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How will social technologies impact business in 2016?

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11th Jan 2016
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It's time for a little social business future gazing, examining the changes in the world of social media and how they’ll impact the setup of large organisations in 2016.

This article is aimed at digital, brand and social media managers, and it's based on our experience of sitting in the client’s seat, behind the agency desk, and now being independent of both.

We talk about social business rather than social media, to emphasise the point that social technologies are increasingly impacting the people and processes at the heart of organisations.

The client-agency model for managing social media is changing - social media is coming home

Let's consider three areas of notable development in the last year or two.

First off, the internal interest in social media has continued to accelerate, while social media technologies and platforms have continued to mature. We’re seeing greater stability and usability. Social media (paid) advertising is a clear example, as the process to “promote” content has simplified and been further integrated into mass-market social media management tools. This is enabling marketers and customer service teams in particular, to develop robust, repeatable processes they can track over time. 

Finally, we’re now also actually seeing the uptake of internal collaboration tools (like Slack and Yammer) in large organisations, as cloud-based services gain momentum and are increasingly considered business-as-usual. 

So, we have greater visibility amongst senior stakeholders, more repeatable processes and streamlined internal communication. The future’s bright! But what of the impact?

We believe the proportion of social media activity managed in-house will significantly increase – if not by the end of 2016 then shortly afterwards. Three factors will drive this…

  1. More of the “heavy lifting” roles will flip in-house, as standardised processes increase. This will be assisted by a natural increase in the pool of employees with experience of working with social technologies. A colleague’s ability to work on activities that play out across social media will fast become an assumed part of brand, marketing and/or customer experience job descriptions.
  2. The sophistication of hardware in the client’s hand and the nature of platforms like Periscope will continue to make it easier for anyone to create content. It will be of sufficient quality, but more importantly capture the moment and benefit from being timely.
  3. Finally let’s consider the ever-growing need for content creators and distributors to collaborate closely. This is by no means a new concept, but the impact on client-agency team structures will increase. Joint agency teams are common these days, so we see the logical step of agency individuals sitting client-side in an implanted, advisory type role.

While external support will remain key, the increased level of internal focus and maturing of technologies will lead to the agency’s “role and responsibilities” looking a lot different in 2016.

Real-time platforms (like Periscope) are impacting the way businesses plan their content creation

Brands are becoming aware that they need to be more nimble in how they publish content on social media. The benchmark is rising and in 2016 this will accelerate further:

  • Audience demand: with social networks awash with content, brands must produce ever more exclusive snippets to engage their audiences. Burberry, for example, posted live updates (via Snapchat) of the finishing touches to their 2015 London Fashion collection.
  • Technology: platforms like Periscope are reducing the lead-time from creating content to publishing it… to zero.

So what are the implications for how businesses organise themselves in the future?

Ok, not everyone is going to be streaming content 24/7, but the need to rethink the planning process is very real. The crux of the matter comes down to planning the creation of content. We see the implications being:

  • The proportion of content created “pre-campaign” will drop significantly, perhaps as low as 20%. For agencies and social media managers the majority of what they develop will be during the campaign itself, influenced by the audience’s reaction and breaking events. There will be an increase in the number (but reduction in duration) of meetings between teams to make this all happen.
  • The likes of WhatsApp Groups becoming standard tools for quick collaboration.
  • Brands who look to test the water with live broadcasts will find themselves needing to create new types of “issue scenario” and contingency plan. Never work with children or animals, right?
  • Activity plans will need to be more carefully shared with supporting teams. Let’s say a Snapchat story performs fantastically well, and customer support gets inundated with product requests and demos… were they prepared?

Going the whole hog and not actually producing *any* content ahead of time is both impractical and unnecessary. However, those brands which get the right mix, organise themselves efficiently and embrace the opportunity will steal a march.

Rise of the social media rockstar

Social technologies have arguably had more impact on customer service than any other business function. We think 2016 will be the year those working on the front-line aren’t just seen as valuable employees, but business rock stars.

As agents engage in a public dialogue with consumers, everything they say has a potential marketing impact, and in some cases a real opportunity to drive sales. 

Over a short period of time this has led to the humble “customer service agent” being expected to wear multiple hats and demonstrate a huge array of skills, notably:

  • Creativity: understand and reflect popular culture, be aware of what’s happening across the business;
  • Empathy: really understand the customer’s issue to confidently have a non-scripted conversation with them in public;
  • Funny: disperse an awkward situation, or help generate brand warmth with a well structured, appropriate and amusing reply;
  • Prioritise: quickly identify when a social media mention has the potential to go nuclear (maybe the customer is highly influential online or the subject matter is particularly sensitive);
  • Attention to detail: every hashtag and URL is in the public domain for anyone to throw stones at;
  • Getting things done around here: who in the business can help answer a customer query in a timely manner.

That’s a lot of skills, and requires agents to combine explicit training on using management tools and internal policies but also, crucially, on the job experience. Every day involves tough judgement calls, which draw on tacit knowledge that can’t be neatly packaged up into a manual. Agents will hopefully build up a rapport with customers - for many businesses (particularly those which are online-only) they may be the only employees whose name the customer knows.

The nature of social media, and the myriad queries that consumers submit, also means that service agents develop a deep understanding of both the business and the wider sector in which they work. As the role of differentiation through customer service grows in many industries, so the importance of these agents will continue to rise.

They’re not the kind of people you want walking out of the door. Especially to a competitor.

And that means organisations must recognise the amazing role these agents play and take action accordingly. 

