Six social media and digital communications trends for 2015

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One of the most enjoyable hybrid academic-practitioner experiences I have had this year has been as course leader of the PR Academy Digital Communications Certificate course. The reason is that we have been able to incorporate a lot of contemporary thinking around ways of learning as well as the emerging field of digital communications and social media. This includes blended approaches to online and offline learning (with Stuart Bruce leading a face-to-face session, alongside my own direction of the web-based aspects, including guest webinar presenters).

Additionally, I include formative feedback on tasks completed throughout the course (leading to the final summative assessment – which is criteria based with the most relevant feedback form I’ve used to date). Finally, the course allows for the existing knowledge of participants, plus application to their specific interests, organisational requirements and practical experience. The input of students also helps us to develop the course, and their engagement and reflections benefit my own understanding and practice.

As a result of the recent course, I’ve been reflecting on how in 2015, professional use of social media and digital communications will be essential for anyone working in PR, internal communications, public affairs, marketing and many other functions, in almost every type of organisation.

Increasingly I note how communications practitioners are connected on a constant basis through their mobile devices. It used to be the case that those working in-house, as an example, were unlikely to respond to emails out of “normal working hours” let alone be contactable globally which they are of course today. Recently the death of the legendary former motor industry correspondent of the Daily Mail, Michael Kemp, led to recollections of how he used to telephone leading PR heads on their home numbers on Sunday evenings to source a story for the next day’s front page – and how on international car launches, he’d ask for a phone line (often no easy thing to find) so he could call in his story to be published and get a leap on his competitors.  How different to the always-on, report-it-now journalistic method of today.

Also, today’s PR practitioners are on the whole familiar, either personally or in a work context, with the main ways of using social media and digital communications. Their big challenge is keeping up to date with trends and developments to be able to make informed recommendations in a variety of situations. This is the context in which we’ve developed the PR Academy Digital Communications Certificate online course. As well as its practical value, it aims to help communications practitioners demonstrate their competency in this emerging field through assessment across six core areas.

Taking each of these, I’ve been able to consider a trend that I believe is set to be increasingly significant in 2015.

1. Future demands smart personalisation

Mobile first is the default for 2015 with 4G, optimised websites, apps and device integration each contributing to an ‘always on’ communications environment. With the online world perpetually to hand, the demand is for smart personalisation of communications to deliver what people want, when, where and how they want it, without compromise.

Technology increasingly enables the selective ‘pull’ of information to meet personal needs, and also supports a targeted ‘push’ approach. Filtering presents opportunities, but also acts as a barrier, particularly for change communications when those with existing attitudes block out messages they don’t want to hear.

2. Tailoring the 4Ts – techniques, tools, technologies, terminologies

The past decade has seen incremental development of an ever-larger array of techniques, tools, technologies and terminologies (the 4Ts) becoming part of the professional communicator’s toolkit. In 2015, effective application must go beyond familiarisation with the latest shiny new gizmo or gadget, and involve tailoring the 4Ts appropriately for all online users.

Knowing what is required is critical – even more important is being able to justify a tailored approach to show why certain techniques, tools, technologies and terminologies are relevant in specific situations. Best practice is not a single solution but expert utilisation of what is right at this moment in 2015.

3. Building multi-dimensional profiles to rank key influencers

The promise that ‘big data’ could automate organisational communications has proved a fallacy. It takes people to understand people and gain sufficient insight to guide decision-making. In 2015, the trend will be to build multi-dimensional profiles to truly, madly and deeply understand our key influencers.

Rich qualitative and quantitative data that relates to individuals, not averages or generalisations, is required to understand who needs to be engaged, who will be valuable advocates, and who will emerge as activists and challengers. Our understanding of influence needs to be more sophisticated with a matrix of factors incorporated in ranking and relationship building.

4. Evidencing value from strategic planning

The era of employing a ‘digital native’ to churn out digital communications and social media content is over with recognition that this is a strategically significant function. Integration with top-line goals and plans is vital and evidence is required to secure the professional resources required to deliver value across the organisation.

Professional communicators are required to deliver verifiable evidence requiring ‘hard’ skills (research, analysis, assessment, forecasting, budgeting, etc), alongside ‘soft’ human engagement and technological competencies. The flow of tangible as well as proven intangible benefits arising from investment in digital communications and social media are becoming important key performance indicators in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

5. Securing a reputation for content leadership

Content creation and curation need to step up a gear in 2015 as only the best will secure a reputation for content leadership and cut through the morass of online clutter.

