Disruptive innovations and emerging technologies are constantly changing the digital landscape. The challenge for brands is to adapt their offering to remain relevant in this fast-paced environment.

Our leadership team from across We Are Social’s ten offices have identified the key trends that brands should watch out for, and how they will shape the marketing industry in 2018.

Nathan McDonald, Co-Founder and CEO
The evolution of direct messenger marketing
The evolution of messaging services is set to continue. As our social feeds become ever more cluttered, we look to more private channels – direct messages – for connection to others. And the more time we all spend in messaging environments, the more important it is for brands to define how they can add value in this environment.

Messaging capabilities are developing in divergent ways. On the one hand, there have never been better tools - both hardware and software - to create rich video messages. This is set to continue, as the major platforms are in an arms race, constantly enhancing their apps to be the platform of choice for creative messaging. Instagram is already testing a separate, standalone app for direct messages, presumably with this in mind.

Meanwhile, the drive to deliver useful functionality within the messaging app has seen the streamlined, text-only message bot proliferate. Facebook wants Messenger to the be the default chat-based customer service platform, with the capability for the same business to consumer chat to be carried over from Facebook to a brand’s own website. Beyond the help desk, we’ll be turning to messenger bots more and more for everything from pizzas to the weather forecast, on our phones but also via voice control in our homes and vehicles.

These two directions won’t remain separate for very long. Smash them both together and the possibilities for social commerce are spectacular. To avoid becoming tomorrow’s version of SMS spam, brands will need to deliver relevance in a seamless, non-intrusive way.

Benjamin Arnold, Managing Director, New York
Turning social into commerce
Social commerce currently makes up less than 2% of total retail sales* according to reports, but that number is expected to explode over the next few years with research suggesting revenue generated could reach $165 billion globally by 2021*. And we expect to see a real tipping point in 2018 for social commerce in the US.

We saw promising beta roll outs of shoppable ads on Instagram this year that will only increase in frequency and effectiveness, while Messenger bots have showed there’s real potential there to redefine the consumer retail experience. Then there’s Tencent’s WeChat - the Chinese mobile messaging and payment app giant with nearly a billion users - that has long signalled its intent to grow its foothold in the US and we expect to see them do exactly that in 2018. The importance of dark social, and messaging apps in particular, will grow within marketing plans.

Platforms are not alone in prioritizing social commerce, with brands such as Amazon and its Spark network and standalone apps like Screenshop innovating in the space and offering viable social commerce utilities. And this trend doesn’t stop there, as we’re also seeing brands including Google and Starbucks integrating their
social commerce efforts into the physical retail space, bringing digital and social omnichannel marketing to people in a way that bucks the declining fortunes of most traditional retail models.

*Technavio's report, July 2017, Global Social Commerce Market 2017-2021

Suzie Shaw, Managing Director, Sydney
Social Search
Search is historically the domain of Google, which continues to hone the search experience, making it ever more local, personalised and contextually relevant.

However, social platforms are continuing to amass a wealth of data from geo-tags, behavioural insight and interest insights. So with the continued evolution of visual search, social platforms are becoming more and more popular places to search.

Facebook is investing heavily in its visual search capability. It’s leveraging AI functionality initially developed to improve the experience of visually-impaired users. That will now be extended across the platform, enabling users to search for images via keywords that actually describe the contents of a photo, rather than just tags and captions.

Pinterest’s new ‘Lens’ is also a great example of how a platform is leveraging visual search to serve up inspiration.

An exciting evolution of search on Instagram is the new feature Hashtag follows, which will enable users to follow a particular hashtag, not just a person. #littleblackdress

Sandrine Plasseraud, President and Founder, Paris
Voice-activated AI and the importance of sonic-branding
By 2029, it’s forecast that half of all human to computer interactions will be made through voice-activated Artificial Intelligence (AI). And if 2029 seems too far away for you, according to Gartner, by 2020 30% of browsing sessions will be done without a screen, meaning we are shifting from a screen-first relationship to one that is voice-first. Yes, very soon, most of us are likely to speak to an AI on a daily basis.

