The Future of Social

This article originally appeared in the June edition of our quarterly magazine. To get the full experience, you can read the issue online here, or subscribe to receive a physical copy here.

WBWKY1FQ2IIn February of this year, the New York Times featured a story about the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. An agency within the US State Department, the Center has the job of countering ISIS’ recruitment attempts on social media, with Facebook posts and tweets about terrorists defecting, the poor quality of life under Islamic State, and religious scholars condemning the actions of the radical group.

It’s the sort of story that, 10 years ago, would have felt like satire: the US government and terrorists taking to the battlefields of Twitter and Facebook to sway hearts and minds. But the truth is that social media has become so central to our lives, so influential, that in today’s world, far from being a joke, it makes perfect sense.

A recent study by Opera Mediaworks showed that social media apps tend to be the first thing people check upon waking in the morning. And comScore research has shown that social media accounts for almost a third of time spent accessing mobile content by UK users, more than games and entertainment combined. 90 per cent of UK mobile users have accessed social networks via their smartphone or tablet, two thirds have used social logins on other sites or services, and 60 per cent of UK businesses have made use of social media as a mobile marketing channel.

Social media is so dominant that it’s easy to forget that the term is only around 20 years old, and that most of the major services have been around for less than a decade. The rapid growth in usage and changes in format – from desktop to mobile, from text to pictures to video – make social media the perfect bellwether for seeing how our methods of communication are likely to change over the next few years.

“People’s use of technology is evolving all the time, and we work hard to keep pace with this change,” says Claire Valoti, director of agency partnerships at Facebook UK. “Everything we do at Facebook starts and ends with people. We move fast to keep up with the rapid pace at which people are changing and evolving their use of technology, in order to meet the challenge this presents to both brands and creativity.”

Claire Valoti, director of agency partnerships at Facebook UK
Claire Valoti, director of agency partnerships at Facebook UK

The rise and rise of video
One key recent trend has been the rise of video on social networks, particularly Facebook. In between Q3 2014 and Q1 2015, video views per day on Facebook quadrupled, from 1bn to 4bn, and Mark Zuckerberg stated at the company’s first town hall meeting that “in five years, most of [Facebook] will be video”.

“Video is definitely a growing and increasingly important part of social media marketing,” says Jacques de Cock, faculty member at the London School of Marketing, who notes that other companies such as Twitter and Yahoo are attempting to gain a foothold in the video space with live streaming services such as Periscope and LiveText.

“Our increased migration to mobile triggered a huge rise in video – both creation and consumption – and the appetite for engaging content,” says Facebook’s Valoti. “Video allows for much richer storytelling, combining sight, sound and motion, and providing a bigger opportunity for brand building, emotional resonance and loyalty.”

With both users and advertisers behind it, it’s little wonder that video has become so integral to social media so quickly. But the increased demands on platform infrastructure that video creates mean that social networks have to be robust and well-supported to implement it at scale. That could well lead to smaller players either losing out, or being absorbed into existing services.

“There’ll be less distinction between the big, established social networks and the tech players due to land grabbing – each will morph into the same area as the other as they buy to compete,” says Harvey Sarjant, director of data and business development for Europe at RadiumOne. “Facebook is becoming more of a tech player like Google, while Google is trying to become more of a social network through Google+. Others, like Twitter, will simply get eaten up by not meeting shareholder expectations.”

twitter-buy-button.jpgThe race for features
The expansion of social into other services is something we’ve already seen happening, and it’s a trend that’s only likely to continue. Some of these expansions have been driven by marketers and advertisers, such as Facebook and Twitter experimenting with ‘Buy’ buttons that streamline the path to purchase, but many have been brought about by the social networks themselves.

Facebook, as the largest social network, has expanded further and faster than anyone could have predicted when it launched in 2004. Whether through simple solutions like its Instant Articles providing publisher content while keeping users within Facebook’s infrastructure, or more ambitious plans like the introduction of peer-to-peer payments within its Messenger app, the company has been pushing hard at the edges of what constitutes social media.