A focus on online marketing of content has seen aggregation, ‘cut and paste’ copying, superficiality and promiscuous pitching of uninspiring ‘storytelling’ dominate at the expense of relevant, informed, and meaningful material.

Those who secure a reputation for content leadership will be increasingly valued as influencers and trusted sources. These may be individuals, traditional media brands, organisations, celebrities – in fact, anyone – who applies a mindful approach in managing their online presence with care. Authenticity may be found in paid, owned, earned or shared media, but adopting a mindless approach to seeking coverage that’s more about saturation than satisfaction lacks any genuine credibility.

6. New approaches to risk, issues and crisis management

The old ‘certainties’ and ‘rules’ of identifying risk, issues planning and crisis management cannot simply be replaced with simplistic advice as the online world presents a more complex, dynamic environment. Readiness remains essential, but responses need to be proportionate and increasingly situational – ie being able to recommend and implement a considered solution, in a timely manner according to the particular circumstances.

The nature of online risk, issues and crisis continues to develop, from irritating Twitter trolls to more serious strategic hacking threats to corporate security. Communications insight is required alongside legal and technical expertise within cross-functional teams. Specialist understanding from a variety of perspectives enables clearer consideration of digital developments in the real-time, ever changing context that creates predictable and entirely unexpected threats and opportunities.

My position is that whilst the nature of digital and social media communications continues to evolve, it is vital for communication practitioners to develop the competencies that support organisations in staying ahead of the competition and to be able to weigh the balance between early adoption and being left behind. I’m a pragmatist, so tend to view digital hype and, indeed, forecasts/trend type posts with some cynicism. But having been involved with this course through two cohorts in 2014, I felt it was useful to reflect and look forward.

As the PR Academy Digital Communications Certificate course is primarily studied online (with one face-to-face day in London), it is ideal for global participation, and I’d love to see more students from different cultures to enhance our learning and development of the course. As I’ve said above, it is designed to focus on individual learning requirements, practical application to particular organisational circumstances, and incorporate emerging and established knowledge. The next class starts in February 2015; access full details here on the PR Academy site.

16 COMMENTS

    • Daniel – thanks for your comment. Cannot say I’ve ever been accused of convoluted writing before 😉

      With regard to jargon, my understanding of that term is that this refers to specific words that have meaning to particular groups that may be difficult for others to understand. As I’m writing on a blog called PR Conversations about social media and digital communications, I’m using language that I believe would be familiar to our community. Your comment, seems to position you as the outsider then! (I am known for my sarcasm)

      Of course, language in this arena that is initially viewed as ‘jargon’ often becomes common parlance – I refer to your OMG as an example. And of course, the selection of many words from podcast to selfie, unfriend to vape in the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year lists: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/25/vape-this-years-selfie-2014-word-of-the-year

      • As Heather sort of says jargon is in the eye of the beholder. Its appropriateness depends on the audience you’re talking to. Jargon is never a good thing when talking to an audience that might not understand it. However, jargon is frequently a good thing if talking to a professional or insider audience as it allows you to focus on the interesting ideas or concepts without explaining basic terms that people should be expected to know. Indeed understanding which of the two approaches should be applied is one of the skills of a good public relations person. Sometimes you need to do both e.g. when presenting a public relations strategy you might need one version for the chief communications officer, another for the chief marketing officer and another for the CEO as each will have different levels of understanding. Marketing professionals rarely understand PR properly.

        • Thanks Stuart. There is a lot of jargon around which is one of the benefits from studying the course where the 4Ts covers a lot of different aspects where clarification is vital. Of course, the course’s students find it helpful to build their lexicon so that they can help explain emerging ideas to their bosses too. Otherwise, there’s a lot of ‘heard about this latest thing shouldn’t we be doing it’ without any strategic purpose.

  1. Heather – thanks for a thoughtful and well-reasoned post. The most salient phrase from it, for me, is this one: ” It takes people to understand people and gain sufficient insight to guide decision-making.” There is SO much information packed into that sentence!

    First, the PR measurement world needs to come full circle, back to this credo and away from the idea that machines can do the content analysis without significant human interaction. My research of five years ago pointed out the problems with such tools, and I’ve seen little that disabuses me of my POV.

