Feature

The Year Ahead for ... Social Media

Allan Blair fully expects social networks to evolve and some sleeping web giants to re-emerge to attack Facebook's areas of weakness.

Social media. Perhaps the two most commonly used words in marketing circles in 2010.

Every client wanted a social media strategy and every agency had a solution.

This shouldn't have come as a shock to any of you. For some time now, social media has been the phrase to drop by any self-respecting planner, creative, account executive or marketer across the globe. However, the past 12 months have seen the industry mature and, for the first time, start truly delivering against the tantalising promise presented at the dawn of Web 2.0.

Dell, Coca-Cola and Starbucks have all touted their fantastic success on Facebook and Twitter, Pepsi flamboyantly dumped its $50 million Super Bowl ad spots to invest in social media, while campaigns by Tipp-Ex and Old Spice hit the headlines for their brave and irreverent approach.

As we move into 2011, one question that I'm consistently asked is: "Will the social media bubble burst this year?"

My answer is always a resounding "no". Social media isn't going to disappear any time soon, but it's evolving and, by 2012, it will be a completely different beast to what we see now.

If we look at the trajectory of social media over the past five years, it has been somewhat turbulent. Up until very recently, many were predicting the death of TV advertising at the hands of the social web, but this just hasn't happened. In fact, TV ad revenue continues to grow, while most social media sites are struggling to make a profit. No surprise, really, considering the fickle nature of web users that has resulted in a number of high- profile sites (Friends Reunited, Bebo etc) dominating the landscape, only to burn out and become virtual ghost towns after their 15 minutes of fame were up. While it looks like Facebook has well and truly won that battle, the war isn't over. It's unlikely that a new social network will come in and take over the market any time soon (although it will happen), but where we will see growth and innovation this year is in tools that help social web users manage their multiple personas.

As users sign up to more and more social sites and services, it is becoming increasingly hard for them to control and manage the new profiles and fractured network of contacts and connections they create. Casual social users will want to streamline these profiles into one, easy-to-manage persona and Facebook's Connect technology will continue to help them to do this. More adept social networkers, with a large and fragmented social graph, will be looking to niche services such as Diaspora, which help separate out various presences for different groups and situations. This will pose a conundrum for marketers.

Monetisation will also be a big theme throughout 2011, and it will make it even more complex to decide which social platforms we should be on.

Shareholders who invested so heavily in social media over the years will start to demand a return on their investment. With some sites suffering from dwindling user numbers and revenue models failing to deliver, we may see a few major names disappear this year.

However, some of the sleeping web giants may re-emerge to make their social mark this year by attacking the areas of weakness on Facebook: search, security and entertainment.

A pretty woeful search functionality and continued security lapses are a constant thorn in Facebook's side, and Google is well placed to take advantage. As Google continues to increase the prominence of social data in its search results, I fully expect to see new social product from it this year which combines increased security and a focused approach to building a network that provides more personalised and contextualised data based on users' likes and the comments of their friends and connections.

Meanwhile, MySpace has been quietly redesigning and repositioning its site to focus less on social networking and more on its core area of expertise: music and entertainment. It recently announced a partnership with Facebook, entitled Mashup, which will offer the News Corp-owned site a lifeline of much-needed users, but may also give Facebook a nifty solution to providing rich music and video content in a compelling way. Something it just doesn't have at the moment.

One of the major drivers of change in social media in the past year has been hardware. Smartphones and tablet computers have revolutionised the way users access the internet, and in particular social media, by giving people constant connectivity to the web and the ability to share what they are thinking and doing at all times. The mass adoption of smartphones in 2009 coincided with a huge spike in people signing up for Twitter; and, last year, GPS functionality saw location-based services and sites such as Foursquare become big news. As the price of smartphones and tablets drops, more and more social web users will become mobile, opening up an ever-increasing number of opportunities for agencies and brands in hyper-local marketing.

For me, the most exciting social media development of 2011 will be the influence the medium exerts over traditional advertising and marketing.

The real-time and interactive nature of social media is raising consumers' expectations about the accountability and openness of brands, while the speed at which information spreads is making them a lot more media savvy and culturally aware.

The way we create relationships between brands and consumers needs to change. In an article in The Guardian, the paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, wrote about the effect social media has had on its business. It's changing readers' perceptions of what makes news and how it is delivered and, as such, it is redesigning its creative and editorial processes to stay current. The ad industry needs to do the same.

A new type of brand loyalty is emerging, fuelled by social media. It no longer relies solely on products meeting the brand promises in our ads, but a mutual relationship based on trust and respect. This means we need to start moving away from short-term bursts of siloed activity, such as TV campaigns, to longer, deeper programmes of activity that can be adapted to respond to users' feedback and take advantage of emerging cultural trends.

Some of us are already doing this within the social media arena, but the challenge for our industry is how we develop more nimble processes that allow us to create these flexible, responsive relationships and still produce a high-end creative product across all our disciplines.

Allan Blair is the director of social at DDB UK.

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