Five social media trends to watch in 2021

Posted 11.01.21

2020 felt more like a decade than a typical year and in many respects, we’ve seen 10 years worth of acceleration and innovation. But what does this mean for the next 12 months in social media? 

Here are my thoughts on five trends that we will see accelerated in the year to come (I originally wrote this in December 2020 so already a lot seems to have changed)…

1. Human brands
The COVID pandemic made many marketers rethink their approach in 2020. With brands looking to grab the attention of a remote workforce, many were spending in new ways, namely pouring more spend and focus on social. But with this increase in attention and spend the brands that stood out were those who stood for something, those who managed to humanise their brand online.

We’ve seen evidence of this with many brands looking to counter the clamour of Black Friday / Cyber Monday sales with messages of conscious consumerism, with a third of online retailers estimated to have forgone sales altogether and a huge online backlash to those offering deep discounts including fast-fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing who offered deals of up to 99% off. Brands are being challenged by consumers to act more responsibly and we are seeing more signs of the importance of a more human approach in the choices they make and messages they put out.

Not only that but we are also seeing the power of allyship. The global pandemic has tested every business and many have come together or looked to find common ground with traditional competitors. A great example of this from back in May was Adidas retweeting Nike in their response to the death of George Flloyd. Rather than see Nike as competitors or try and create their own response Adidas conceded cultural relevance to a brand with deeper connections to black America. By quote tweeting a direct competitor they amplified Nike’s #UntilWeAllWin tweet and their rallying cry for us to “all be part of the change”.

This human approach, in accepting the impact and influence of others, despite them being a competitor was a bold step for a brand like Adidas. But this sense of allyship was not just shared amongst sportswear giants, with PG Tips and Yorkshire Tea uniting under the hashtag #solidaritea. The unlikely duo came together after Yorkshire Tea had come under criticism for their support of the growing BLM protests. PG Tips, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever, stood by their independent rival telling users on Twitter that if you are boycotting teas that stand against racism, you’re going to have to find two new tea brands now”.

2. Platform Accountability
Here’s a big one. With a new administration coming into power in the US next year I predict we will see a big shift in focus amongst the key social platforms to clean up their act and for the first time look to clean-up some of the mess around disinformation, fake stories, and cyberbullying that occur.

We are already seeing movement in the direction of self-regulation from the social platforms following the calling of the US election result back in November. We have seen Twitter recently announced, in a tweet here, that it was updating its policy on hate speech saying “dehumanizing speech can lead to real-world harm, and we want to ensure that more people — globally — are protected.”. Facebook quickly followed suit and will now crack down on hate speech against marginalized groups in an effort it said to “root out the worst of the worst.”

These moves to self-govern by the platforms himself and stem the tide of hate speech follow the moves both platforms made in the lead-up to the US election which included flagging and de-prioritising fake stories, including one about Joe Biden’s son, is a bit to stop the spread of misinformation. Some argue that these steps are pre-emptive measures in order to clean up users’ news feeds and shake-off the threat of government regulation.

Whatever their motives, I believe we’ll see this trend continuing throughout the year as the social platforms create new tools and ensure a greater focus and accountability on the effects they have on wider society both in the lead-up to and in the early months of the Biden administration.

3. Knowledge becomes influence
I am hopeful that 2021 becomes the year that the influencer industry, finally, grows up and we see a continuation of the trend towards knowledge as “influence”. We are moving beyond sheer audience size to evaluate influencers and their ability to drive actions and purchases or to empower repeat visits and loyalty.

We are seeing this with the democratisation of long-form writing and traditional newsletters with many in the field moving to Substack and monetising their audience away from traditional publications and media outlets. Social platforms are responding with Twitter moving away from individual influence and encouraging users to follow conversational topics in which people with expertise and knowledge are highlighted.

Facebook has been very public in its desire to promote groups in which those with expertise and knowledge will play a big role in steering conversation. We are also seeing Tik Tok trying to flex its muscle in this space with its #LearnWithTikTok campaign in which it invested $15M across Europe with a long-term vision to encourage learning on the platform. Not only that but a slate of premium creators produced educational videos on a whole range of topics.

Could 2021 be the year that social media really lives up to its promise as a place of inspiration and education as well as entertainment?

4. Live finally comes of age

With the average video post on Facebook outperforming an image by an estimated 73% and with Facebook live videos generating watch times 3x longer than non-live videos, it is probably not a shock that I predict we will see Live play an ever-increasing important role in social media in the year ahead.

But I also think there are societal and behavioural shifts that will contribute to this shift. In a post-COVID world, we are likely to see an explosion in the experience economy as people look to reclaim the lost-year and seek out new experiences and opportunities. Our need and desire to share our experiences will fuel growth in Live video as the de facto replacement for the humble status-update.

No longer are we interested in telling people about the amazing speakeasy bar we have found, or previously unexplored beach we have found on our life-changing trip abroad but instead, we’ll be broadcasting that moment live to our followers and other experience seekers.

The pandemic has accelerated our need to share in real-time through live video with Facebook reporting a 50% increase in viewers watching live videos in March compared with the month previously. Many brands have pivoted their offline experiences to Live video and we are now more used to experiencing events in this way and with a vaccine insight and “normal life” returning in some form soon we will see a huge increase in us all sharing our real-world experiences in real-time.

5. Social commerce becomes Algorithmic commerce
Social media is no longer just for inspiration, it’s the place people search, research, discover, and purchase.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than on Instagram where Facebook has looked to leverage the power of this huge audience and develop features like Instagram Shop, Shoppable ads and more to truly become the dominant force in social commerce. This is born out in the figures, with more than 70% of shopping enthusiasts turning to the platform for product discovery, and a reported 87% of people saying that influencers on Instagram have led them to make a purchase.

However, we are already starting to see the evolution of this social commerce with the rise of what Professor Scott Galloway describes as “algorithmic commerce”. We are moving to a place whether rather than be dazzled by one-click ordering and same-day delivery options consumers are going to have their needs predicted for them by algorithmics fed huge-volumes of data-points matched to our preferences. We’ll have options delivered to our door in the morning and those items we don’t need to be collected later in the day. The retailer will then feed the algorithm these choices and the predictions improved over time.

However, I don’t think this spells the end for the serendipity of shopping or the idea of browsing. But that these convenience purposes will be automated and handled algorithmically but that “desire” items and luxuries will still be purchases that we take our time over and enjoy even more for the decisions “we” make.

Tom Jarvis – Founder & CEO

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