This year marks the first year that growth in active social media users eclipsed growth in active Internet users. More significantly, active mobile social users grew by 17 percent in 2015 to reach 1.97 billion, meaning that every 1 in 4 people on the planet is using social media on their phones.
Marketers across the world have taken note, and in 2015 alone advertisers worldwide spent US$24 billion on paid media to reach consumers on social networks. This number is expected to reach US$36 billion in 2017, representing 16 percent of all digital ad spend.
This trend is reflected in the revenue trajectories of industry behemoths – Google’s advertising revenue in the USA grew by 18 percent from 2014-15, but Facebook’s revenue grew three times as fast in the same period.
The evolution of social will have profound implications on the way marketers reach and engage their customers. The confluence of trends in big data, artificial intelligence and augmented reality offer some hints into what social might look like in the near future.
Social messaging is the way forward
While Facebook is still the dominant social platform globally with 1.6 billion monthly active users, the combined size of users from the next two largest platforms – Whatsapp and QQ (Tencent) is now 1.8 billion.
More importantly, across all social platforms, Whatsapp has demonstrated the greatest user engagement – the percentage of daily active users to monthly active users is 72 percent compared to Facebook’s 62 percent and Twitter’s 47 percent.
Arguably, these social messaging platforms – modelled after real-world conversations, represent the future of social. The meteorite rise of the social messaging platform can be attributed to its simple and intuitive interface that imitates real-world human communication.
While the “post-like-share” phenomenon has been around for about a decade, “chatting” is as natural to humans as breathing. This is reflected in the ease in which social messaging has extended to commerce.
WeChat – China’s homegrown equivalent of Whatsapp, can now help its users with a variety of tasks including booking a cab, ordering wine, making payments and even getting your laundry picked up.
Snapchat, a fast-growing platform who has acquired 200 million users in less than four years, represents another evolution of the social messaging trend. The transient nature of Snapchat messages even more closely mimics human conversation, allowing communication to be completely unfiltered and open.
Social is about to get smarter – much smarter
With the voluminous amount of information that social platforms are collecting, there should be little doubt that social is only going to get much, much smarter. Predictive capabilities on social platforms allow marketers to target prospects with ever-greater accuracy based not only on demographics, but also interests, profession, education and affiliations.
A/B testing is now a routine feature on all social platforms, allowing marketers to dynamically shift the budget to more effective marketing content and messages.
But all of that is the present. Artificial intelligence is the future.
Here again, Facebook is showing the way forward. There are now more than 11,000 bots on Facebook Messenger. Bots are in effect tiny apps built into the social messaging platform that automates certain tasks and responds “intelligently” to communication in human language.
These are apps designed to adapt to how we communicate, rather than the other way around. You can now buy plane tickets, book hotels, order fast food and get general health questions answered just by sending out a message.
No more fumbling around with multiple apps and navigating through different interfaces to get what you want. No more calling customer service and being put on hold. Just send – “I want …” and the social genie will be there to answer your every wish and command.
Social will become omnipresent and integrated into physical reality
The shift of social from desktop to mobile was dramatic. The next breeding ground for social will be more fragmented but no less pervasive.
Wearables are the next big bet for many consumer electronics giants and will be worth US$12.6 billion by 2018.
While the adoption rate of wearables has been less impressive than mobile, I believe that social will find a natural home across different devices – smartwatches, smart-glasses and even smart-clothing. Use-cases in each of these areas are still nascent but could get a boost from social integration.
Eventually, social intelligence will become entrenched within the broader Internet-of-Things, allowing devices to perform tasks based on a triangulation of location, social and physiological data. Current health apps are already able to send emergency calls to healthcare providers if an abnormal heart rhythm is detected.
With social data, these apps should also be able to contact the nearest family member. Social data can complement financial data in assessing creditworthiness for loans or suitability for certain financial products.
Use cases can also be more trivial – such as the incorporation of social elements into augmented reality games like Pokémon Go, effectively bringing social networks full circle – from offline to online, and back again. The pre-requisite to these use cases is undoubtedly a robust and reliable framework in managing social data.
Social marketing should be every marketer’s dream come true. The availability of social data allows marketers to personalize and target their marketing offers in a way that were not possible before.
However, the social channel is evolving at a faster pace than many marketers realise. Organizations need to navigate the increasingly complex social landscape while ensuring that marketing spend is optimized.
Developing the right framework to measure marketing effectiveness and adopting a structured “test-learn-evolve” process is essential to riding the next wave of social. Marketers also need to understand how different customer data sources can be better integrated while still offering them choice and control over how that data is used.
We are in uncharted waters, and for the bold and brave who are willing to experiment and learn, the future of social certainly promises great rewards.
Eugene Yap is an associate director at Iris Concise, the management consulting arm of iris Worldwide.