    Second, PRs continue to believe that proving our value is the main purpose for conducting research, measurement and evaluation, when it truly is about gaining insight for decisions and strategies. It’s intrinsic to risk management that one must UNDERSTAND the risk environment, and retain sufficient flexibility in acting and reacting to that environment. Insight, therefore, is the most important result of research — it’s the point of data, information and knowledge (to borrow a continuum from the organizational learning and knowledge management literature.)

    Finally, seeing the publics, stakeholders, employees, clients, customers, suppliers, governmental officials, gadflies and activists as PEOPLE is essential. They are not some different species because of their relationship to our organizations, but many (especially marketers) seem to think so.

    Thanks for feeding my brain today.
    Sea

    • You are welcome Sean. I’ve been reading quite a few of the predictions for social media that are around at present and although personalisation seems to come over strongly as a trend, often this is touted as being addressed by automation. That fills me with horror as I recall the era of Consumer Relationship Marketing (CRM) which was no such thing. It was basically database marketing with a lot of ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ as a result. Communicators cannot abdicate responsibility for understanding people to machines – not if they don’t want to create more problems than they solve.

      Agree with you wholeheartedly regarding the real value of research. It surprised me this year in discussion with ‘evaluation’ companies that they aren’t also research oriented. So all they do is measure the output (I wouldn’t go so far as to even call it outcomes let alone anything further). I gather rarely are these measures even used to establish benchmarks let alone inform future research. Indeed, I’ve heard that some PR clients want the output measures to be ‘corrected’ when they make a campaign look unsuccessful rather than using this as an opportunity to learn or inform future actions. Shocking really.

      And, I love your final paragraph as it is surprising how often this simple fact seems to be missed. The worst culprits seem to me to be internal communicators (and HR functions) though. It is evident in the language of employee management where the focus should be on managing the conditions that allow people to do their jobs, not on controlling people. I’ll stay away from ‘engagement’ and ’employee advocacy’ for now!

  2. OK. Here goes. I tend to agree with Heather’s comment above when it come to paragraphs one and three. But, hey, let’s focus on our differences in paragraph 2. I have problem when it comes to celebrating research. I tend toward Steve Jobs’ view here, which basically suggests that one needs to ignore focus groups and research and concentrate on transforming reality and people’s desires instead (As Ian Dury might say “I had a love affair with Nina in the back of my Cortina – a thrill made possible by the likes of ‘enry Ford”). The subjective and objective often get muddled in research. Research too often becomes a barrier to making progress and seeing things clearly. Instead, risk is what we should cheer. And we need to see that research of people’s opinions often confirms understandable risk adverse conclusions. For instance, nobody wanted Google until Google invented itself and launched its service on a market that had seemingly no “need” of its service. That is until Google transformed their desires and became a verb.

    • Paul – I am not in disagreement with you in respect of research not being a very good driver of innovation as people are notoriously bad at being able to envisage a future that is different to the present. I recall research being done when I worked at a vehicle breakdown firm in the early 1990s where our customers said they did not want car phones (‘mobiles’ were large handbag size) but did want a button to call the police/emergency services. But who could expect them to see then that the technology would drive a ‘need’ to be in touch 24:7 on a global basis? I’m not sure even those who develop technologies always see the use to which their inventions will be put.

      Another piece of research said the company shouldn’t change its name from National Breakdown Recovery Club – my boss told the research team to change their conclusions! The problem with that research was that he had a belief the name should be modernised (to Green Flag which was what the company used in Europe), but needed to persuade the board. There it was the fact the directors had built up the business and so couldn’t see a different future.

      However, can we really blame research? We weren’t connected to the tech world enough to know how mobile phones were developing. Perhaps that is where our research should have focused (or maybe at that time, such a future was still Tomorrow’s World). The public were right in saying that they didn’t want car phones as they were at that time. It is all about interpretation and insight. What can we deduce from what people tell us – and what can’t we tell? In the second example, my boss knew more than the public about branding and in this case, his opinion was a better piece of research than those of the focus groups who largely had the same historical connection as the board.

      But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Research can be part of the process of innovation if framed as such. It can be part of the mix of materials that help give us the spark of an idea on which to build a creative campaign. It can help us understand the people we are seeking to engage with – it is then our interpretation of this that adds the value, not what the people say per se. It can help us to spot the trends – and which not to follow if that’s the obvious direction that others will be following. It can also help us scope out the level of risk that we should be taking.

