Going “viral” doesn’t mean much, after all, if you’re not reaching actual customers who want to buy something. One antidote this fixation on video vanity metrics: analytics tools that track conversions and highlight how video actually leads to the acquisition and retention of customers.

Brands shift resources to Instagram. Instagram added 100 million users in just five months last year—rivaling Facebook’s growth numbers—and now boasts 800 million monthly users. With an audience that skews young (a majority of users are reported to be under 30) and is also fiercely brand conscious (53 per cent of users follow brands), Instagram is quietly emerging as the new home for companies seeking an impact on social media—especially in the wake of Facebook’s decision to revamp its algorithm.

For businesses seeking to stay ahead of the social curve, doubling down on Instagram makes sense for multiple reasons. A recent study from SocialBakers showed that brands are getting three times more engagement on Instagram, when compared apples-to-apples with Facebook. Instagram has aggressively embraced other networks’ features, seamlessly co-opting “Stories” from Snapchat, as well as live video, private messaging and even filters. And Instagram’s new Graph API means that business users can now easily schedule multiple posts and monitor engagement.

Here comes the era “millisecond marketing” (ready or not). Lots of basic social media tasks—from scheduling the optimal time to post something to finding catchy content to share—have already been automated. But expect to see AI and related tools now play an ever more important behind-the-scenes role in sharing messages. Case in point—emerging technology that enables testing hundreds of social media ad variations, simultaneously. Rather than having to “guess” which images and text will get the most clicks, users can automate campaigns so that the best-performing posts are instantly boosted to the biggest audience.

This is part of a larger transformation that’s seeing the cycle for creating, distributing and optimising social media radically compressed. Inside the latest AI-powered tools, ever more complex algorithms are calling the shots and removing the guesswork about what marketing materials will lead to what results—and they’re doing so nearly in real time. For better or worse, what once took creative teams days (or weeks), is now being accomplished in a matter of milliseconds. Looking forward, these tools should enable companies to reach bigger audiences with better targeted and more personalised messages than ever before—fulfilling the dream of truly “scalable” social media, provided you can keep up.

Business software clouds boost their social media game (finally). Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn for $26 billion set off a quiet arms race among big software sellers to integrate and upgrade social media features. Microsoft has already pushed ahead with integrating LinkedIn’s massive professional listings into Outlook and Dynamics 365, meaning businesses can instantly tap into social data about prospects and customers to personalise emails and messages.

Not to be outdone, Adobe, Salesforce, IBM and Oracle have all embarked on a flurry of purchases and integrations to improve their marketing clouds with social media features. Underlying these improvements is a dawning understanding that social media provides businesses with a rich, real-time source of customer information—exactly the kind of data needed to power AI engines, like Salesforce’s Einstein, that lie at the heart of these clouds. Ultimately, business users stand to be the big beneficiary of this software arms race, as marketing platforms find better ways to weave social media data and social media tools into their offerings.

Ryan Holmes, CEO at Hootsuite
Image Credit: iStock