What will 2015 hold for social media? We spoke with industry thought leaders about what's emerging, continuing, and fading out for next year.
One of social media's most defining characteristics is its constant rate of change. Just a few years ago, it was seen as a novel time waster, these days businesses are recognizing the evolving relationship between social and business goals.
In 2015, social media marketers will be dealing with many of the same problems and pitfalls as they have in the past, down to finding the right way to think about marketing opportunities on social media, which are different from any other medium marketers and advertisers have dealt with before.
"This is where marketing and social and the future of all of this stuff really have a tremendous opportunity to take a step back and understand what it is we're trying to do in the first place, and how we can add value in order to take value from each of these platforms," said Brian Solis, principal analyst for Altimeter Group.
He mentioned a couple notable small business, Saddleback Leather Co. and Giant Nerd, that have realized that social marketing wasn't just about using familiar practices -- coming up with a clever ad campaign or slogan -- and instead thought about social marketing as a bigger community play. It's about everything from service to building relationships.
"The concept of marketing becomes something beyond a department, it becomes a way of relationship building and customer service that introduces all kinds of new opportunities -- increased satisfaction, NPS scores, and stuff that marketing just wanted associated with in the past," he said.
In terms of trajectory, there are more than a few trends emerging and developing that marketers will want to consider moving as they strategize for next year.
Good to great: Smarter, more personalized, optimized social
Gartner analyst Jennifer Polk said that 2015 will be a year for optimization -- brands spending less time investing in new platforms or developing content, and more time looking at metrics to sort out what's working and what's not.
What has been working is personalization. Social media companies typically operate with user IDs. Users log into their service, often stay logged in, and frequently across devices.
"As a result, advertisers are increasingly moving toward an approach of targeting, messaging, and measuring people, versus making advertising decisions based on a publication that you look at," said Max Kalehoff, senior vice president of marketing for SocialCode.
He also talked about how this personalization will occur across devices. An advertiser will strategize where and how to reach a user, whether it's on a tablet or desktop.
"If an advertiser knows you became aware of them on a tablet, when that advertiser sees you on your desktop, where you're more likely to purchase and make a transaction, they'll send you a different message that's more relevant," he said.
Advertisers will route their dollars across platforms, across multiple objectives, whether it's creating brand awareness or brand engagement, or getting users to make an actual transaction.
Kalehoff also said that because most social revolves around mobile, the networks are faced with the challenge of effectively using real time data about customers.
"It's this powerful firehose of customer data and data exhaust that are really forcing a new model of marketing whereby advertisers need to derive insight and make smarter decisions all the time, in a continuous loop," he said.
The "spray and pray" approach isn't really viable anymore. Advertisers will see less success just coming up with a giant target (think of a TV commercial -- it'll be completely lost on a certain percentage of viewers).
A component of efforts to optimize and personalize social is tracking the performance of those initiatives. Polk said, as has been true, it's not enough to have fans. Social media marketers have to look at the way in which what they do works towards business goals like conversion, email acquisition, or retention. Using the right metrics will be even more important.
More money will flow into social media
Kalehoff expects the money to continue to pour in for social media companies in 2015. Brands know that social media and connected media is where people are spending their time, so it makes sense to target folks where they are. He cited an example from this past summer during the World Cup. Several of SocialCode's clients spent several million dollars promoting their brands around the World Cup. One client in particular, devoted $20 million to it.
"That's TV scale," he said. "If you look at the advertisers around the Super Bowl, there might be one that comes close to that level of spend around the Super Bowl."
He sees this as a tipping point where there's a huge amount of scale, because of the recognition that people are on social, and that the reach is global.
"Facebook alone, with 1.3 billion people, they have more scale than all the TV networks combined," Kalehoff said.
As a result, that money will make these companies stronger, and stronger companies means that they have the resources to innovate, he said.
Social media companies will become more than just networks
Looking at the big players in social, they developed not just websites and apps that many people visit and use in everyday life, but infrastures that support messaging, targeting, and measuring users, Kalehoff said.
Their identities are shifting from merely networks, to digital platforms.
"The gold example of that is Facebook. Facebook has a website, which is a social network, they have apps connected to it, but Facebook is also enabling advertisers to use its social graph, its profile database to reach people in other places," Kalehoff said.
Recently, Facebook purchased ad server Atlas so that advertisers can target people based on what they know about them and their Facebook profile, and reach them in places outside of Facebook.
"Social media is almost a red herring that enables them to become powerful infrastructure for marketing," Kalehoff said.
Continued converged media
"We've seen in the last two years an increase in the amount of social advertising... social networking sites are getting more diverse in terms of the different ad products that they offer," Polk said.
And newer platforms like Snapchat are coming out with their own ad products at a faster rate. Polk noted that it took Pinterest a year to offer advertising. Snapchat, for example, caught on more quickly.
This in turn, drives the necessity for advertisers to pursue paid options on these platforms.
"Facebook has essentially said that content without advertising has a significantly lower chance of being seen, so if you want to make sure your content is being seen on sites like Facebook, it's becoming table stakes," Polk said. Marketers also have to make sure content is being seen by the right people at the right time.
Amber Osborne, CMO for social media management tool MeshFire, said convergence could play out in a different way. For 2015, she sees more integration into live events, including television.
When NBC aired their live version of the Sound of Music last December, Nielsen's SocialGuide showed nearly a half million tweets during the broadcast. It blasted them to the top spot for tweeted shows that week. And this year, NBC's banked on similar viral success with another live, televised musical, Peter Pan.
In a similar sense, Solis talked about the partnership between HP and Vine where HP made a commercial this fall featuring Vine videos. In a sense, it's a matter or recognizing a new opportunity.
"When a consumer sees the HP commercial with their favorite Vine star on television, it actually connects with them in a way that's introducing social to a traditional opportunity that was really not there before," he said.
Therein lies an opportunity to combine something like Vine that's an everyday stop for people, with a more traditional advertising format.
"One of the trends that I perceive is for us to make more mistakes before we really start to realize that we have to rethink everything from 'what does success look like' in order to reinvent metrics and then in order to reinvent that strategies that drive those metrics," Solis said.
As Kalehoff said, for as much as social media has evolved, we're still very much in the "second inning."
For years, mobile has been viewed as the second screen, but Solis said that in 2015, marketers will have to pay more attention to what a mobile-first experience, or even a mobile-only experience should look like for audiences. That means independent strategies for independent devices. And what's more, he thinks this trend will carry on through the next several years to come.
Visual brand language
With the popularity of apps like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, and Pinterest, it's important to note the role that visual elements play in social.
Forrester reported in April that Instagram alone had a 4.2% engagement rate compared to Facebook's 0.07% and Twitter's 0.03%.
Posts with images, typically do better than posts without.
"Being consistent in the way you create content will help maintain a strong brand online," he said.
Some of the more successful platforms to watch in 2015 might be the ones that revolved around imagery, messaging, and video.
For example, while Pinterest has been around for several years, its scale has become enormous, Kalehoff said. Because it's basically image-based search, it's rich with user intent, which lends itself to the kind of marketing Kalehoff discussed.
"We believe they're sitting on something really valuable," he said. While mainstream brands are already on Pinterest, Kalehoff thinks that in 2015, we're likely to see the platform evolve its business model and gain more traction.
As far as messaging apps, apps like Kick, Snapchat, What's App, etc., they also have large user bases and will explore new marketing opportunities. Though, it's more a matter of continued evolution than hitting one distinct point of maturation.
"Our customers are all marketers and we know they're all very, very interested in these possible emergent breakouts," Kalehoff said.