To say 2018 was a tumultuous year for social media is an understatement. Simmering issues with privacy and data integrity came to a boil at Facebook, with effects felt at the highest levels of government. Networks in the cross hairs of congressional investigations have had to reckon with their own power and potential for abuse, while users have been left to question the larger impact of social media on politics, culture, and civic discourse.
What does this mean for 2019? How will users and networks respond to these seismic shifts? How will the way companies use social media evolve in light of changing attitudes on privacy and meaningful connection? In its annual Social Trends Report, Hootsuite surveyed more than 3,000 businesses, from small agencies to huge enterprises, to see how they plan to adapt in 2019. Here’s some of the most salient findings and a look into the crystal ball on what the year ahead holds.
THE RETURN OF REAL
Waves of scandal have had a tangible impact on faith in social networks. According to Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer Report, 60% of people no longer trust social media companies. Against a backdrop of “fake news” and data manipulation, users have grown distrustful of influencers–both celebrities and media personalities. In a major reversal, trust has reverted back to immediate friends, family, and close acquaintances on social media, individuals whose personal credibility speaks far more than the size of their followings.
For businesses on social media, this presents a delicate challenge in 2019. Using social media as just another ad channel–filled with flashy clickbait and promo codes–feels increasingly out of step with social norms and user preferences. Instead, progressive companies will focus less on maximizing reach in 2019 and more on generating transparent and meaningful engagement, and 50% of respondents to our survey agreed that personalizing social content will be a key challenge. Brands like Adidas and the New York Times exemplify this emerging ethos. They’re creating focused communities and sharing insightful, relevant content, then allowing passionate users to connect with one another.
EPHEMERAL IS EVERYTHING
This shift to more personal ways of engaging on social media is echoed in the type of content being shared. Instead of posting on their news feeds, users are increasingly sharing “Stories” with their network. In contrast to standard updates, these ephemeral slideshows generally disappear after a day, and they’re growing 15 times faster than feed-based sharing, with more than a billion users of Stories across Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. Facebook’s own chief product officer Chris Cox has noted that Stories stand to surpass feeds as the primary way people share things with their friends within the next year.
In 2019, companies seeking to stay relevant on social media will need to up their Stories game. Two-thirds of respondents to our survey have either implemented Instagram Stories or plan to in the next year. This means rethinking social updates as less of a static block of text and more of an intimate, often raw, multimedia glimpse behind the scenes. Integrating video, simple graphics, and a narrative arc is key, but it’s important not to lose sight of authenticity. Pioneers like the Guardian have figured out that less polished and more realistic Stories generate the highest engagement. What’s clear is that, especially for millennial and gen Z users, Stories are second nature, and the news feed may be ceding its throne.
THE RISE OF LINKEDIN
While scandal and controversy have rocked other networks, one channel has quietly trucked along in the background: LinkedIn. The buttoned-down business network passed the 500 million member threshold in 2018. A content powerhouse, LinkedIn now publishes more than 100,000 articles a week on its blogging platform. Beefed-up groups functionality, native video, and a new API for integrations with third-party apps all show that these days the network is far from just a place to warehouse your resume. At a time when other feeds are increasingly filled with toxic rants and viral memes, LinkedIn’s no-nonsense professionalism has a stronger appeal than ever–as witnessed by the accelerating pace of user growth.
Companies who succeed in social media in 2019 will find creative ways to leverage LinkedIn’s unique place in the social universe–at the intersection of the “personal” and the “professional.” A natural choice for B2B marketing, LinkedIn is also, increasingly, a channel to reach affluent consumers. Of it’s half-billion members, 44% make more than $75,000, and more than half boast a college degree. Meanwhile, in a record-tight labor market where recruitment is an existential challenge for many businesses, the network also offers an ideal platform to showcase employer brand, i.e., a company’s culture and reputation as a place to work. Case in point: A LinkedIn blog post on how much we value our Hootsuite sales team and how hard it is to find great tech salespeople led to more than 1,000 visits to our career page and 100-plus applications.
