I write this prediction from (I think) a useful vantage point. I started my career by helping to launch one of the UKs first social media agencies. I’ve been in a PR, a creative, and a media agency, and over the last ten years my role has developed and broadened from social media manager, to managing partner, planning. This is my ten-year anniversary of writing what next year holds for social media.
Unfortunately, I think this might be my last year.
Social is dead. Kind of.
Now, this is not new news. Lots of people have been saying the same now for a few years. Most people point to 'teenagers leaving <insert platform>’ (they didn’t), the 'market being a bubble' (it isn’t), or the death of emerging platforms (ok, so this did happen). These are all negatives, though. These are all signals that what we call social media is fading away, and that TV and radio are regaining their rightful crowns as media king and queen. This is not what I believe. I believe that social media isn’t fading away, instead it’s taking over. The launch of advertising networks, unique formats, and advanced targeting technologies over the last decade has slowly moved Facebook and its ilk into irrefutable digital platforms. Their dominance over the past five years (they now represent almost all growth in digital advertising revenue) position them as global media platforms. When social converges with digital, and digital converges with ’traditional' media, social is dead. Digital is dead too. Before I go on, this doesn’t mean that TV and radio are dead. That would be a silly prediction. It does mean that how we buy all media channels is changing, and becoming more digital. The techniques and tools we use in digital are moving to the centre of the media ecosystem. Programmatic TV inventory. Digital out of home. RTB technologies used to buy radio. Digital (and by proxy social) has been a Trojan horse.
2017 will see this kick up into the next gear. While I’ve solely referenced Facebook so far, I use Facebook as a representative of the whole industry. Instagram is slowly reflecting the same buying platform as Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp will likely follow suit. YouTube has the might of Google behind it, and will continue to benefit from being part of that ecosystem. Snap Inc is making major moves to ensure it’s rise to prominence with consumers is matched with revenues and innovation in its advertising platform (see it’s partnership with MOAT for evidence). The pace that the leaders set is difficult to follow, but even being in the slip stream and emulating the leaders has a benefit. Unfortunately not everyone will make it through the rest of the year, with difficult times ahead of Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+.
So, where does this leave the cottage industry that is specialist social media agencies? More importantly, what happens to the people within those agencies? These people, I believe, will inherit the Earth (or they’ll at least inherit marketing). People who’ve worked in social media specialist roles, or within social media agencies have a unique skill set that sets them apart from most marketers. Those that have so far carved out successful careers as social strategists, social creatives, or community managers know. They know how to balance what a brand wants to say with what people want to hear. They know what social currency different groups of people trade. They know how social systems and networks operate. They know how it feels when something doesn’t work. These types of roles put people at the nexus of a relationship between a brand and its desired customer, and this sets them apart from most marketers. Most marketers have their work play out slowly, over weeks and months, and beyond research panels and focus groups, they have very little in the way of a feedback mechanism. Those that work as social specialists get to hone their understanding of an audience on a minute-by-minute basis. Trailing things, testing new ideas, pulling things that don’t work, boosting things that do.
The challenge for social media specialists is to begin to broaden out their understanding, but they’re in a very fortunate starting position. They’ve built their careers on putting people at the heart of everything that they do, and now, with social and digital channels taking centre stage and discarding the ‘social and digital’ nametags, the community managers that know how brands should talk to people, will inherit the earth. 2017 will be their year. Brands have almost the exact opposite challenge - they need to begin to narrow their focus, and start putting people at the heart of everything that they do. Now 'social' and ‘digital’ channels are taking centre stage, it’s no longer a game about who can spend the most, and reach the biggest figure - it’s a game of who can mean the most, who can be most relevant, and ultimately who can create valuable experiences for people.