Social and digital predictions for 2018

Each year, I make a stab a what the digital marketing and social landscape will look like in the year ahead. Some of my predictions don’t come to pass, some are a little too early, and some are sort of in the right area. It’s probably a little more pessimistic than previous years as well.

You may disagree, or may want to expand on what’s written below. Either way, please do leave a comment about any of the ideas expressed.

Readers first, video second

One phrase that has been bandied around a lot towards the end of 2017 has been from publishers proclaiming their “pivot to readers”. At a basic level, this is the publisher’s way of saying we’ll no longer be beholden to platforms like Facebook and Google and will concentrate on building our own brand through focusing on our core readership instead.

Re-reading the above sentence, a pivot to readers sounds so blindingly obvious, it’s fair to ask why this hasn’t already been a thing for publishers before now. It’s a simple question with a bit of a complicated answer but a lot of this current attitude stems from Facebook’s pivot to video.

Facebook has been, for the large part, where news publishers have tended to get both traffic and engagement from, and when the social network announced they were ramping up the focus on video, many publishers followed suit.

The one problem: video sits natively within Facebook’s platform and it’s incredibly hard for publishers to monetise while being expensive to produce. Even for publishers who’ve built their brand on the back of Facebook, and have millions of views and fans, have struggled. Buzzfeed missed its targets and announced redundancies. Mashable sold for a fraction of what it was worth a few years ago.

Coupled with Facebook’s test with removing publisher content from the news feed into the Explore tab, many publishers finally, and in same cases belatedly, realised they could no longer depend on Facebook and had to look at a new strategy quick. Hence the pivot to readers.

Even this is fraught with difficulties. Publishers who have got used to working in the standardised social formats now need to work out what their brand positioning is to continue to attract eyeballs and advertisers, while free-to-read sites have to weigh up if their offering is enough to get people to pay or at least hand over their data, or if advertising can cover their costs.

And here’s where digital advertising also plays a role, albeit not a positive one. The Daily Mail still makes more revenue from its paper than the vastly more read Mail Online. The Guardian puts out continual calls to its readers for funding, knowing advertising won’t be enough. And Google will further penalise those sites with a poor user experience due to multiple adverts, including a default ad blocker within the newer version of Chrome.

2018, then, will not be a pretty year for the generalist news sites, or those who heavily rely on social. It could be catastrophic for local news, especially those with multiple pop ups and a poor user experience. Conversely, more niche quality publications like The New York Times and The Economist, who have already pivoted to readers and worked out what their social strategy is and how it relates back to the core product, should continue to carve out a respectfully sustainable model.

Of course, this comes with its own implications for wider society. With Facebook unsure how it wants to handle mainstream news publishers and struggling to convince when it comes to its big video bets like Live and Watch, and many publishers still fighting over the same territory, it keeps the door firmly open for hyper partisan publishers with heavy political skews. The more viral a piece of content, the more likely it is to get shared by friends and family, which will make Facebook’s algorithm happy but do nothing to heal entrenched societal viewpoints.

Journalism, then, is still in crisis, as it has been ever since I started out as a reporter 15 years ago, although it at least shows signs of asking the right questions. 2018 is unlikely to be an enjoyable year, but 2019 and beyond may be a little better.

Ironically, there are a few of the social behemoths that may assist publishers. Instagram Stories has shown some promise as a traffic driver, Facebook Messenger, of all places, suggests it could be a strong deliverer of news, while for all its core product woes, Snapchat’s Discover news platform has strong loyalty from a millennial audience. Most of all, Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages program and the more intuitive updates to ordering of search results is leading publishers to reconsider their relationship with one half of the duopoly.

As ever, though, it would be unwise for any publisher to throw their lot in completely with one platform and this year every publisher will need to think long and hard about their purpose and objectives. There will be casualties. Content may still be king, but strategists will be the kingmakers.

Virtual Reality and blockchain will remain hype, but Augmented Reality will deliver

Last year, I thought 2017 would be the year that VR finally showed a use. I was wrong. The tech has advanced but it’s still a very solitary experience and you still have to wear a daft headset. Mass commercial adoption looks as long a way away as ever.

However, this doesn’t mean that it will be useless. Tech Crunch recently highlighted how VR was being used in training environments, and this certainly seems like the most logical next step for this technology, not least because it helps solve problems that already exist, rather than try to find ones that don’t. Certainly the B2B space looks the most promising area so far for VR.

VR certainly has a more obvious application than the other hype machine that is blockchain.

You may have seen a viral image doing the rounds that suggest Bitcoin is the world’s biggest bank that hold no cash, which isn’t true. What’s been less shared is a Medium post by Kai Stinchcombe detailing why, 10 years from its inception, nobody has figured out a use for blockchain. And until that happens, and it becomes more comprehensible to the general public, both blockchain and Bitcoin will continue to make headlines while still being a rather expensive, inefficient and niche currency.