The Facebook Group isn’t a new innovation. Spaces for people to gather and discuss specific subjects–from pets and hobbies to celebrities–date to the platform’s earliest days. But, the renewed interest in privacy and intimacy among users means Groups are suddenly having their moment. In the past year, Facebook Group membership is up 40%, with 1.4 billion people now using Groups every month. Indeed, well before Cambridge Analytica reached its crescendo, the platform had recalibrated its algorithms to prioritize engagement with friends, family, and Groups, while down-ranking public content shared by businesses, brands, and media.
In 2019, succeeding on social means finding ways to tap into resurgent interest in Groups and users’ desire to have a safe enclave for discussion on otherwise unruly social platforms. And, here, exclusivity can help. Brands like Condé Nast have had extraordinary success with carefully focused “Closed Groups,” where users have to seek permission from an admin before viewing or posting content. For instance, the publisher’s Women Who Travel Closed Facebook Group counts more than 50,000 members, three-quarters of whom are active on a daily basis. Scaling Groups without losing intimacy is not without its challenges: active moderation and restraint when it comes to overt sales pitches are keys. But companies that tap into shifting user tastes and shifting network algorithms stand to see big gains this year.
SOCIAL ADS OVERLOAD
Ads, blasted at us in myriad different forms–as sponsored stories, promoted posts, suggested follows, and more–are now a staple of every social channel. Indeed, Facebook alone now accounts for nearly a quarter of all digital ad spending in the U.S., and more than three-quarters of respondents to our survey have invested in social ads or plan to do so in the next year. But ads aren’t without challenges. Competition for limited feed space has driven prices up: on Facebook, cost per thousand impressions (a standard industry measurement known as CPM) jumped 112% in the past year. Meanwhile, users inundated with sales pitches and increasingly wary of clickbait are growing more adept at filtering ads out, either skimming over them or using ad blocking tools.
In other words, while companies may be paying more than ever for ads in 2019, that’s no guarantee anyone’s going to pay attention. What’s urgently needed is the pairing of ad money with an equal investment of time, creativity, and targeting savvy. Just squeezing a bland banner ad into a news feed doesn’t cut it any longer. Savvy brands like Spotify and Netflix are instead thinking of social ads as full-fledged “campaigns”–high-concept, high-production value initiatives designed to generate engagement and discussion. They’re incorporating video, motion graphics, and even AR, and fully leveraging the multimedia Stories format. They’re also increasingly relying on ad targeting tools, which enable easy A/B testing with hundreds of variants, to fine-tune audiences and optimize ad spend.
SOCIAL GETS PERSONAL
Another manifestation of the inward turn among social users: the ascent of messaging platforms. Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook) now count more than 2.8 billion users between them. Add in popular Chinese platforms like WeChat and QQ, and most of the planet is now on messaging apps. Rather than sharing openly on social networks, these users are opting to engage in private or small group conversations. For companies, this raises new challenges in 2019. As eyeballs shift to private feeds, are messaging channels the next hot platform for reaching customers? Or will users resent the intrusion into “their space”?
While the verdict remains out, one area where there’s clear demand for more messaging is customer service. Nine out of 10 consumers want to use messaging to communicate with businesses, though fewer than half of businesses responding to our survey have implemented messaging apps. AI-powered messaging bots represent a tempting option for bridging that gap, but they’re hardly a panacea–an estimated 70% of Facebook bot interactions fail and require human intervention. Scaling without losing the human touch, always easier said than done, will be key. Makeup company Sephora offers a model for how to do this right in 2019, deploying an army of chatbots to help with tutorials and product suggestions but having real humans on call when a customer requires more help.
Zooming out, what’s clear above all is that social paradigms are shifting. In the beginning, social media was a place to connect in meaningful ways, with people you actually knew or, at the least, wanted to know. Dramatic growth and global popularity changed those intimate spaces into wild, sometimes scary, digital jungles, filled with dubious actors, suspect claims, and aggressive sales pitches. But users have clearly had enough. They’re insisting on more value and transparency in exchange for their time and information. They want to be treated like individuals, not demographics. The pendulum is swinging back to social’s roots: real, personal and authentic.