The start of the new year is a perfect time to give your business’ social media strategy a once-over. In the past, brands found success by extending their traditional marketing campaigns into the social realm, as well as creating unique messaging tailored specifically for these platforms. But as the social community matures, the way individuals interact with their favorite companies is also evolving, and there are a few key strategies that will determine 2014’s social media winners.

Smart social media managers will recognize that the key this year is putting the customer front and center. This means a move beyond marketing into prioritizing customer service and engagement. Across industries, tending to consumer needs in a timely manner will be of the utmost importance, and businesses will also have to reassess the structure of their social and customer service teams. Not only that, social media managers will need to recognize that people are hungry for visual content — and novel uses of it.

To figure out which strategies are most likely to spell out social media success in 2014, we turned to our own research. First, we combed through the comprehensive Sprout Social Index, which details 2013’s most important engagement and customer care findings. Then we looked through the rest of our recent reports and case studies, pulling insights from real-world examples. All in all, we learned that, as networks grow, so do the needs of their users. Brands that prioritize their customers’ desires are most likely to win with them, and keep them.

All Eyes On the Customer


We called 2013 The Year of Social Customer Care, and for good reason. Last year marked the first time brands explored the potential of this type of service, even going so far as to create dedicated Twitter handles for customer support teams. In the past, social media was often seen as an extension of traditional marketing media, a way to send a brand’s messaging out into the world. Today, however, we know that customers are more interested in asking specifically for what they want, rather than waiting to hear from companies on their own.

Over the course of 2013, user engagement was growing at a rate nine times that of Facebook and Twitter’s combined growth, according to the Sprout Social Index. This is due in part to users taking advantage of social customer service by reaching out with questions of their own, reporting service outages or requesting troubleshooting assistance, for example. Utilities services such as cable and Internet providers see the most inbound engagement, and also do a good job of responding to customer queries, compared to other industries.

Emulating this behavior is important, especially when customer retention is a top goal for 2014. Repeat customers can be a brand’s most valuable asset, especially considering that 20% of existing customers can account for up to 80% of future profits, according to reporting by Jennifer Beese. With more social media users simply tweeting to brands with questions instead of following them, providing prompt and courteous service is as essential to customer acquisition as it is to retention. Remember, the number of followers doesn’t necessarily reflect the amount of customers a business has.

Unfortunately, average customer service response times grew to 11.3 hours in Q3 of 2013, compared to 10.9 hours the previous year. Neither of these figures reflects the level of speed — or the perceived attentiveness — required to satisfy customers and keep them coming back. “A 20% response rate to messages requiring attention means that 4 out of 5 consumer inquiries go unanswered,” said Sprout Social CEO Justyn Howard. “This would not be tolerated in traditional channels like phone and email, and is not a sustainable practice.”

One way to streamline this process is to train social media managers in winning customer service techniques. By breaking down the silos between two historically disparate departments, companies can aim to elicit quicker responses from those versed in social media best practices. Brands should recognize the huge benefit this type of restructuring could provide, and jump on it early in the year.

Keep Them Guessing


Last year, social media users gained access to a slew of new social media platforms (Snapchat, Vine) and features (Instagram Video and Direct). In 2014, however, it won’t be enough to get your brand an account on the hottest new network. Instead, brands will have to surprise users with creative content and features. Long gone are the days when posting a pretty picture would suffice.

Mobile marketing stunts usually go viral thanks to voracious sharing, but already in 2014 we see other apps encroaching on social networks’ turf. This week, for example, dating app Tinder has been featuring a profile of someone purporting to be Mindy Kaling, star of The Mindy Project. It’s almost certainly a marketing play, since the profile describes Kaling’s eponymous TV character flawlessly — and plugs her show at the end. Certainly, a dating app such as Tinder is social in nature, but not in the way typically considered conducive to marketing. This just goes to show, however, that in 2014, marketing will not be constrained by anything so mundane as traditional definitions of social.

Creativity is not absent from existing networks, though. In mid-December 2013, online photography store Photojojo was among the first companies to make use of Instagram’s private messaging feature, Direct, for marketing purposes. A brief giveaway video asked followers to share their funniest photos or videos of holiday cheer with Photojojo using Direct. Adding friends to the message earned users extra entries and winners were notified by private message.

Snapchat grew explosively in 2013, and shows no signs of slowing down this year, particularly since many brands are now on board. Already, companies such as Taco Bell and the New Orleans Saints have used the platform to offer exclusive discounts or share behind-the-scenes footage. Looking ahead, companies will have to challenge themselves to look beyond the obvious and seek novel uses that will encourage virality and instant engagement.

Ultimately, social media success in 2014 will rely not on turning your existing strategies inside-out, but rather on fine tuning them to fit evolving customer expectations. Branded use of these networks will perform better if the emphasis moves away from marketing and toward treating the customer with care and the desire to surprise. In 2014, companies should not focus on reinventing the social media wheel. Instead, they should make sure it provides the smoothest possible ride.

[Image credits: Jason Howie, Boudewijn Berends, Aaron Jacobs]