5 key social media trends for business in 2017

RIP Vine. It seems like just a few short years ago that the network — and its catchy 6-second video format — debuted and companies raced to figure out how to cash in. Then in October, we learned the app would be officially shut down by current owner Twitter. Even before then, attention had already shifted to newer, more flexible video formats, especially streaming channels like the new giant on the block, Facebook Live.

For businesses who see the value of social media, this constant social turnover is both all-too-familiar and, oftentimes, all-too-costly. Companies invest in new tools and strategies, develop marketing plans and race to bring employees up to speed … only to see the proverbial rug pulled out overnight. One year the craze is for gifs, the next it’s live video, then come Stories.

So what’s the secret to future-proofing your social strategy? There are no easy answers, but one key is to look beyond the latest bells and whistles and turn an eye to the macro-trends driving the industry. Without further ado, here are five big movements that promise to change how businesses use social media in 2017:

The “reachpocalypse” peaks (are you ready?): Businesses have known about it for years, but in 2017 this trend becomes impossible to ignore. Reaching users the old-fashioned way on social media — i.e. building up an audience overtime and sharing updates — simply no longer cuts it. Why? Algorithms across Facebook and other networks are increasingly limiting the percentage of your own audience that sees your posts. (For years, large brands have reached as few as 2% or less of their own followers on Facebook, and that number is declining in some industries.) This isn’t some grand conspiracy: It just reflects the reality that our feeds are more cluttered than ever with messages, photos and increasingly videos. Not everything makes it through.

How can businesses cut through the clutter? Not surprisingly, money talks. All the networks have evolved their own native ads — promoted posts and updates that look just like the real thing. In 2017, it’s time to start using them. The good news is that once the “sticker-shock” wears off, these ads are actually a smart investment. They can be highly targeted, are shareable and it’s easy to track the return on your purchase in terms of views and clicks. Plus, a host of user-friendly platforms now simplify the process of executing these paid campaigns.

Employees become your social media army: For companies looking to expand the reach and impact of social media without spending a dime, there’s an increasingly powerful option … that’s already on your payroll. Employee advocacy — encouraging and incentivizing team members to share brand messages on their own social media accounts — is poised to be a game-changer in 2017. Why? For starters, even at moderately-sized companies, this means tapping into hundreds, if not thousands, of new followers. Plus, when messages are fired out from personal accounts they’re more trusted and also circumvent some of those pesky algorithms mentioned above. Case in point, sports entertainment chain Topgolf enlisted 300 of its associates to start sharing updates and saw Likes increase by 220%.

But there’s a right way to do this and a wrong way. Advocacy can’t be forced. Employees need to want to share company posts, and the content has to align with their own audiences. There’s little point in staff blasting out B2B pitches on their personal Facebook profiles, for example. And the process of sharing has to be dead simple. One option is to help employees by providing a list of suggested updates to post. Inside our company, we took this a step further and developed a mobile app that makes it possible to send out pre-approved updates to our team, which can then be reshared on social media with a tap.

The social media skills gap widens: With the launch of Facebook Workplace this fall — an internal spin on the network for use within companies — social media consummated its transition from dorm room toy to boardroom tool. At the same time, more companies than ever are using social channels for marketing, customer service and sales: upward of 90 percent according to the latest data. But even as social media use within businesses has surged, a curious thing has happened: training and resources for frontline employees has been largely ignored. In fact, 9 out of 10 companies report that their workers don’t have the requisite skills to leverage social media as a business tool.

This digital skills gap manifests itself in everything from missed opportunities to pursue sales leads via Twitter to embarrassing corporate gaffes on Facebook. This problem is only going to get worse in 2017, as employees are expected to use ever more channels in more diverse and sophisticated ways, though some hope is on the horizon. Social media coursework is slowly being incorporated into university programs, and not just for students pursuing marketing and communications degrees. For businesses seeking a quicker fix, online, on-demand resources can help fill the gap. One example: we recently shared hundreds of free videos, made with industry leaders, on everything from social media marketing to audience building.

Social media steps up to the C-Suite: It’s a rarity to find someone who’s not on Facebook these days — unless that someone happens to be a Fortune 500 CEO. A full 61% still have no social media presence, according to a report from CEO.com. But 2016 marked a kind of changing of the tides. Facebook launched a new “business influencer” program, attracting the likes of Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman and T-Mobile CEO John Legere to its ranks, along with hundreds of others of A-list execs. Meanwhile, LinkedIn’s executive blogging platform now showcases more than 500 elite business authorities, from Bill Gates to Arianna Huffington, as well as countless managers and leaders who share professional advice and insights.

In 2017, expect to see more executives take the plunge into legacy channels like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as fresher platforms, from Instagram to Snapchat. In many respects, it’s no longer an option but a business necessity. Globally, more than two billion people are now on social channels; the average user spends nearly two hours a day plugged in. To stay connected to customers, employees and partners, even top business leaders will be making time for social media in 2017.

Sales and customer service get more social (and scalable): Lots of businesses still think of social media as a marketing tool, but the reality is that it’s quickly remaking the entire customer lifecycle, often in unexpected ways. Consumers are learning about products on Pinterest and Instagram, being sold to on Facebook and Twitter and seeking out customer service via rapidly expanding messaging channels, like Facebook Messenger.

This trend toward “conversational commerce” only stands to accelerate in 2017 with the rapid deployment of chatbots into the mix. For the uninitiated, a chatbot is a kind of company-specific virtual assistant, which lives within Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or another platform. These AI-powered bots are already guiding customers through an array of simple (and not so simple tasks) in a natural, conversational format, from ordering a pizza to booking flights or even managing finances. In the year ahead, the rise of the bots promises companies a way to quickly scale social selling and customer service efforts, offering users the equivalent of 1:1 service, without necessarily requiring additional employees. In fact, 2017 may well be remembered as the year bots ate the world, replacing apps and even browsers as one of the primary ways we engage online.

The biggest trend for the year ahead: change. Platforms are poised to continue to evolve in accelerating, unexpected ways. The one constant that businesses can depend on is that social media itself isn’t going anywhere. As attention spans shrink, legacy media outlets splinter and traditional ads lose their mojo, social media is increasingly the one reliable place to reach consumers. The tools and channels may shift but the cultural sea change instigated by Facebook more than a decade ago is here to stay. And you don’t need a crystal ball to see that.

This post originally appeared in Inc.

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