The state of social media in 2016

As the channel’s role continued to expand, pressure grew for platforms to assume responsibility for their influence over users.

While the “social” part of social media has long been an integral aspect of many consumers’ daily lives, 2016 was the year the “media” half of the equation found itself in the spotlight, leading to as many hurdles as opportunities along the way.

From a surge in TV-like content to the prevalence of social news both false and credible, platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and others saw their influence significantly expand over the past 12 months. The ramifications of some of these developments are still unclear: Should Facebook censor fake news spread via its site? Will live streaming truly overtake TV for destination viewing as the trend toward cord-cutting accelerates?

These uncertainties and other growing pains sent the space into a period of self-reflection in the second half of 2016, but through the good and bad, marketers’ commitment to social only grew.

“The overarching theme we see connecting all of these big developments is a renewed focus on the customer and social listening,” Katy Keim, CMO at Lithium, told Marketing Dive. “Social media has of course been utilized by brands since inception, but this year saw more attention and budgets placed in these channels to listen in a more sophisticated fashion and connect with customers.”

It’s a snap

There was plenty of news in 2016 that put social media center stage, including the channel’s impact on the presidential election, the sale of LinkedIn to Microsoft, the failed bid from Twitter to find an acquisition partner and the increasing emergence of social strategy as an integral part of omnichannel marketing.

But perhaps the single most buzzed development was Snapchat breaking out to become a major marketing player, a fact reinforced by partnerships with big brands and parent company’s Snap Inc.’s planned $25 billion-plus initial public offering early next year, which is likely to raise millions of dollars that can be reinvested in further boosting the platform.

Snapchat has shown it’s eager to expand its horizons and creative canvas, rebranding as a camera company in September and introducing hardware like Spectacles that have brands and consumers excited.

While Snapchat engagement metrics remain tough to figure out for many marketers, the platform demonstrated in 2016 that it’s moved well past an early aversion to marketing tactics like ad targeting, and is further building out its in-app content model with offerings like original shows and Shazam integrations.

“We’re past the days when people thought of Snapchat as a toy that only intrigued and appealed to kids,” Kashem Miah, director of social media and content marketing at Shutterstock, told Marketing Dive.

Snapchat has proven so popular, in fact, that it’s inspired a variety of imitators like Instagram Stories, which hit over over 100 million daily active users — nearly as many as Snapchat’s audience — just a few months after its launch in August. One of the big questions for marketers heading into next year is how Snap will sharpen its distinct value proposition and focus in order to keep user attentions from migrating to the growing competition.

A powerful platform

Despite Snapchat’s growth, Facebook remained the most considerable force on social in 2016, liberally borrowing ideas from platforms as varied as Snap to the enterprise chat service Slack in order to keep users within its walled garden of products.

Facebook’s growing reach and increasingly insular ecosystem not only made it a force to be reckoned with but also a focus of concern. Part of this stems from Facebook’s apparent support of fake news and hoax sites that possibly had an outsized impact on some voters during the recent presidential election.

“It makes some people uncomfortable to think that one platform can possess so much power and influence,” Miah said.

CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has long resisted referring to Facebook as a news organization, but the gravity of its role as a de facto publisher in 2016 lead the social giant to weed bad news sites from its Audience ad network in November and establish a more proactive role in policing media heading into next year.

Along with propping up general misinformation, Facebook also revealed in September that it had been inflating video ad metrics by anywhere from 60% to 80% for the past two years, leading to industry pushback including a class action lawsuit from affected marketers. Revelations of more ad metrics flubs across content offerings soon emerged in November and then again in December as Facebook pivoted toward a more transparent stance in an attempt to mend relationships with frustrated marketers and advertisers.

While Facebook reported strong numbers in the most recent financial quarter and showed it remarkably retains over 1 billion daily active users on its mobile offerings alone, the company still has ways to go in accommodating the advertisers that provide the majority of its revenues.

Fake followers across platforms continued to plague social media more broadly, setting up another big problem for marketers to address in 2017.

“The purpose of social is to create a genuine dialog with customers. At the end of the day, 100 fans or followers who engage with a company’s brand is much more successful than having 10,000 fake fans or followers that don’t engage with the brand,” Allen Nance, CMO of Emarsys, told Marketing Dive. “The emergence of fake followers, fake interactions and fake engagement is a huge failure.”

The data factor

In light of how social media platforms directly impacted presidential politics this year, brands need to understand that social media isn’t just an afterthought, per Keim.

Election polls being wildly off the mark in several instances lends credence to the idea that some typical data sets and measurements are “disastrously inaccurate,” he added. As a result, marketers might need to begin questioning their data sources and traditional metrics more.

With that in mind, savvy marketers will push ahead and try to figure out how to better leverage data for deeper customer insights going forward. Social media insights will need to be better aligned with data across departments for success in 2017.

“There is now a critical need to incorporate and align BI analytics with social media data,” Keim said. “Right now, many companies currently fall into one of two camps of siloed data practices: They either have a BI team in place that parses out requested data to different departments or they have separate systems set up with each department serving as their own BI team, e.g. one tool for sales, another for marketing.”

Emerging opportunities

On the positive side, several important developments in 2016 pushed social commerce forward. Using social networks for e-commerce transactions is becoming more mainstream with Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest all facilitating this shift. As platforms better build out their e-commerce capabilities — Instagram’s shoppable photos, for example, allow for posts to link directly to purchase — marketing tools like influencers will only expand and proliferate.

Live streaming also quickly evolved into a significant feature on Facebook with Facebook Live, Twitter through a solid stable of media partners and Periscope integrations for users and Instagram with the new Stories feature. As other providers emerge and build out their platforms, more viewer growth is expected forging ahead into next year.

“We’ve only scratched the surface with the technology and the implementation,” Miah said. “There’s increased access available to people around the world to tune in live and feel as though they’re in the room where the action is taking place. We’ll see a lot more experimenting with this form in 2017, and probably even some new names and tools entering the field.”

Chatbots were another big success in 2016, with Facebook Messenger now offering more than 30,000 of them. Though the technology can still frustrate, it’s proving to be a key touch point for customer care and even the facilitation of in-app purchases and transactions. The trend points to how social media is becoming an all-in-one consumer experience rather than just a jumping off point for brands.

Artificial intelligence capabilities with technologies like chatbots will continue to improve next year and become more integrated into social, although not all issues will be solved.

“The code of when to deploy a bot vs. [a] human will not get cracked, and many customers will still be left dissatisfied with their automated experiences,” Keim said.

Article Written by David Kirkpatrick of Marketing Dive