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Top 5 social media trends for businesses in 2017


By Ryan Holmes

RIP Vine. It seems like just a few short years ago that the network--and its catchy 6-second video format--debuted and companies raced to figure out how to cash in.

Then this October, we learned the app would be officially shut down by Twitter. Even before then, attention had already shifted to newer, more flexible video formats like the new giant on the block, Facebook Live.

This constant social media turnover is all-too-familiar and, oftentimes, all-too-costly. Companies invest in new tools and strategies, develop marketing plans and race to bring employees up to speed... only to see the proverbial rug pulled out overnight.

So what's the secret to future-proofing your social strategy? Look beyond the latest bells and whistles and turn an eye to the macro-trends driving the industry.

Here are five big movements that promise to change how businesses use social media in 2017:

1. The "reachpocalypse" peaks

Reaching users the old-fashioned way on social media--i.e. building up an audience overtime and sharing updates--simply no longer cuts it.

Algorithms are increasingly limiting the percentage of your own audience that sees your posts. This isn't some grand conspiracy: It reflects the reality that our feeds are more cluttered than ever with messages, photos and videos. Not everything makes it through.

How can businesses cut through the clutter? Unsurprisingly, money talks.

All the networks have evolved their own native ads--promoted posts and updates that look just like the real thing. In 2017, it's time to start using them.

Once the "sticker-shock" wears off, these ads are actually a smart investment. They can be highly targeted, are shareable and it's easy to track the return on your purchase in terms of views and clicks.

2. Employees become your social media army

For companies looking to expand the reach and impact of social media without spending a dime, there's an increasingly powerful option... that's already on your payroll.

Employee advocacy--encouraging and incentivizing team members to share brand messages on their own social media accounts--is poised to be a game-changer in 2017.

Even at moderately-sized companies, you can tap into hundreds, if not thousands, of new followers. Messages fired out from personal accounts are more trusted and also circumvent some of those pesky algorithms mentioned above.

I saw this, for example, in a case study my company did on sports entertainment chain Topgolf. Topgolf enlisted 300 of its associates to start sharing updates and saw Likes increase by 220 percent during the initiative's launch last year.

There's a right and wrong way to do this. Advocacy can't be forced.

Employees need to want to share company posts, and the content has to align with their own audiences. There's little point in staff blasting out B2B pitches on their personal Facebook profiles, for example.

The process of sharing also has to be dead simple. Some new tools (my company, Hootsuite, offers one) let employers push out updates to employees for re-sharing via mobile app.

3. The social media skills gap widens

More companies than ever are using social channels for marketing, customer service and sales: around 90 percent, according to the latest data from eMarketer.

But a curious thing has happened: Training and resources for frontline employees has been largely ignored. Research from management consulting firm Capgemini Consulting says nine out of ten companies report their workers don't have the requisite skills to leverage social media as a business tool.

This manifests itself in everything from missed opportunities for sales leads on Twitter to embarrassing corporate gaffes on Facebook. It'll only get worse in 2017, as employees will be expected to use ever more channels in more diverse and sophisticated ways.

Some hope is on the horizon. Social media coursework is slowly being incorporated into university programs, and not just for students pursuing marketing and communications degrees. For businesses seeking a quicker fix, online, on-demand resources can help fill the gap.

4. CEOs finally get the hang of social media

It's a rarity to find someone who's not on Facebook--unless that someone happens to be a Fortune 500 CEO. A full 61 percent still have no social media presence, according to a 2015 report from CEO.com.

But 2016 marked a kind of changing of the tides.

Facebook launched a new "business influencer" program, attracting the likes of Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman and T-Mobile CEO John Legere to its ranks. LinkedIn's blogging platform Pulse now showcases more than 500 elite business authorities, from Bill Gates to Arianna Huffington.

It's no longer an option but a business necessity. Globally, more than two billion people are now on social channels; the average user spends nearly two hours a day plugged in.

In 2017, expect to see more executives take the plunge into legacy channels like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter--as well as fresher platforms, like Instagram or Snapchat.

5. Sales and customer service get more social

Lots of businesses still think of social media as purely a marketing tool. That's not true anymore.

Consumers learn about products on Pinterest and Instagram. They're sold to on Facebook and Twitter. They seek customer service on messaging channels like Facebook Messenger.

This trend toward "conversational commerce" only stands to accelerate in 2017 with the rapid deployment of chatbots.

For the uninitiated, a chatbot is a kind of virtual assistant living within Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or another platform. These AI-powered bots guide customers through an array of simple (and not-so-simple) tasks in natural, conversational formats--from ordering a pizza to booking flights or even managing finances.

The rise of chatbots promises a way to quickly scale social selling and customer service efforts, offering users the equivalent of 1:1 service without necessarily requiring additional employees.

The one constant that businesses can depend on is that social media itself isn't going anywhere. It's increasingly the one reliable place to reach consumers.

The tools and channels may shift, but the cultural sea change instigated by Facebook more than a decade ago is here to stay. You don't need a crystal ball to see that.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

The original "Top 5 social media trends for businesses in 2017" article can be seen here.

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