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What five years & 1,127 data points taught me about the evolution of social media

By Kristin Johnson / November 14, 2018

Let’s face it: the evolution of social media and its rise to increased significance isn’t a particularly revolutionary topic. We’ve all experienced its transformation from a destination for cat GIFs, random musings and lunch conversations to the go-to platform for political stances, revolution-sparking commentary and deep discussion—with a few cat GIFs thrown in there for good measure. But that evolution’s impact on business’ strategy is often misunderstood and underestimated.

Over the past five years at Sprout Social, my team has developed more than a dozen data reports on social media trends and examined thousands of statistics illustrating the changes in how brands are using social. Most importantly, we’ve dug into the impact of social on the relationship a brand has with its customers.

Through those insights, two things have become clear: first, our expectations of brands on social are constantly rising, and second, most brands are constantly playing catch up.

Don’t call us, we’ll call you

When I first started at Sprout, marketers viewed social as a one-way street: their personal platform to promote deal and marketing messages. When a brand actually listened to anyone else on social and responded accordingly, it was seen as revolutionary. What seemed like a simple human behavior—conversation—was bogged down with bureaucracy, levels of approvals and hesitation from even some of the biggest brands in the world.

When brands decided they actually wanted to have a simple dialogue with their social audience, it often required a war room full of fancy computers, corporate counsel and C-level executives—and of course, their army of interns.

At the end of the day, it was easier and safer for companies to simply use social as another advertising mechanism, turning it on when they needed a few more eyeballs on their content.

So what changed?

People’s expectations. And so did the impact of those expectations on brands’ bottom lines.

Our data at this stage showed that 89% of people’s social messages to brands never received a response, and the people we surveyed highlighted the huge revenue implications for unresponsive brands: 30% of us will go to a competitor if we’re ignored. Brands could no longer operate under the pretense that customers didn’t want a conversation—we were demanding it.

Let’s talk about it

Because of that, brands started to shift their approach and started doing exactly what their audience was begging of them: responding. More and more brands began using social for exactly what it had always been: one of the best ways to have a dialogue with your audience, get feedback and start conversations with the most important people to your brand—your customers.

In 2015, a Twitter user named Esaí Vélez tweeted a complaint at JetBlue that his seat back television had shown nothing but static for the entire flight, while all the screens around him worked. JetBlue replied, “We always hate it when that happens. Send us a DM with your confirmation code to get you a credit for the non-working TV.” Just 23 minutes after his initial complaint, Vélez tweeted the brand again to compliment their fast, exemplary service—and wish them a happy Thanksgiving.

The pay off on some of these conversations was huge as some of these interactions became viral, international news.

When a Canadian man asked Samsung for one of their new phones and playfully attempted to bribe them with a drawing of a dragon, the company replied with a drawing of their own: a kangaroo on a unicycle. The story of the conversation went viral and was featured on the Today show and The Globe And Mail. PR Daily called it a “PR victory” and CNET called it the “the best thing Samsung ever did.”

Of course, stories of social media conversations like these are fun and heart-warming, but actively building the brand-consumer relationship also makes for good business. Being responsive to consumers on social media (even if they might be joking) was the top factor that influenced customers’ purchasing decisions. Plus, the virality of these instances changed the expectation for all brands to build a genuine, authentic and exceedingly “human” presence on social.

It’s this authenticity that’s at the heart of successful social interactions. While these dragon-drawing exchanges are fun, they’re not necessarily scalable. No one can predict when an opportunity will arise on social—so brands realized that if they wanted to keep pace with the evolution of consumer behavior on social, they needed to drive conversations, not just wait for them to happen.

Tell me everything

This call for authenticity from brands has ushered in a new era for social—one in which companies are required to peel back the curtain and ensure every message, interaction and strategy is authentic to their brand and customers.

Today, people are more interested in transparency and connection than ever. We’re less concerned with flawless Instagram feeds and clever ad campaigns and more interested in understanding where brands stand on political issues and how they run their businesses.

In fact, our data finds that customers are now holding brands to a higher standard than other public institutions—and even their own friends and family—when it comes to transparency. We might think it’s okay for Uncle Harvey to fudge his golf score a bit but we won’t tolerate comparable behavior from brands. American consumers have more trust in businesses than we do in government or the media—and with that trust comes great expectations.

People want to know a brand’s CEO and what they stand for. We want to follow the CEO on Instagram and see them touring factories, volunteering or attending political rallies. When a political issue relates directly to a brand and affects its customers, we want to see the brand take a stand. In fact, two-thirds of consumers say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues.

REI and Patagonia did exactly this in 2017. When President Trump moved to reduce protected land around the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, both retailers condemned the act on their websites and social media.

Real, meaningful connection

Of course, our current state of connection will evolve as social media trends change and consumers’ expectations continue to shift. But one thing will remain the same: social is often the most intense microscope and the best megaphone for everything a company does.

To that end, there will be an increasing desire for brands to be a conduit for conversation and take social back to the idea it as founded on: a place for people to find commonalities and connections rather than divisions and attacks. And while we can’t say with absolute certainty where social media will be in another five years, we can say that brands that navigate social media with transparency, authenticity and integrity will always be on the cutting edge.

Kristin Johnson

Kristin Johnson

Kristin Johnson is the Director of Communications & Content at Sprout Social. She is an experienced marketer with a passion for impactful storytelling, fostering her team's growth and sparking thoughtful discussion. Outside the office, she enjoys yoga, cooking and a great pint of beer (usually, in that order).
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