Not your grandparents’ social: The ongoing evolution of social media

Social media has driven momentous change in the business world over a little more than a decade. It has changed the way companies communicate, the way they operate, and the way they connect with people.  However, as we look towards 2018, social media itself has changed drastically since its inception and it is a far cry from the relationship-focused utopia that many people imagined at the outset. This raises a question: is that change a good thing?

“Uphill, both ways, in the snow…”

I’ve occasionally been known to go into an old man-style “back in my day…” rant, bemoaning the diminishing over time of the attributes of social media that once drew many of us old-timers to these channels.

When social media first came on the scene it represented a dramatic shift from one-way communication to two-way communication online. Suddenly people were connected to each other in seemingly intimate ways and early adopters found a sense of community amongst fellow adoptees.

As individuals flocked to these platforms, brands realized that they had an opportunity to connect and close the gap with their customers. People like Lionel Menchaca and Richard Binhammer at Dell, Frank Eliason at Comcast, Zena Weist at H&R Block and others paved the way for large companies to use social media to connect with customers directly. Importantly, they built relationships with people that were different from the one-way marketing tactics seen in other channels.

But the platforms only lasted in this state for a short time (rapid change is normal in any emerging space). Before too long, we started to see traditional marketing approaches re-emerge as social media companies began to look for ways to generate revenue.

Say goodbye to the honest campfire circle. Say hello to super-sized bonfire, complete with branded logs and paid pyrotechnics.

As money flowed in to the platforms, marketers began to look to apply the same tactics that had been traditionally executed elsewhere. Everything from low-end contesting to flashy creative to interruption focused advertising became fair game on social platforms. At the urging of the platforms themselves, we also saw companies downplay the importance of community management – and customer engagement – in favour of reach and frequency with audiences.

Those of us who have worked in this space for a while have felt this shift acutely. For me, the opportunity for businesses to connect more closely with their customers was what drove me to embrace social media when it first emerged – and the shift towards an ad-driven approach pained me as I saw the industry move away from that mindset.

Change can be good

It would be a mistake to assume that all of this change is bad, though.

The reality all along was that connections-focused social media alone was always going to struggle to justify itself once marketing became a focus – particularly in the case of consumer-focused brands. For most of the companies used to targeting millions of people in any given national market, the scale just wasn’t there to move the needle – and 20 likes on a Facebook post was meaningless to people looking at the bottom line.

It would also be a mistake to say that the shift towards a more advertising-driven social media landscape was all negative. The ability to more effectively deliver content to people based on their interests, for example, allows for more relevant and meaningful interactions than a ‘spray and pray’ approach – and social media provides that contextual targeting in spades. We consistently see social channels out-perform others in many campaigns – so something is working.

From a user’s perspective, if we accept that platforms need to make money and therefore advertising is inevitable, this targeting should make the experience more relevant and less jarring for users of the platforms.

Lastly, we should acknowledge that communities of (non-corporate) interest remain vibrant in social media. For example, my wife and I have found enormous value in Facebook groups for new parents in recent months as we prepared for the arrival of our baby. The ability to connect with people through social channels is clearly still there – and still very much in demand – for individuals.

What’s next?

One thing is certain: Social media isn’t done changing. Not by a long shot. New platforms and technologies continue to emerge. Many current trends nod towards the original engagement and connection-focused nature of social media, while keeping business realities top of mind.

Recently I’ve been pleased to see more companies returning focus to their existing customers – a practice that harkens back to the early days of social media and recognizes that social media provides a unique opportunity to manage customer service issues at scale. These companies are bringing a renewed emphasis on community management and online support, and integrating this with business systems in a way that was not possible ten years ago when social media first took off.

Several brands are also creating Facebook groups for their most passionate and valuable customers and partners. These companies are recognizing the value in engaging them 1:1 versus the customers who are simply complaining that they didn’t like the font on a package they saw at the grocery store.

Meanwhile, while some initial hype has died down, we’re also seeing an ongoing evolution of technology that is allowing companies to scale their engagement with customers and handle common queries quickly and easily. With messaging platforms continuing to outpace other social channels, technologies such as chatbots are likely to become increasingly relevant in the year ahead.

While some people hold tight to the idealistic virtues of social media, the reality has changed and as an industry we need to change with it. As businesses head into 2018, my hope is that more ‘mature’ organizations will embrace the revolutionary opportunities that these platforms present, while keeping sight of social’s roots in building connections and relationships with customers.

If they do, then perhaps “back in my day” won’t be so far from today after all.