Paid Social Recap: What Shaped the Industry in 2016

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2016 was the year when Facebook’s earnings growth wouldn’t stop, Pinterest reached a milestone 150 million users, and Snapchat launched its eagerly anticipated API. It was also a year of increasing social media usage, as 64% of the UK population visited one or several of the major networks at least on a weekly basis.

Users are not the only ones drawn to social media platforms; according to a report from IAB UK, ad spend on social media sites increased by 45% in 2016, reaching a staggering £1.25 billion, 71% of which is spent on mobile. And while many feared that economic uncertainties following June’s Brexit vote would negatively impact the confidence of UK advertisers, overall expenditure is forecast to grow by an additional 3.8% in the year to come.

The digital world in general, and social media in particular, is known for being an incredibly fast-evolving field. New platforms, products and formats appear in a quicker than ever pace, forcing advertisers to constantly change their game or risk being outpaced by competition. So what were some of the key developments that shaped the paid social industry in the past twelve months?

Facebook ups its Messenger game

Facebook launched its Messenger Chatbot platform in April, allowing businesses to deliver automated customer support, content and other forms of interactive experiences. The company also revealed plans to build a machine learning function into the system so that bots gather users’ preferences over time – serving them with relevant content, information, and items they’d like to buy. Sounds all good, but what are the benefits for advertisers?

Well for starters, Facebook Messenger is an incredibly popular communications platform, currently reporting more than 900 million active users. It is also a natural channel for chatbots as it is trusted by both consumers and companies for conversations and conversions alike. Nevertheless, advertisers need to carefully consider the user experience, connecting the interface to meaningful experiences, processes and programmes that already (should) exist within the organisation. As long as they do, Messenger chatbots can be a great complement to other paid activity across both Facebook and Instagram; for example, a brand can use a bot to interact with customers while they are simultaneously running a DR campaign on the platform(s), assisting with urgent inquiries and further steering users down the conversion funnel.

Twitter facilitates conversations

A mere five days into the year, Twitter introduced conversational ads: a new exclusive ad format aimed at facilitating communication between businesses and consumers. For years, companies have realised the potential presented by Promoted Tweets in driving awareness of their offers but the new feature further encourages engagement by making it easier for users to participate in brand led discussions. The format is particularly interesting for businesses as it offers them the opportunity to largely shape the conversation about their brands though pre-determined messages and hashtags. And while some marketers were wary that this form of built-in call to action would scare audiences away, it is worth noting that it is always up to the individual user’s discretion whether or not to engage.

In fact, Twitter’s conversational ads can prove an excellent tool for personalised engagement on the platform. They enable brands to optimise earned media from a paid campaign, increasing the additional reach as well as improving the media value of those earned impressions. However, it is important to remember that as with other forms of promoted tweets, carefully thought-through targeting is key as is A/B testing in order to allow for optimisations towards top performers. By experimenting with different types of questions and other calls to action, advertisers can determine what type of content is most likely to resonate with users, ultimately steering conversations in a direction where they end up further benefiting the brand.

Instagram pushes for mobile shopping

A highly visual platform, Instagram inherently lends itself well to displaying beautiful pictures of products and if used wisely, can be equally effective in gradually bringing your audience all the way through to conversion. Studies show that 56% of consumers who follow brands on social media do so in order to view and research products and according to Instagram’s internal reports, one third of its 500 million users have bought an item of clothing after seeing it on the platform.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Instagram is pushing deeper into the world of mobile commerce, launching a test run of ads with “Tap to View” and “Shop Now” buttons earlier this year. These posts will ultimately have more depth, allowing Instagrammers to quickly learn about, review and purchase items of interest. And while the platform has previously refrained from links directing users to destinations outside the app, the new functionality will bring important product information to users earlier on in the shopping journey – without having to ever leave the Instagram interface. For businesses, this is important as it enables them to go beyond simply inspiring and raising awareness of their brands and products. By seamlessly incorporating ways for consumers to not only discover but convert, Instagram is leading the way for how social networks can play an important role in the quickly expanding world of mobile commerce.

Video becomes key at Pinterest

2016 was the year when Pinterest expanded its ad offer internationally, most notably by opening up Promoted Pins to businesses in the UK. Equally interesting, however, is the company’s foray into video advertising, amidst reports of a 60% increase in organic video content on the platform. Comprised of GIF-style video clips, the new ad format also allows brands to include a total of six featured Pins, appearing below the video, further encouraging users to take actions after watching the content.

Described by many as an intent platform, where users go to plan for future purchases and events, Pinterest is a natural tool for gathering inspiration as well as for researching and comparing products. Therefore, the launch of video ads is interesting as it offers businesses additional ways to communicate product features to customers, moving them from early (planning) to later (conversion) phases of the funnel. And since 67% of Pinners say that videos on the platform have previously inspired them to take action, it will be interesting to follow the potential presented by video ads going forward.

And then, there’s Snapchat…

Since its launch in September 2011, Snapchat has been an enduring hit with users and advertisers alike. The company rolled out its long-awaited API earlier this year, allowing a handful of select partners to build technology that helps deliver and optimise Snap Ad campaigns. They also made targeting and measurement a priority for their advertising business in 2016, announcing new in-depth targeting options in September and bumping their total third-party measurement solutions to 15 over the course of the year. Snapchat offers an engaging advertising format through which brands can engage with users with high-quality content consisting of both graphics, motion and sound. And as reports show that 61% of the platform’s 10 million UK users are between 18 and 29 years’ old, this is particularly interesting for brands wishing to connect with a Millennial audience.

2016, however, was all about diversification for Snapchat, as the company rebranded itself to Snap Inc. in September, reflecting a widened brand strategy which goes beyond its core messaging app. The launch of Spectacles, a set of video-capturing sunglasses, has come to exemplify the company’s venture into hardware and augmented reality, further supported by the launch of World Lenses – a feature which allows users to overlay 3D effects not only to their faces but also to the surrounding environment in photos. As Snapchat continues to develop and expand its offer, both for users and advertisers, it will be interesting to follow the implications for the paid social industry in the year to come.