The same sort of pioneering spirit can be found in semi-social messaging services like Snapchat, KakaoTalk and WeChat, all of which have adopted elements of social media and branched out into numerous other services. Japanese messenger app Line recently launched a music streaming service, while WeChat incorporates over 10m third-party apps within its platform, covering everything from news to banking.

“This is all about merging social offline experiences with online communications, enabling more expressive and more emotional forms of social communications, like emojis, photos and video sharing, and offering new ways to manage our identities,” says Thomas Husson, vice president and principal analyst for marketing & strategy at Forrester Research.

The advantage of this ‘one-stop shop’ approach is that it circumvents the need to persuade users to download a new app for every service or feature. Multiple studies have told us that consumers rarely use more than 10 apps regularly, so breaking into that space can be incredibly hard. However, for firms that are already there, expanding their capabilities allows them to grow their marketing and revenue opportunities, while taking advantage of their existing audience.

Social networks and marketers are likely to continue this push, taking social media into new areas. But if the networks are making the changes based on the needs and desires of the users, where can we look to predict what’s on the horizon in terms of new functionality or changing trends?

Teenage-hipsters-using-phone-in-city.jpgThe Millennial bug
The answer lies with the generation that has grown up as social media natives, who have been mobile consumers all their lives and who are the most sought-after group by both developers and marketers alike: the Millennials.

According to the Pew Research Center, 92 per cent of teens are online daily, while a quarter are online “almost constantly” thanks to smartphone ownership, which currently sits at almost 75 per cent among US teens. 71 per cent of teens use more than one social network site, with Facebook and Instagram the most popular, but one crucial piece of information showed that teens from wealthier households are more likely to favour picture- and video-based social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat, in preference to Facebook.

This pattern was echoed in Mary Meeker’s 2015 Internet Trends report. While Facebook showed the highest usage among American youth, it had dropped slightly from the previous year, while image- and video-focused services like Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest had seen increases. The number of 12-24 year olds who ranked Facebook as the most important social network had dropped from over 30 per cent in spring 2013 to 14 per cent in spring 2015, while Instagram had risen from 17 per cent to 32 per cent in the same period.

“We know that teens typically have a number of networks in their social repertoire, including those, like Instagram, which capitalise on smartphone cameras,” says Facebook’s Valoti. “However, their patterns of usage between each of these apps are actually very complex – the secondary social sites they choose, the ways in which social usage intersects with other digital activity, the ways they use or don’t use social media as a shopping resource, and so on.

“Ultimately, it wouldn’t be fair to say teens and young adults drive our innovation and business decisions; rather this is done by the community as a whole.”

But RadiumOne’s Sarjant disagrees, especially when it comes to the power of young people to accelerate the adoption of new technology: “Google always said their biggest competitor could easily come out of a garage,” he notes. “The fickle nature of the Millennial generation means that a simple idea that captures the imagination could come up hard on the rails. I’m sure the next Snapchat is just around the corner, I’m just not sure which corner.”

The future of marketing
Newer services like Snapchat, Meerkat and Livetext are all chasing Millennials (some more successfully than others) with video-heavy features that mix social networking with more private messaging, hinting at the direction other social networks will have to take in order to keep the attention of the next generation of consumers.

For marketers, the future of social media should be a bright place – more video content means more engaging messaging opportunities, while if the trend towards larger networks assimilating smaller ones and developing new features continues, it provides marketers with a small number of channels that reach a huge and diverse audience.

But the drop in Facebook’s popularity among teens suggests no-one is truly safe from changing trends or opinions, and as RadiumOne’s Sarjant warns, there’s always the possibility of a truly disruptive service creating a fundamental shift in social media as we know it.

The one thing that is certain is that for every social network currently in existence, mobile is now at the core of the experience, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.