In 2016 the social customer service agent’s value will be greater than ever before and their unique position in the business should make them absolute rock stars. As more organisations recognise this, the ones that don’t may find their stars looking to sign to a different label.

Learning  how often to post on social media - and taking pointers from local radio

As “content marketing” grows in popularity, we’re seeing more brands publishing more content online, with social networks a key means of sharing it. 

Each social network has its only nuances, but when I look at the way many brands create their social content schedules, the reality of how consumers use social networks can get lost. 

Twitter is a prime example. Most brands publish more frequently on Twitter than Facebook or Instagram. However, in practice this often still only means 4 or 5 tweets per day (I base this on my experience over the last 12 months of reviewing and assessing tens of branded Twitter accounts). The trouble is, even if these brave, young tweets are published when the potential audience is most active online, the chances of them being seen is shrinking. Those poor tweets.

For inspiration, in step the humble local radio station. If you listen to local radio (or any station for that matter) for a whole day, you’ll hear the same news stories featured every hour.

However, there’s usually a slight twist for each bulletin, perhaps using a different quote. This enables the people who dip in and out to have a good chance of catching the story, and those listening all day to get a slightly different perspective each time (and not get too bored).

This approach is becoming increasingly common practice for major publishers on Twitter, such as Marketing Magazine. Head to the UK account, scroll down to see the last 24 hours worth of tweets and note how the content repeats. I’d personally like to see a bit more variation in each tweet, to keep it fresh for readers, but you get the idea.

In 2016 brands will need to put their approach to content distribution under an even bigger microscope. The importance of using targeted paid media (for all platforms discussed in this post) and balancing frequency with originality (Instagram, Twitter) will only increase. And we haven’t even touched on the whole different kettle that is Snapchat…

The landscape of social media management tools is changing

The journey of SMMTs over the last decade has been, let’s say, a hectic one. As the major social networks have grown, hundreds of tools have been developed to help enterprises manage a range of tasks such as publishing content, paying to amplify that content and listening to the audience. For social media managers this has meant a moving feast of options, configurations and contract negotiations. The level of complexity has also been growing because: 

  • As more teams across the business use social media (customer insights, new product development, profit protection etc), owning and managing the SMMT vendor relationship is a much wider responsibility.
  • As the business wants to do more with social media, tools become more sophisticated and expensive – making the procurement process more complex.
  • Relationships with SMMT vendors are becoming increasingly strategic, often with extended contracts/subscription periods… which means brands are locked into the decisions they make for longer.

However, the biggest dilemma has often been whether to select a tool that supports all the tasks required, or plump for multiple “single-focus” tools.

That’s the environment, decisions and challenges social media managers are facing, but why will 2016 be so significant? Here’s why:

  1. Integrating data from social media with existing customer data (aka social CRM) will become increasingly important for brands looking to enhance how they target audiences (and what with). In 2016 this will become a far more common activity.
  2. As organisations become more engaged in the opportunity of social media, a wider range of networks will be recognised as having strategic benefit. Are the likes of Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WeChat included on your vendor’s 2016 development roadmap?
  3. The little-talked-about launch of Facebook Topic Data is opening up vast swathes of Facebook data for analysis for the first time. Does your vendor have access, and if so how will they offer up this service?

In conclusion, selecting SMMTs remains a case of “horses for courses”, with certain vendors and configurations best suited for certain businesses. The trick will continue to be selecting a vendor which can balance the needs of the core social team (publishing, listening and responding etc) with the growing interests and demands of the wider organisation – such as delivering support via Facebook Messenger or building a deeper social CRM capability.

Time to reasses how activity is measured

Measurement is one of the most talked about aspects of social media in large organisations. Most brands have moved beyond measuring “likes” and “followers”, and instead look at metrics such as engagement rate and referrals. “Clickthrough rates” have become a tangible measure that the wider organisation can compare with other online marketing activity.

However, as it likes to do, the social media animal is stirring and seeing a new type of behaviour… that of users remaining within the confines of the social network rather than clicking out to other sites.

This obviously asks questions about how much effort brands should spend in encouraging people to click from social networks to their own websites, such as should we continue to design content that requires users to click away from social networks, and should we remove clickthrough rates as a KPI?

Some may even be considering whether they should just scale back publishing on their website and move it to a social network (famously like Nescafe’s shift to Tumblr).

I think there’s probably a way to go before it becomes such a black and white decision of “social network” or “own website”. It will continue to remain a case of assessing the audience and nature of the content, and adopting the right balance.

However, I do think it will further polarise the way many brands are managing social publishing, focusing on:

  • Content to drive brand awareness & warmth.
  • Content that’s highly targeted and seen much more like traditional “direct response”.
  • The former will be played out more and more within the social networks, with the emphasis (as it should be) on actually getting people to talk favourably about brands with their friends and families. The latter will continue to be streamlined and optimised, but not (we hope) at the expense of creativity and consistency.

Of course what hasn’t (and won’t) change are the three most important aspects of every social media measurement activity: context, context, context.

In conclusion

Clearly 2016 will be another year of rapid development and change in the industry, bringing with it new challenges for those teams responsible for managing social media.

It strikes me that the major trend will be that of social media becoming more ingrained across more teams and departments. The social media team’s role will steadily move away from being responsible for every “social media activity” across the business, and instead focus more on helping organise the rest of the business to do it themselves.

We’re a long way from a world where everyone uses social technologies at work every day, as a matter of course, but could 2016 be the year we look back on and say, “it started then”?

This article is an abridged version of a longer piece that can be viewed here: http://slpconsulting.co.uk/2015/12/14/social-business-future-gazing-series-2016/  

 

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