It’s been a memorable year in social media. 2015 saw the birth of live social streaming, with apps like Periscope and Meerkat winning over early adopters. Snapchat fully shed its reputation as a niche network and now counts more than 200 million active users. Meanwhile, video dominated social headlines, with Facebook users now logging an estimated 8 billion video views a day (even more than on YouTube, by some counts).
What does 2016 hold for social media users? Expect to see new technologies fundamentally change how we interact with social media, opening up new options like shopping and enabling us to share ever-more vivid, real-time experiences. But new functionality and the widening universe of social options also threaten to leave some users in the dust. Here’s a peek into the crystal ball at five trends that will change how we use social media in 2016:
Virtual reality comes to social media: “Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.” That’s what Mark Zuckerberg wrote after Facebook acquired Oculus, the virtual reality company, for $2 billion back in March 2014. Well, we won’t have to imagine much longer. Facebook has already begun incorporating Oculus technology into its 360 Video. The unique videos, which have rolled out on News Feeds, allow users to experience scenes from different angles (looking right, left, up, down, etc.), on both web and mobile devices, creating a more immersive experience.
Right now, there’s 360 Video available from the likes of Vice and The Disney Channel and a really cool clip from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Expect to see more immersive videos in 2016 as publishers and even brands catch up with the technology and begin creating more content. As for true, fully immersive VR, the consumer version of the Oculus Rift headset is slated for release in early 2016, opening up even more interesting possibilities for our News Feeds. Meanwhile, Oculus VR has already released a new “social” appcalled Oculus Social Alpha, for use with the Samsung Gear VR headset. The virtual movie-watching app allows you to “sit” in a theater and watch a video in real-time with other users — perhaps the first truly social application of Facebook’s new technology.
Social shopping takes off: Over the last year, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest all unveiled or upgraded in-line buy buttons, which allow users to purchase clothes, crafts, gadgets and more without ever leaving their feeds. In many respects, this development is long overdue. We’re already discovering and talking about products on social media, and four out of five people say that posts from friends directly influence buying decisions. Plus, overseas in China, Korea and elsewhere, social channels have long incorporated ecommerce functionality.
So far, the primary stumbling block in North America has been ease of use. To buy on social media, we’ve had to click out to other sites (always problematic on smartphones) or we’ve been offered limited selection (a lathe now defunct Facebook Gifts). But innovations like Pinterest’s Buyable Pins now let users browse color and style options and pay, all without leaving the platform. In 2016, expect to see networks’ role shift from being channels whose primary function in ecommerce is providing referral traffic to being platforms where users make purchases directly.
Facebook Live takes live streaming mainstream: 2015 started off with lots of excitement about the new crop of live streaming apps, which allow users to broadcast live video to their followings. By late summer, Twitter-owned Periscope already boasted 10 million active users, and just this month it was named by Apple the best iOS app of 2015.
Expect to see live streaming reach a whole new, mainstream audience in the year ahead as Facebook rolls out its own mobile streaming functionality, generally referred to as Facebook Live. Already being beta-tested among a small number of U.S. iOS users, the feature allows for instantly sharing live video using the Facebook platform. What’s key here is that you don’t have to download a special app or leave Facebook to use the new video functionality. If Facebook Live rolls out as expected, it’s likely to not only dominate other live streaming options but also to fundamentally change the way Facebook’s 1.5 billion users engage with the platform.
The social media skills gap at work widens: With the explosion of workplace social networks like Slack (which recently saw more than 1 million users logged in at the same time) and the imminent launch of Facebook at Work, using social media in the office has gone from taboo to requirement. Businesses are incorporating social tools to streamline internal communications, to help sales staff reach customers, and, of course, for marketing and advertising. The problem is that front-line employees aren’t up to the challenge. Among 2,100 companies surveyed by Harvard Business Review, just 12 percent of those using social media feel they use it effectively. Even millennials brought up on social media are falling short: “Because somebody grows up being a social media native, it doesn’t make them an expert in using social media at work,” explains William Ward, professor of social media at Syracuse University.
The consequence of this social media skills gap can be seen in mounting corporate social media gaffes, from misused hashtags (see #WhyIStayed) to scheduled posts gone awry, not to mention trillions of dollars (yes, trillions) in lost productivity and business value. In 2016, expect to see social media training finally begin to make its way into the workplace in an effort to close this gap — similar to initiatives launched when office software suites and later email and the Internet itself emerged as critical business tools. A number of online offerings now provide self-paced lessons and video modules designed for the workplace. (Hootsuite is giving our course away free.)
Social media customer service gets a lot better: Customer service on social media has always seemed like a great idea. Why wait on the phone when you can Tweet and get an answer immediately? But the reality has been quite different. A new study of 500 top retailers shows that only 20 percent answer questions sent via Twitter and 54 percent respond via Facebook. And the average response time ranges from 27–31 hours! Not to mention that not all customer service problems lend themselves to being handled out in the open in a public forum.
Fortunately, change is on the horizon. In the latter part of 2015, both Twitter and Facebook significantly upped their customer service functionality. Twitter ditched the “mutual follow” requirement for its DM (Direct Messages) feature, meaning companies and customers can now contact each other directly and privately. At the same time, it lifted the standard 140-character limit for Direct Messages, so DM now makes a great one-on-one channel for tackling customer issues. Facebook, not to be outdone, has launched a beta version of Messenger Business, offering a new chat-based avenue for companies to have real-time, personal conversations with customers. Considering that Messenger has more than 800 million users, it’s not hard to see it evolving into a ubiquitous, mobile-friendly channel for customer service in the years ahead.
Perhaps the biggest change in social media is the accelerated evolution of networks into “everything platforms.” Twitter isn’t just for blasting out 140-character updates anymore: It’s for one-on-one messaging, video-sharing, customer service and more. Facebook isn’t just about connecting with friends: It’s now (or soon to be) a workplace productivity tool, a video sharing and streaming platform, a place to shop, etc. Similar transformations can be seen across LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat, among other networks. Social media has become less a discrete thing that people do than a natural component of everything they do. And that trend shows no signs of slowing.