Which leaves us with AR. A less sexy cousin, perhaps, and one that is still lumped in with VR, but shows more potential. Unlike VR and blockchain, there has been fairy widespread adoption of the technology, even if the majority of people’s experiences have been limited to Instagram and Snapchat filters.

But the building blocks are in place. Pokemon Go took the concept of AR to a mass level, IKEA Place allows shoppers to see what IKEA products would look like in a physical space. Fitness AR is an app that integrates with Strava to visualise rides and runs in 3D. And most importantly, AR will be in the palm of your hand, given its built in to both Apple and Google phone offerings.

Snapchat has already taken tentative forays into AR advertising. If successful, expect to see Facebook copy this, particularly in Instagram. The battleground is being set, and expect to see at least one genuinely innovative product and / or advert using AR in 2018 that makes people sit up and take notice. Meanwhile VR and blockchain will be still remain in hyped up thought leadership articles.

Influencer metrics will consolidate into something more standardised

It’s a rare week in marketing circles when somebody doesn’t either write a piece either declaring influencers the future of marketing or bemoaning a sham industry that adds no real value to the marketing mix. In other words, influencer marketing is well and truly ensconced with marketers and is here to stay and, as ever, both sides of the debate make valid points.

What this also means is influencer marketing is maturing and 2018 should be the year that it starts to finally starts to become a valid discipline in its own right. That said, influencer marketing isn’t new, edgy or confusion. If anything, it follows a classic line of marketing right back to famous military generals advertising household goods during the Boer and First World Wards, through to celebrity endorsements that have been a staple of advertising no matter the era. It just so happens that social media influencers are far more fragmented than before, with often indeterminable value, with even a few thousand Instagram followers enough to get you labelled a micro-influencer.

Where influencers have suffered, though, is through difficulties in attributing success or ROI, especially if the work is done in brand building rather than product sales (which in itself can sometimes resemble a more social version of affiliate marketing). It’s not uncommon to hear a senior marketer ask a junior, more socially savvy colleague: “But what exactly am I getting for my money?” Often the discussion that follows is unsatisfactory to both sides.

Plenty of companies have stepped into the void, either acting as influencer talent agencies or platforms that connect brands to influencers. Both are problematic. Talent houses are duty bound to push their talent, regardless of suitability, although are likely to have standardised contracts and metrics. Platforms are more agnostic as to the talent on display but tend to remove the context and the accountability. Neither are an idealised solution but have sufficed until now.

Increasingly, though, those in-house and at agencies are asking tough questions, both from a metric and brand safety perspective. This might include examples of success with other brands, average engagements and leads from campaigns, and if they can prove how genuine their followers are. These is a good thing and will start to remove those who are either after a quick buck or are unable to demonstrate what the brand will get for their cash.

This doesn’t mean that influencers should be measured or judged by the same digital marketing metrics as other online activity, as some digital specialists or agencies will tend to do. Yes, they offer much of the same metrics that social offers, but there are needs to be an understanding of their community, what this will deliver, and more general numbers such as purchase intent and ultimately Cost Per Acquisition.

The good news is, as the discipline matures, there should be more standardised understandings of what success looks like, and what this is worth to a brand. Hopefully 2018 will be the year inflated fees and questionable ROI are consigned to the past in favour of a more solid framework.

As ever, there will be knock-on effects elsewhere. Influencers who still rely on follow numbers alone to sell themselves or are reluctant to take on long term brand partnerships may find their income stream drying up. Some may even give up social media altogether.

The other major influencer prediction comes from a more scandal-led end. Expect one or two investigations to hit the marketing press and, potentially, the more mainstream press. They’re unlikely to be on the level of Belle Gibson, the wellness blogger who faked a cancer diagnosis, but expect further digging into fake followers and influencer rings that inflate results, as well as digging into the past of some of the bigger names in the industry. PewDiePie is unlikely to be the last vlogger to be accused of closeted racism.

Fake news and harassment aren’t going anywhere

Fake news was named as Collins word of the year for 2017, with the rise of Trump and misinformation one of the abiding stories of the past 12 months. Throw in Russian bot factories, fake accounts and, in Twitter’s case, ongoing harassment and social occupies a slightly uneasy place going into 2018.

Twitter have described their verified tick system as broken and, three years after then CEO Dick Costolo admitting that the company “suck at abuse”, little progress appears to have been made.

Facebook, similarly, have performed a volte face after previously denying that the dissemination of fake news played any role in the US election. Rocks keep being uncovered. Google has also had a few algorithmic issues in surfacing fake news and Russian adverts.