      To stay with my vehicle breakdown experience, I used research in the statistics generated by our records to identify where best to put my PR efforts in developing campaigns. What types of breakdown should we focus on – and what could we understand about people’s behaviour that led to such incidents? If I could figure that out and reduce call outs, then we saved money and kept cost of premiums down. We also understood what motivated people and introduced effective joining incentives as a result. And, we used research to test which adverts were most effective in securing new business – which we could track with coding.

      There are times to take a risk, and times when research is helpful. I wouldn’t drive through standing water without checking how deep it is – to do otherwise would be stupid. Even a Jobs would have got into trouble if that puddle turned out to be a lake!

  3. Heather, you make some very good points (though it’s much more fun when I think you don’t).

    The first TV adverts for mobile phones promoted them as a/ good for calling the emergency services in the event of an accident b/ as useful rape alarms for women trapped in their cars. It was the mass market experimenting that widened the horizons of the handset makers and popularized the wider uses we now take for granted. And I fully agree, the follow up research by the handset makers revealed the trends and thereby added well-needed fuel to the fire (forgive me for being clumsy with words).

    You are also right to point out how research often leads to productivity increases by revealing how people’s actual behaviour and desires can be used to fine-tune existing services according to the way in which people actually use or perceive them.

    But still… I never said all research was nonsense and useless (I often hire researchers and use the research results in my work). My point was that research’s worth was over-estimated to the point that it has become a barrier and an excuse for a lack progress. That’s a point I think you partially agree with.

  4. Paul – I would certainly agree with you on all points (such Seasonal goodwill we’re having!). However, I think that where Sean and I are coming from, is that in PR practice there is generally a lack of connection between research and evaluation – or indeed, undertaking research in general (as argued in the earlier post by Natalie Bovairhttp://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2014/12/making-the-case-for-solid-public-relations-research/ )

    Given that the majority of PR practitioners are not visionaries in the style of Steve Jobs (although they may like to think they are), the general reliance on habit and gut feeling in informing PR strategies and practices rather than any attempt at using research seems to be less about progress and more about a fear of progress.

    Sadly, however, I think when research is used in PR practice, it is often not about insightful risk-taking, but used as Sean argues to justify the function to management/clients, and/or to originate questionable statistics and other data to drive some ‘creative’ story.

    I think we are all in agreement over the need for robust research alongside the ability to know when to take a risk, rather than ignorance in terms of research methodology and use of data to avoid taking action.

  5. Hi Heather – this is an insightful read! Could you please elaborate on multi dimensional profile and also how a B2C organization can build a build such a profile?

    Thanks

    • Thanks for your comment Akruti. In terms of multi-dimensional profiles, the argument is around understanding those using social media/digital communications using a broader range of measures than simply counting followers etc. Specific dimensions may vary according to what you are interested in assessing (for example it could be dimensions of influence or authenticity or reputation). I’m also arguing that this cannot simply be automated as there is a level of both subjectivity and qualitative analysis required to fully understand people. Whilst technology can give us data and facts about people, including their patterns of engagement, connections with others, favourite topics etc, it takes the human aspect to understand whether or not this person is therefore relevant to engage with.

      In terms of how a B2C organisation could build such a profile, I think it is about adding such qualitative and subjective insight into any database or records being built from the quantitative data sets that technology is able to generate.

      Most importantly, is being mindful of how insight and interpretation of data is necessary, and enhanced by adding in other elements of a profile. This should also integrate and include other data acquired within organisations (in the case of PR, this could include contact with media, what journalists write or online influencers write about away from social media and so on – likewise for Public Affairs in developing multi-dimensional profiles of politicians and political influencers).

      Hope this helps.

  6. Thank you for your article. It’ is well written and relevant. I found your perspective on content to be refreshing. In a world where we are inundated with content, there is little that truly is meaningful and very little that is responsive. Your comments, “Those who secure a reputation for content leadership will be increasingly valued as influencers and trusted sources. ” and “adopting a mindless approach to seeking coverage that’s more about saturation than satisfaction lacks any genuine credibility.” are very much in line with my experience. It’s time for a different style of content. Content that elicits a response and calls people to action. It is informative, helpful and compelling. There is an endless amount of noise that we encounter each day. People overwhelm their feeds with a lot of nonsense. Entertainment does not need to be nonsense. It can be good, in fact, really good. Please keep encouraging people to lead forward in this area of content. We will all benefit!

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