2016's social media shakeup and what it means for your business

Creating a social media strategy is now considered best practice for all businesses.

You would think that with hundreds of millions of users apiece, the titans of the internet would be satisfied with their patch. Instead, social media continues to transform as each network vies to increase its power and reach.

Just when you thought it was safe, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google are rolling out new concepts that will affect small business. If you use social media to find and retain customers, you will need to revisit your practices over the next six months to keep on top of the latest trends.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network, announced last October that it was expanding the range of options to its popular “like” button. For years people had asked Facebook to add a “dislike” button but the company resisted.

"People aren't looking for an ability to down-vote other people's posts,” according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “What they really want is to be able to express empathy."

Last week, the company fulfilled its promise with three emotions that imply dislike, tempered with three new positive ones.

In a pilot test Facebook gave users in Ireland and Spain the ability to add six emoticons (called Reactions) to the bottom of posts. As a result, you can now use images that mean “love”, “haha”, “yay”, “wow”, “sad” and “angry”in addition to “like.”

Just when you thought it was safe, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google are rolling out new concepts that will affect small business.

One concern is that mobile-wielding users will choose to respond with an emoticon rather than a written comment. Comments usually yield much richer information to companies that monitor their social standing.

However, the consensus among social media marketers is that this is generally a positive move for business. The extra nuance will help a business understand customer reaction to news on a company page. Did customers just like the new vacuum cleaner or did they “love” it?

The marketing effect

Content marketers should find it easier to measure the success of their posts on Facebook. Did the video elicit the intended response or something else? (It’s worth noting that Facebook considers any reaction of equal value to a “like”.)

On a broader scale, a company could use aggregated reactions to analyse sentiment towards its brand. Facebook has already added a Reactions graph to its Insights analytics tool for this purpose.

It will take time to understand how these reactions will work in the complex algorithms that power the social network. If a user reacts to a post with “angry”, do they want to see a similar post? What does the user want emotionally and what will Facebook decide to show them?

Twitter is undergoing a more fundamental upheaval. With the return of founder Dick Costolo as interim CEO, the company is desperately trying to turn itself into a critical communications tool rather than a curio for news buffs.

Twitter isn’t touching the 140-character limit that made it famous, for now. Twitter still wants people to communicate publicly in short, pithy comments. The biggest changes are in the backchannel, known as direct messages (DMs).

Until recently a Twitter user could only send a DM – essentially the same as a Tweet but going to its own private mailbox – to mutually following Twitter accounts. This was a privacy requirement to prevent spammers from overwhelming the channel.

In March 2015 Twitter allowed users to voluntarily accept DMs from Twitter accounts they didn’t follow. It followed up with an even bigger change last July when it blew out the DM character limit from 140 to 10,000.

Customer service rising

Both developments are important to businesses for one key reason: customer support. Customers and prospective customers can DM a company with sensitive questions about their products and services without having to follow the company first (and hope they get followed back).

The longer character limit on DMs means businesses can respond properly to more complex questions without having to resort to email.

You may wonder why it’s better to answer inquiries on the same social platform rather than firing up Gmail. The answer is more business. When companies engage and respond to customer service requests over social media, those customers end up spending 20 to 40 per cent more with the company, claims Bain & Company, a venture capital firm.

“What they really want is to be able to express empathy." - Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO

Another useful statistic: 71 per cent of consumers who experience a quick and effective brand response on social media are likely to recommend that brand to others, compared with just 19 per cent of customers who do not receive a response, according to brand insight company NM Incite.

The longer limit is particularly useful for companies that frequently deal with non-English speaking customers. It’s easy to burn through 140 characters when simple words such as “fridge” translate in German to “Kühlschrank”.

Some people want Twitter to increase or remove the 140-character limit on Tweets as well, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Chinese competitor Weibo, on the other hand, has recently extended its character limit to 2000. Twitter may want to reconsider its position in the near future…

The battle of the chat apps

Micro-blogging site Weibo is an easier platform to learn first. It is closer to a public broadcast-style Twitter than the collection of private discussion groups that define WeChat. Businesses can advertise on Weibo, amass followers of their company page and run content campaigns with tips or how-to articles.

WeChat is still relatively unknown among small businesses despite boasting nearly as many users as Facebook Messenger (600 million active monthly users). Most of those are in China, but the company is growing quickly in the rest of Asia, including Australia, and has a foothold in the US.

WeChat is far more powerful than Messenger. It includes direct messaging, voice messaging, payments and location services. Businesses can use the platform to build a following, although right now it makes the most sense for those looking to establish a customer base in China.

Read next: How to implement a social media policy at work.

WeChat has a section similar to the Facebook Wall called Moments, which displays images, videos and posts to followers’ walls.

Apart from internal changes, the war among global tech companies for the online user is entering a new phase. Facebook and Apple first released apps-for-mobile devices that looked good, loaded news stories faster and showed fewer advertisements. Google has responded with a technology to make web pages load as quickly as articles in mobile apps.

At stake are billions of dollars in advertising revenue that the internet giants are hoping to squeeze from online and newspaper publishers.

Is LinkedIn the one to watch?

LinkedIn spent 2015 establishing its role as a publisher of articles relating to professional development. The launch of LinkedIn Pulse gave small businesses a free blogging platform with potentially enormous reach. Rather than luring customers to your lonely company blog, LinkedIn Pulse lets you “fish where the fish are” by pitching stories to your network of LinkedIn connections.

This year, the focus is on mobile. LinkedIn has rolled out no less than six mobile apps in the past six months. Three apps are for subscribers to its premium services (Sales Navigator, Elevate and Recruiter). The dedicated LinkedIn Groups app is a much better way to participate than the desktop browser; there’s a new SlideShare app and the Pulse news app has top stories of the day from your network.

If you think the new social media trends don’t affect you, think again

Most importantly, the main LinkedIn mobile app has reinvented messaging. It aspires to be a more professional channel for communicating with colleagues, customers and suppliers than Facebook Messenger or WeChat.

There are enormous expectations for chat messaging in general. Snapchat is maturing into an innovative marketing channel for companies that want to reach younger demographics. Ideas include posting coupons, running promotions or sweepstakes, and behind-the-scenes footage of events.

The digital impact on business

The differences in speed are dramatic. Facebook claims its Instant Articles load 10 times faster than interactive stories by big publishers such as the New York Times.

Apple followed suit with a News app designed to bring users within its embrace and its advertising network.

In October Google responded with its own super-fast internet experience, again targeting load speeds on mobile devices. Accelerated mobile pages (AMP) are stripped-down versions of HTML, the programming language that forms the standard for displaying web pages.  

Google’s initiative differs from the other two in that the technology has been released under an open-source licence. Any publisher can follow Google’s recipe for fast-loading pages for mobile devices without surrendering advertising revenues to the app’s creator.

Businesses that frequently publish content to a large percentage of mobile users can start experimenting with these quick-loading pages. A plugin for Google’s Chrome browser can tell you whether a page will qualify as AMP by scanning for non-approved lines of HTML code.

The commercial benefit? Faster load times reduce the likelihood that a reader will click away before the page loads. More web traffic generally equals more revenue, so it’s worth asking your developer to work out which pages of your site could comply.