When you were a youngster and wanted to meet new people and make friends, you had to travel to an event such as an ice cream social. Today, connecting with friends can be accomplished instantly via a few clicks a la social media.
If you need further evidence of social media's omnipresent influence nowadays, take a gander at We Are Social's "Digital Statshot 002" report, which reveals that there are currently about 2 billion active social media accounts worldwide-equating to a whopping penetration of 28% of the planet's population, with about roughly 1.6 billion of these accounts active via mobile. What's more, 72% of all internet users are currently active on social media, and 93% of marketers use social media for business.
Social platforms also continue to increase and, for the most part, thrive. In order, the top 10 most popular social networking sites (according to eBizMBA, Inc.) are Facebook (900 million estimated unique monthly visitors), Twitter (310 million), LinkedIn (255 million), Pinterest (250 million), Google+ (120 million), Tumblr (110 million), Instagram (100 million), VK (80 million), Flickr (65 million), and Vine (42 million).
Ask industry experts and they'll tell you that social media has rapidly evolved from a niche digital channel into an indispensible and expected feature that's fully integrated into the online experience for users everywhere. "Social media is no longer just for fun, but now provides an essential communication and research function to individuals," says Annette A. Penney, online marketing strategist for Inspire and Acquire. "We now often prefer to communicate with our friends, family members, and work colleagues through our social media accounts rather than call them on the phone."
Anna Baxter (executive VP of operations for Sizmek Social) agrees, noting that today's consumers spend more time on social than on any other online and mobile activity. "Consider that Facebook recently beat YouTube in desktop video views for the first time, further underscoring how popular social has become as a one-stop shop for content discovery and media consumption," says Baxter.
THE YEAR IN REVIEW
In 2014, social media stories dominated much of the tech news. Facebook, as usual, monopolized many of the headlines: It acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion and caused dissension among the ranks when it disabled the messaging feature in its mobile app and redirected users to its Messenger app. Instagram possibly dealt a mortal blow to its competitor Vine by providing similar video capabilities to its users. And several notable new social networks emerged, including Tsu- (which allows members to get paid for the content they create) and Ello (an ad-free Facebook alternative).
Corbett Guest, president and CEO of Imaginuity Interactive, believes the biggest story during the past 12 months was the continued rise of more visual platforms (such as Instagram) and trends (such as Hyperlapse video), "which underscore the fact that we have this huge and growing Millennial audiences who have very little patience for content." He adds, "This short attention span means that companies and agencies have to find strategic ways to get their message across with very few, if any, words."
Joonghwa Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University's school of journalism, points to the rise of native advertising as another major social media trend-one that creates a significant challenge. "Advertisers need to be careful about misleading consumers, who can be confused about the distinction between ads and content," says Lee. He cites examples such as YouTube's promoted videos, BuzzFeed's sponsored posts, and Facebook's ads. "This is particularly important because misleading native advertising may backfire."
According to strategist Amy Vernon, 2014 was also the year social media ceased to be a stand-alone specialty and really began being integrated fully into marketing. "For practitioners, this has meant learning more than just best practices on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Those who are succeeding have gained a fuller understanding of overall company goals, how to track and measure success, and where their efforts fit in the big picture," Vernon says. "For sites and providers, the major issues continue to be how to break into an oversaturated market, then how to ensure you're evolving fast enough to keep up with your competitors."
Another challenge facing social media players is the alarming increase in account hacks and security breaches, which were experienced this past year by many companies, including CNN. "Most large brands and organizations deal with huge amounts of personal data from customers, employees, and suppliers. They need to find ways to store the participants' data safely and on servers that are compliant with local data protection laws," says Ulrik Bo Larsen, CEO and founder of Falcon Social.
A LOOK AHEAD
Looking toward the horizon, social media holds many possibilities-and potential pitfalls. "Mobile will continue to grow at alarming rates [and] will drive how users consume media. Social will open the door to additional ad opportunities on mobile, and budgets will shift accordingly," Baxter says.
Penney forecasts an increase in social media monetization. "Newly crafted algorithms will be created to use behavioral usage data to assist marketers in promoting products and services to a more specific, targeted audience-the end result being that social media will be more effective for marketers but may be less appealing for users," says Penney. "The challenge for the social media sites then becomes how to appease its advertisers while not losing its user numbers."
Vernon feels that the major themes for 2015 will be predictive analytics, improved security, and an emphasis on greater privacy: "The companies and platforms that are able to tell you what kinds of posts and content you should provide that will bring more eyeballs, users, and customers are the ones that will be the superstars of 2015."
Bite-size content should also continue to reign in the coming year. "Short visual content will dominate the digital space. The companies and brands that will win going forward will be the ones who find a way to bridge the gap between the audience's short attention span and the right short form content," Guest says.