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As the latest move on our quest to remain one step ahead on all things digital, our Online Marketing Account Manager Scott quizzes Owen Williams, Managing Director of Siml and previously Head of Editorial Strategy at BBC, on the trends defining the future of social media for businesses.

From video and chatbots which continue to drive growth across platforms, to engaging the sought-after Gen Z audiences and catering to the niches, buckle down for a journey back to the future, as we get a guided tour on what lies ahead for social media.

S: You have witnessed the evolution of social media first-hand during your time at the BBC and now at Siml. What’s the biggest change you’ve encountered?

O: The pivot to video was huge, but the recipe behind what works and what doesn’t remains a mystery to many. To me it’s much like the early days of mixed media when advertisers switched from paper to radio, only to promote the same scripted message.

When moving image arrived by way of cinema, screenings were little more than filmed radio. It has taken over a century for the television and cinema experience to get to where it is today.

The potential reach and speed of production that social video offers means audiences are ever more demanding. Creatives lured by the newness of social video are using TV and cinema ad formats to make content for social, which explains why the massive numbers don’t magically appear…The best thing to do is turn to the professionals. A social media consultancy like Siml can help companies create video content tailored specifically to social. 

S: At its core, social media is all about conversation. How do you see brands interacting with consumers via social media in a future populated by chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI)?

O: Chatbots are a tool designed to aid a positive interaction between a brand and the consumer. The danger for brands lies with completely replacing human beings with automated solutions. Humans are complex and nuanced creatures, and I wouldn’t trust a machine to convey intricate traits such as empathy.

I suspect that AI will reduce customer service resource requirements by expediating many basic consumer queries and flagging more difficult questions to a human.

The trick for brands will be presenting the difference between a robot and a person with a degree of transparency to help consumers get used to this new way of engaging.

They can make them aware that they’re conversing with an automated system and notify them when that switch to a human happens.

S: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have all boosted their live streaming, TV and video sharing capabilities over the last couple of years. Will video be integral to the future of social media? Or is this just a fad?

O: Video is already an integral part of the social experience. An experience which will continue to evolve as devices, wearables in particular, become more flexible and intuitive.

In 2016, we saw Facebook’s fascinating experiment with the Oculus platform via its Facebook VR interface. Despite the fact that Augmented Reality (via Magic Leap and Oculus Rift) is yet to become a true major player, continued development and evolution is underway. And to think the original iPhone was brand new only ten years ago… we’ve come so far so quickly!

S: All types and sizes of businesses, from Gabby’s global courier brand to Paul’s local café, are investing in social media advertising. How will social media adapt to this competition for advertising space?

O: The algorithms of the largest social media platforms are constantly tweaked to create a more “meaningful” experience for communities. The challenge for business owners with small advertising budgets is to leverage the right platforms to reach the most desirable audiences and convert those audiences into buying customers.

The key for business owners is allocating appropriate resources to the platforms that deliver the greatest return on investment. There is categorically no need for a small business to maintain a highly active presence on every social platform, but there’s a real need to understand what each platform can offer your business.

S: Younger audiences (Generation Z) grew up with digital technology and the internet at their fingertips. How do brands need to adapt the way they interact with these digitally savvy users?

O: We’re already seeing brands employ the right people (or the right people in the right agencies) to manage their customer experience.

Moonpie is one of the phenomenal examples of brands who’ve cornered a market.  Patrick Wells is the distinctive voice of a confectionery brand on Twitter and, at 27, he is racking up levels of engagement you’d see on the biggest Facebook accounts. He often trolls users or other brands in a hilarious fashion, but the level of trust he gets from clients is almost unparalleled. Patrick’s tweets prove that worthiness is not a value that holds much cachet in Gen Z’ers when it comes to getting them to take action. Have some fun instead!

S: Right now social media is more of a stand-alone product. Do you see it linking with other marketing efforts in the future e.g. content, SEO, PPC, offline marketing or email?

O: It’s certainly part of the armoury and the cross-platform benefits shouldn’t be understated. But given the immediacy of social media in terms of customer and audience engagement, and the flexibility it allows in terms of creative output, it needs a degree of reverence.

A frequent bugbear of mine is the tendency to lump all social media under one umbrella. “Social media” is a descriptor, in the same way “food” can be used to describe both corn flakes and anchovies, but the two are very different. In the same way, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram each require a distinct plan of action.

S: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have stood the test of time while new and “revolutionary” social media channels rise and fall. Will these social giants be toppled? Or are they here to stay?

O: Short answer – no! Although I suspect Twitter may come up for sale again in 2019. Instagram’s massive growth spurt will continue apace and rumours of Facebook’s demise have no real merit. Don’t discount YouTube’s scale either!

S: Touching on rumours of Facebook’s demise, the platform did have a lot of bad publicity in 2018 surrounding the power it gives advertisers, as well as their data breaches. How can Facebook reinstall its credibility and win back people’s trust?

O: Community-building is at the heart of trust. The core Facebook user interface is looking bloated and rather dated. It may be time for them to entice their community with an updated look and feel. Change can be as good as a rest.

S: Most social platforms cater for all niches and groups at the moment. In the future, are we going to see channels that focus on particular topics, hobbies or brands?

O: Don’t discount Reddit, it does all of this and more. Its unusual interface may put off the masses, but this is part of the channel’s charm. That mild impenetrability also keeps the size of the overall community relatively small, at least in comparison with Facebook.

The people behind pivoted live-streaming video games when they realised the power of that community, giving birth to the massively popular Twitch.

To answer your question, it’s already happening. And those niche audiences are tens of millions strong – which can mean a bumper payday for start-ups!

A few examples of social start-ups catering to niches:

  • Tingles is a social video app with a total focus on ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) video content. YouTube simply can’t cater for that niche audience
  • Vero is an alternative for people who got annoyed with Instagram shifting to a non-chronological feed (yes, it takes all sorts)
  • Mastodon is essentially Twitter without ads
  • Peloton is basically a new religion! It offers live fitness classes with professional trainers up to 20 times a day. It’s inspired massive venture capital investment in a mere few years, and has some of the most devoted and invested users of any start-up I can think of

S: And finally… why should brands use social media over the next few years? What does the future hold?

O: Social isn’t going away. In fact, it will become even more intertwined with our daily routines. There are around 7 billion people on the planet and 2.3 billion of them use Facebook every month. Why would you ignore that audience?!

The ability to simultaneously reach millions, while speaking with an individual on their wavelength, is unparalleled. And being in the privileged position to immediately respond, react and – where necessary – reinvent, is just magical.

This article is featured in the latest edition of BARK magazine, for more insights, predictions and what’s going on in the Digital world, download your copy here!

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