The balance between news, fake news and abuse is an uneasy balance for many of the platforms. News is an essential conversation driver, especially on Twitter, yet the entrenched mindset of communities on both sides of whichever particular debate, and the filter bubble effect on Facebook make it easier than ever for incorrect stories to surface and take hold, with a spot of abuse thrown in for anybody who disagrees.

So will 2018 be the year that social media and tech finally gets its house in order and tackles these issues. Well, yes and no. Expect some progress to be made but a lot of it coming from words rather than actions. YouTube may have hired extra moderators and Facebook may have hired fact checkers, but this all feels like a sticking plaster to the wider issues.

On the surface, Facebook should be best placed to act if it’s really serious about stamping out fake news, but there are issues. We’ve already discussed the social giant’s uneasy relationship with publishers, and this needs to be fixed if the platform is to combat fake news. However, Facebook has always been unwilling to position itself as an arbiter of what is true and what is fake, and despite the efforts of its fact checking team, has shown no inclination to do so. Given the platform’s laissez-faire attitude to moderation, coupled with bizarre decisions to censor iconic Vietnam war photographs, perhaps keeping this power away from them is no bad thing.

Meanwhile, Twitter has released a series of welcome innovations in 2017, with the Moments tool in particular, providing an excellent curated summary, and gives the impression of a company with a slightly clearer vision than of past. The exception is, as ever, harassment on the platform, which has continued to grow.

In both cases, neither Facebook nor Twitter have shown anything to suggest they know how to fix these issues. Sure, there are updates or initiatives that mean well, but very little has changed or seems likely to change. It would be in both their interests to make this a priority for the year ahead.

GDPR will instigate far-reaching changes

Big data has regularly appeared on end of year prediction lists, but while data will continue to be as important as well, 2018 is less about how to mine reams of data for insights or connecting devices, as it is about security.

In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation comes into force on May 25. The new laws are both tougher in protecting the data of ordinary citizens and widely open to interpretation. The end of May promises to be just the start of both companies and lawmakers working out exactly how this will affect them.

It’s not just Europe that the GDPR will affect. Any company that handles EU citizens’ data need to prepare. Companies from the United States to Australia are spending millions of dollars to prepare themselves to be compliant.

And in marketing, where personal data is the cornerstone of many strategies, this leads to some uncomfortable questions, especially around the informed consent. How many companies know who has opted in? Is their database compliant? How badly will the opt-in elements affect the size of the database?

Do companies even go as far as JD Wetherspoons and delete your entire customer database? It’s an extreme move, but may even be cheaper in the long run than trying to cleanse the database. And if you rely on buying in 3rd party data, then you may need to pivot your strategy between now and May.

This in itself hardly constitutes a prediction — the issues have been known for some time. But equally, it would hardly be a shock if a large number of marketers are non-compliant or decide to test the boundaries, and still less of a shock to see fines and appeals aplenty as companies get up to speed.

Combined with some high profile data breaches, it also means you average everyday consumer is more literate in data protection and will be unafraid to wield whatever knowledge they have. At the very least, there should be fewer unwanted marketing activities from the second half of 2018 onwards. But it will also require strategists to take a fresh look at their approach to data.

In the long run, it should put greater power back into the hands of consumers, and hopefully encourage more thoughtful, transparent marketing. Short-term, though, expect a lot of money and urgency in the first half of 2018 and a lot of head scratching and hot takes across marketing blogs and LinkedIn. Find an authority on this topic and pay attention to them.

Social media customer service will be more important than content

A slightly less grand prediction, but one we may increasingly see as social platforms increasingly become pay-to-play. Creating content for social isn’t, contrary to popular belief, quick or cheap to do well, although the right idea can be executed quickly and cheaply.

But increasingly brands need to pay to play in the social space. Ongoing algorithmic changes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make it harder to surface organic content, while you still need time to build up followers and communities on YouTube and Snapchat to make them consistently effective.

But all the focus on creating content overlooks one of the most essential functions of all on social — customer service. You can create glorious, viral social videos, but if new or existing customers can’t get a satisfactory resolution when they ask for help, they’re less likely to repeat purchase or stay with this company.

I’ve long held that for any brand to do social well, it first needs a solid base in customer support, and increasingly it’s the customer support (or community managers, who often overlap with this area) who are going viral, both good and bad.

Really smart brands will recognise this, and start from a point of servicing the customer’s needs and talk with them rather than talking at them. Get this right, and marketing campaigns can follow. KLM are a great example of this — there is a reason why their social media is regularly held up as gold standard.

It doesn’t matter whether the support comes via Facebook, Twitter, chatbots or Snapchat. Consumers increasingly expect social media teams to help them. A great customer service setup for social media should, in turn, lead to greater word of mouth. Expect these teams to come into their own as marketing budgets get ever tighter.

Marketer. Content, social, and podcasting specialist. Ill-informed occasional freelance writer. Professional tea drinker. Occasionally has an opinion.