The future is closer than you think and this opens a new area for brands to harness the power of voice as one of the newest marketing touchpoints. Brands will indeed need to develop a very unique and recognisable tone of voice, along with a stand-out brand personality. I believe that in 2018, brands will need to start investing in ‘sonic branding’, so consumers are able to recognise the voice being spoken by an AI, and what it stands for.

Developing a brand’s sonic identity for the AI-age is not without complexity. In a digital era where brands have been dealing with people almost on a one-to-one basis, they will need to take into account the fact that voice assistants do not just sit in our pocket (on our mobile) but in ‘public’ areas such as the living room, meaning it is within the whole family’s earshot… Welcome to the new conversational era, where brands will ‘speak’ to people through AI.

Christina Chong, Managing Director, Singapore
AI’s role in content marketing
2017 has seen the rise of AI marketing solutions that provide brands with the ability to leverage consumers' social media habits for much more acutely targeted social and content strategies. They analyse everything users see, do, share and interact with, to give marketers deep and meaningful insights into their audience, and interpret future occurrences for brands to make actionable strategies out of. With AI marketing platforms, brands can now develop smarter, more effective content that is hyper-targeted. It will allow marketers to deploy content via delivery methods that are aimed at the individual and provide them with predictions of the hows, wheres, and whys when consumers would like to be engaged with, so brands better know how to interact with each of them. The future of content marketing is in performing to an audience of one.

Jim Coleman, CEO, London
Hyper-transparency and the call for clarity
One of the themes we talked about in our Think Forward trends report this year was Hyper-transparency. Brands are in an arms race to win back consumer trust by providing certainty through absolute transparency - not just glossing over the uncomfortable bits. The consumer desire for transparency is nothing new, but in the era of fake news, mistrust around brands, media and governments has gone into overdrive.

Next year, this backdrop will lead to a race for brands to build the most consumer trust. It will no longer be good enough to say you’re honest or have your staff say it - it needs to be validated throughout the supply chain by third parties and suppliers. Brands need to be prepared to talk about everything - not just the good bits. They will need to show they are aware of the negative things relating to their business or wider industry, and how they're working to change them.

Vanessa Bouwman-Axt and Roberto Garcia, Managing Directors, Munich & Berlin
Consumers are contributors!
Another theme we discussed in our Think Forward trends report this year was the idea of “The new cooperative”. Brands are increasingly being driven by the ideas of, and interactions with, their consumers. And so consumers themselves are becoming contributors. But it’s not just about being a casual buyer, it’s about a sense of truly belonging to the brand’s community and playing an active role in shaping its future.

By empowering fans of the brand to achieve this sense of belonging, marketers can cultivate a community of co-creators through which new ideas and products can be generated, based on real-time feedback from the very people who buy from the brand.

Arguably then, a brand’s community has the potential to become its greatest asset. Advocating for it in the good times, defending it in the bad, and helping it shape its very future based on real-world insight into the needs and desires of its customers. Even for those brands who it might find it too sensitive to involve consumers in all aspects of product or business development, discussions or feedback through social media can help bring to the surface issues which can develop the brand in a way which addresses minor concerns, before they become problems.

Ottavio Nava, Stefano Maggi and Gabriele Cucinella, CEOs, Milan
The binge-watching goldfish
In the past, platforms recommended that brands should create shorter and shorter content, often highlighting the benefit of 6-second 2-second videos. It's still true that people's conversations are often based on "light" and "short" pieces of content. But in some cases, longer-lasting videos and experiences that claim our attention for more than a handful of seconds are becoming very appealing to consumers.

Think about the phenomenon of binge-watching, or about long-form reporting by media like Vice, Vox or the steady rise of podcasts: people are becoming used to engaging with long-form content in parallel with short-form. Facebook Watch for example, which distributes video series through its social platform, is an experiment in this direction.

People are getting used to longer content and this represents an opportunity for many brands. When people like content, they want to see more.