Thinking back on what social media management meant a decade ago, the word that comes to mind is tactical. When brands first started using social media, it was mainly for publishing content and light community engagement. For some it was an experiment. For many, a chore to be left for the intern who “got it.”

Social was built originally for consumers, not businesses or teams, and we set out to build the software for any organization to be successful. Our early product helped social teams build content calendars, find and respond to relevant comments, publish posts across multiple channels with ease, and track proxy metrics of success (remember Klout scores?).

Over time, social activity ballooned, matured and fractured as new networks, content formats and communities emerged. Consumer usage became mainstream and multi-generational. Brands’ investment in social began to reflect this wider and more committed adoption. Today, more than 4.9 billion people worldwide use social media, and 53% of consumers have increased their social media usage over the past two years. Social ad spending in the US alone is expected to surpass $80 billion by 2025. None of these patterns show signs of reversing course.

Consumers now see social as a connection to the companies and causes they care about—a faster, richer experience than support@ email addresses and 1-800 numbers. No longer just a frontier marketing or niche conversational channel, social is fast becoming the nexus of customer relationships and the primary digital face of brands.

What does that mean for the next generation of social media management solutions? 
Brands will need more than just the next iteration of tools. Simply responding to more customers, publishing on more networks and sharing raw data across teams, will only go so far.

As consumers increasingly make social the digital hubs of their lives, brands have the chance to understand their audiences and markets deeply, and to spread that knowledge throughout their organization. Social media management solutions will evolve into the thread that connects and strengthens the bonds between brands and consumers—woven throughout every team, strategy and customer experience.

The next generation of business on social is not particularly about “social” at all. It’s about real digital customer relationships.

Customer intelligence is converging on social

We’ve seen how social customer care has changed the way marketing and customer support teams operate. Years ago they may not have had a reason to interact or share information regularly, but social media has made them close collaborators out of necessity. As social becomes the primary hub for high-resolution consumer insights, imagine how other departments could transform their work.

Consider the speed and richness of customer information you can glean from social compared to channels like email or phone. Social content is immediate, continuous and more fully represents the person. Email, phone and other channels are far more asynchronous—frustratingly for days with email—and are episodic, giving a limited view of the customer. An Instagram Story reply happens in real time whereas an email might go unread for days, or weeks. Who a customer follows on X (formerly Twitter) and interacts with says a lot more about who they are as a person compared to one service representative’s short conversation on a support call.

Green data visualization citing Sprout Social Index data that 53% of consumers say their social media usage has increased over the last two years compared to the previous two

With people putting more and more of their lives online—including their lives as customers—social data is becoming the core representation of the customer. This impacts and benefits every team, even when they’re not on the front lines of social. We’re seeing departments like recruiting, legal and product asking to get involved in social, a reality I never anticipated seeing when we started Sprout over a decade ago.

At the same time, social is becoming more complex. Brands need to factor in how quickly social is fragmenting and morphing across emerging platforms and evolving consumer preferences. More social networks to choose from means consumers are exposed to a wider set of perspectives (be them other users, influencers or businesses), making it crucial for brands to demonstrate they understand what their audience wants in each space.

This growing bounty of intelligence means social media will continue to supplant traditional market and customer research, as well as legacy customer records. But businesses need tools that can aggregate, disseminate and analyze social data at scale and across the organization, before it decays—whether that’s because the opportunity passed, preferences already shifted or a competitor acted first.

This will take advanced, yet elegant, technology. Simply increasing budgets and manpower won’t help brands capitalize on the opportunities social media brings to the table. For brands to consistently deliver the exceptional experiences consumers expect, and to fully realize the emerging opportunity to know the customer, social media management solutions will need to become more accessible, intuitive and purpose-built for every team.

The future of social media management is…

With each emerging generation and as new platforms come online, social will only become further ingrained into both society and, in the business world, every workflow and team. Whether that’s directly interacting with a customer or applying audience insights to the business, social media is the front-line for customer relationships and market intelligence. It’s where your brand, reputation and opportunity exists.

Graphic explaining how the future of social media management tools will be ubiquitous, personalized, intelligent and interoperable.

For organizations to be truly customer-centric, the future of social media management solutions must be built with these four pillars in mind:

1. Ubiquitous. With social becoming the kernel of the customer record, social media management solutions will need to become accessible and consumable by every team. That doesn’t mean your sales team is suddenly going to be posting Reels. Rather, democratizing access to your social management platform means upleveling data and insights for specific departments, business processes and decision makers.

Today, only the most forward-thinking companies share social media insights pervasively within their organizations. Tomorrow, this will be table stakes. We’ll know we’ve entered the next era when all teams see social data as critical to competitively addressing customer, product and business opportunities.

2. Personalized. While brands aren’t rushing to remove traditional channels like phone and email from their communication strategies, social is raising the bar for how and when they engage with their audience. Consumers don’t just want brands to respond to them on social; 70% of them expect companies to solve their problem in a personalized manner. But “personalization” has to mean more than populating dynamic fields with standard name or location inputs.

Younger generations, in particular, bring any and all issues to brands on social, assuming they’ll be met with swift and authentic interactions. They expect the people behind the brand account to treat them the way they’d be treated walking into a local, independently owned shop: with empathy and acknowledgement of their individual preferences. With powerful social media management tools that intuitively surface the context they brands need to truly know each customer on this level, they can engage accordingly.

3. Intelligent. Expecting teams to manually collate massive amounts of social listening data and transform it into actionable recommendations takes time away from their core work. Departments need answers, not more chores. With AI innovation, expect to see social media management solutions to automate and elevate how social data is used across teams. AI automation can, for example, present recommendations that empower brands to create highly personalized experiences in no time at all. Beyond saving time and resources, AI advancements in social media management solutions will enable teams to build relationships that influence revenue and loyalty at scale.

4. Interoperable. Customer relationships start, grow and expand on social. So it’s unsurprising that 96% of business leaders expect social data to be integrated into their organization’s CRM capabilities over the next three years. But integration is just the beginning.

It’s not enough to simply grant every department access to social data. Social media management solutions should process, package and seamlessly integrate data with the entirety of your organization’s tech stack. Social media management tools will become the go-to source that every team uses for immediate, in-depth market insights and customer intelligence.

The social media management solutions of tomorrow will be designed with every team in mind

Thirteen years ago at Sprout, we started by helping social teams simplify the tactical functions bogging down their workdays. We strove to empower social marketers, often working in teams of one, giving them the tools needed to keep up with the publishing and engagement responsibilities of their job.

But consumers expect more from brands now as social increasingly becomes the digital hub of their lives. The future of customer experience and understanding starts and ends with social. And social media management solutions must evolve to be more than an island, but a primary source purpose-built for every team to harness consumer insights and build deeper relationships.

For more perspective into how consumers’ social media behaviors and expectations are evolving, download The Sprout Social Index™ today.