Imagining the Future

By Gail Z. Martin

Social media has brought people together in ways that were unimaginable just a decade or so ago, enabling us to forge or rekindle personal connections while presenting affordable possibilities to expand branding, credibility and influence on a global level.

Many businesses—large and small—are still catching up with technology, looking for ways to leverage these new opportunities and develop strategies to harness social media's potential to achieve their marketing goals.

It's a safe bet that social media platforms will continue to innovate and evolve. The companies poised to make the most of those changes will be ones with flexible strategies that can adapt as tools and user behavior shifts. Five-year plans are meaningless in the face of disruptive technology that is far from technological maturity. If you want to make the most of social media, you're going to need to learn to go with the flow.

No one can predict the next social media breakthrough. Yet it's possible to make some educated guesses based on emerging trends and technology. These shifts may have negligible impact on the way some businesses use social media, and present enormous opportunities for others. It will be up to you to watch for new platforms and capabilities and see the possibilities they offer.

Mobile Matters

Consumers have been shifting their online consumption from desktop computer to mobile device for a while—and that's likely to continue. Three converging factors contribute to this: the increased computing power and capabilities of smart phones; the decreasing expense of bandwidth; and the widening availability of Wi-Fi access.

Phones are now essentially small computers, and some of the larger versions blur the line between phone and mini tablet. It's only natural for consumers to take advantage of that computing power on the go. Users may still access sites from both their computers and their phones, but they will expect the experience to be identical regardless of the device, and will demand performance to be device-agnostic. So if your website isn't mobile compatible, you're at a serious disadvantage.

Can you offer a mobile app that makes it seamless and convenient for customers to access/use your service? Creating apps has gotten easier and less expensive. What kind of quick access to your services/information would benefit users? Whether it's getting a daily tip or inspirational message or being able to order your product online, customers are likely to access your services more frequently if they don't have to log in each time or type in a URL to a browser.

Vertical Integration

We're already seeing major social media sites buying up compatible competitors or absorbing sites that offer complementary services. That consolidation is likely to continue as social media sites mature. When sites acquire other platforms, those capabilities get integrated into a seamless whole. We're likely to see more such vertical integration in the future, and that may lead to the silo-ing of sites that no longer play well with each other because of perceived competition, like what appears to be happening with Facebook and YouTube.

On one hand, vertical integration can make it easier to use compatible sites together, magnifying their reach and harnessing their unique strengths. On the other hand, if a tool you've relied upon is acquired by one “team" and other tools are acquired by a competitor, you may suddenly find yourself working around new complications. To use the Facebook/YouTube example, people who have built up a large YouTube following and a significant amount of content on the site find themselves at a disadvantage if Facebook were to suppress links to YouTube in favor of “native" video or Facebook Live posts.

When this kind of shift occurs, you'll have to decide how to respond. Do you maintain content in both formats, shift your usage, or fine-tune each platform to reach different segments of your audience? Likewise, the platforms may rethink their tools and decide to repurpose them, as Google did with Google Hangouts On Air. If you've built a following and a strategy around the capabilities of a single tool, be sure to have a backup plan. Many enthusiastic Blab users were stuck when the multi-user live video site abruptly shut down, taking their content with it. Never make any single site/platform the sole repository of your content. Back-up or mirror everything of value.

The volatility of the social media landscape makes it all the more important for you to obtain email addresses for your followers so that in the event that one of your platforms closes down a tool or just disappears, you can tell your audience where to find you and how to access your content. Your email newsletter remains essential because it is a channel you control. (For even more security, export a copy of your mailing list to a spreadsheet and store it on your computer as a back-up in case your email platform were to suddenly change.)

Vicarious Experience

Virtual reality, drone cameras, personal action cameras, smart glasses and RFID tracking all suggest that as these technologies mature and align, we'll see social media evolve as a way to share our experiences in ways that go far beyond words, photos and video clips.

We've had a taste of what location tracking can offer when apps suggest restaurants, hotels, discounts and entertainment options based on where we're standing at the moment. While some might find that to be intrusive, others will gladly trade-off anonymity for convenience and bargains. Now imagine apps and social media sites that serve up a full travelogue of your experience for your followers with street-level video from an integrated action camera, smart glasses or Periscope coupled with personal drone camera clips.

Experience Enhancement

Smart companies will find ways to augment the social media experience as well as the in-person experience, to create a personal documentary that is more than the sum of its parts. Just like Wi-Fi access has become a drawing card for hospitality businesses, we may find that this “meta" enhancement of the virtual/social media experience also becomes a differentiating feature, particularly with demographics with high technology and social media usage.

How can you make your customer's social media interactions more fun and individualized, and where does the opportunity arise to incorporate your branding? Offering cool digital enhancements that customers can incorporate into their social media stream can increase your visibility, cement your branding, and increase customer engagement.

How can you use social media to enhance your customers' experience with your services? Mobile apps that enable online buying, placing an order for take-out or securing a reservation are already commonplace. A growing number of events have free apps that replace a bulky paper program and enable attendees to search for the performer/speaker, title, or topic they want. These apps also allow users to put together an individualized agenda so they don't have to keep flipping through the program, and make it as for users to get the most out of the event by providing access to last-minute program changes, hours of operation, etc.

How could you create a better, more customized, more seamless experience for your customers using social media or a mobile app? Some industries will find more immediate opportunities than others, but any way you can reduce the friction of interfacing with your customer will score you satisfaction points. Or to put it in another way: how can social media and mobile apps create a concierge-level of service for all of your customers?

Social media is here to stay, and companies are absent at their own risk. Or, to put it another way, if you're not engaging with your customers and prospects, your competitors probably are. Maximizing social media's possibilities goes far beyond merely posting updates. Think about how you can use social media to revolutionize how customers intact with you, solve problems, and achieve their goals

Excerpted from The Essential Social Media Marketing Handbook

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Gail Z. Martin owns DreamSpinner Communications. Contact her at Gail@GailMartinMarketing.com