By Matthew Klein

July 17th, 2015

“Social business” as a field is super broad, and it changes very quickly. Which means that figuring out where things are at a given time (as well as where they’re going) can feel like trying to nail down eels.

Staying on top of social media trends is not always easy—new advice comes in every day, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s the buzzword of the month, or if it’s something that will shape the way your business works (or should work) that you should probably pay attention to.

My colleagues and I at Falcon Social do what we can to stay on top of things. There are a lot of things to stay on top of! Beyond attending conferences, like SXSW and the recent Social Shake-up, we talk to a lot of brands about their challenges on social media.

So, here’s a look at some of the most important trends for businesses that are serious about social.

#1 – Social customer service is getting better, and more important

Customer service on social media has become more or less inevitable for most companies. Some brands may have initially resisted, either because of inertia, or discomfort with the idea of having customer complaints in the open for all to see but customers left them little choice. If companies want to have a presence on social media for marketing or other purposes, people are going to use it as a customer service channel.

While people have been using social for customer service for years now, it hasn’t rivaled other channels for a lot of companies. Now, a giant company like Whole Foods that handles customer service in-store as well as over the phone will still handle over 40 percent of its customer service inquiries via social media as their director of social, consumer relationship management and customer care, Natanya Anderson, revealed at The Social Shake-Up Conference.

And as more companies are handling a higher volume of their customer service via social, many are getting better. Response times are getting better, although there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

And more and more companies are realizing that customer service on social networks can’t be isolated from other channels. Agents should talk to customers in the same way on social and off, and should be as empowered to resolve issues in both spaces. And if they do have to ask a customer to change channels, say because of sensitive information, they should be able to handle that change seamlessly (no repeating, no lag time).

#2 – Content channels/distribution: It’s complicated

Content is everywhere, and continues to be one of the major areas of concern and investment for brands across sectors. There are plenty of sub-trends going on within content—the rise of video, mobile, the fear of content overload—which all bring their own set of challenges. But one of the thorniest issues at the moment is distribution. How do companies decide what content they distribute where, and how do they optimize distribution on individual networks and in general?

For starters, big brands have accepted that social networks are pay-to-play. Even on networks where they are seeing good organic engagement, like Instagram, things probably won’t stay the same forever. The ideal situation for optimizing distribution is having a great strategy and a lot of money, but more of one can make up for less of the other (a principle which applies to more or less anything).

Money is money, but for strategy, what can brands do? They can be smart about the channels they choose. If a channel fits into their overall marketing strategy and objectives, if they’ll have existing fans there, and be able to grow an engaged audience, they should go for it. If they’re doing it because they heard it was the next hot thing, maybe hold off.

As BuzzFeed has pointed out, content gets shared across and between networks, so sometimes it makes more sense to create content that works on multiple channels.

At the same time, some networks, and the audiences on them, are particular enough that content and campaigns that are tailored specifically for them can have a big payoff in terms of reach, engagement and audience acquisition. 

Brands that want to improve distribution should be frequently trying new things, measuring, evaluating and adjusting based on what works and what doesn’t (all the while keeping their customers’ content habits and their own business goals in mind).

"When change is a constant, it’s easy to focus on short-term strategy goals."

#3 – Data and analytics are a boon and a challenge

For every article that says that data is transforming the way people do business, there could be a counterpoint that says that people can’t do half of the things they want to do with data.

Data is big and getting bigger (sorry!). It has a big impact on brands, their ability to understand their customers, and ultimately their ability to reach them better. We’re seeing some great examples of brands using listening data to develop products or craft content. GM used listening data to figure out that metal steering wheels were getting too hot to handle, and removed them from a truck.

But at the same time, more brands find it challenging to take that data and contextualize it in a way that yields usable insights. There’s a flood of information out there, but sometimes less is more: Brands whose data use is clearly scoped out and defined, even more limited, can have better luck getting real results from it.

In terms of paid distribution, there’s plenty of controversy about viewability and the impression data that brands are getting. Julie Fleischer of Kraft says that most of their data is “crap.”

And in terms of performance data, there’s a very prudent desire, on social, to move away from single network data to metrics that are aligned with their overall business goals.

#4 – Social businesses are looking beyond social

People in the social media world have been alluding to this idea for a little while now, but we’ve begun to see more businesses start to put it into practice in meaningful ways.

These companies are focusing on integrating social across their business functions in a way that helps them reach broader business goals. They’re looking at overall marketing and content marketing strategies, PR, customer service, sales, and other departments and incorporating social into and across those teams, rather than running it in support of them.

The distinction can seem a bit fuzzy, but in reality, there’s a big difference between the two approaches.

How can you tell the difference between a business on social and a business whose social presence is really integrated into a larger strategy? When a brand launches a new product, do they plan a TV campaign, in store roll-out and live activation, then figure out how they can support it via social? And do the people running the social aspect of the campaign aim primarily to increase social-specific metrics, or do they feel they share responsibility for the overall success of the campaign?

Or consider a complaint from a customer that comes in through social. Say it’s an obscure product question, and the person assigned to handle it on Twitter isn’t able to resolve it himself. Does he tell the customer to call someone else in the company? Or is there a system set up to pass it to someone who can handle it—even if that person doesn’t normally deal with issues on social—in a way that creates as little friction as possible for the customer?

The point is that a lot of the key functions for businesses—sales, marketing, PR, customer service, recruiting—can happen on social media. But social’s impact is diminished if it stands on its own. It should be used as an element — often a very powerful one— of a broader business strategy.

When change is a constant, it’s easy to focus on short-term strategy goals. Even if trends don’t generally last, these challenges and shifts are likely to be around for a while, particularly the last. The brands that are able to integrate social across their business, in a way that maximizes its impact, are the ones that will be poised to lead in the coming years.

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