A brainiac guide to digital and social media trends


Keeping up to date on digital and social media trends is a challenge given how fast the online environment develops and changes. One minute we may feel confident in using various technologies – the next, we hear about something new, and aren’t sure how, or indeed, whether, we should be using this in our professional or personal communications.

Helping communications practitioners improve their digital communications and social media self-efficacy – essentially how confident someone feels to enact behaviours online – is one of my goals as course leader for the PR Academy Social Media and Digital Communications Certificate.

So, six months ago, I produced my thoughts on six social media and digital communications trends for 2015 – drawing on the core areas that we cover in the course.

As we take a student-focused approach through our online learning portal, and accompanying workshop day – we are able to accommodate such trends into to the six core areas that we cover. This enables students to add the latest knowledge to their existing understanding (at whatever level that may be), and apply a reflective approach in assessing and applying what they feel will improve their competencies and improve the impact and effectiveness of their organisational communications.

Ahead of the next course starting in September, I have taking a half-year look at what’s going on in the current online climate and again used the six core areas as a framework, to produce A Braniac Guide to Digital and Social Media Trends:

1. Smart Personalisation of trusted, shared news

Online behaviour and social network recommendations are increasingly personalising the reach of stories offering new opportunities, and also threats, for professional communicators in getting their news out. As one example, the redesigned Pulse news reader shares professionally-relevant “news bites” that are driven by trusted contacts, and users’ LinkedIn behaviour such as reactions in saving or removing stories. Understanding how individuals interact with such personalised news digests, highlights barriers in trying to change attitudes, opinions and behaviours, but provides great opportunities to increase communication traction within trusted networks.

2. Trendiness & 4Ts – techniques, tools, technologies, terminologies

Social shopping tools are undermining some of the biggest online brands with photo-led, friends-focused, independent mobile marketplaces offering fun alternatives to the monolithic ebay and Amazon. Backed by technology incubators, venture capital and crowd-sourced funding, relatively recent start-ups such as Depop, Wavey Garms, Polyvore, Chictopia and Vinted are growing quickly as the places to learn about new products, ideas and trends, get advice and trade with like-minded others, and enjoy user generated editorial and banter. They also enable professional communicators to reach and research subcultures of online users, and their new influencers.

3. Netnographic multi-dimensional profile research

We’ve all heard of ‘big data’ with huge volumes of quantiative data generated every second online. But netnography, ethnography on the internet, is revealing some unexpected trends by offering rich qualitative insight into online discussions. For example, researchers have identified a lively and growing group of older adults discussing sexuality issues. With pension-age transgender Caitlyn Jenner, breaking the Twitter record to reach 1m fans in 4 hours, here’s proof that being a digital natural is more about mindset than age. Applying a netnographic approach in a profiling playbook enables a more developed understanding of those we are looking to communicate with online.

4. Attributing value from strategic planning

Let’s talk about attribution, the search to identify the exact value that each element of your digital communications – or indeed any supporting offline activity – is having. You may know something is working – but finding out exactly what is the most effective, or where the biggest return for budget spend can be found is proving increasingly difficult owing to trans-media and device-swapping behaviours. Two planning aspects are essential: setting up Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and investing the time and resources in analytics (much of which can be accessed for free). Big budget brands are praising ‘people-based” technology such as Facebook’s Atlas mobile ad platform. But it’s not just about tech, as attribution needs communicators to break down silos, identify touch-points when outcomes can be credited and ensure an overall ‘lifetime value’ (LTV) metric is included in the strategic plan.

5. Content leadership depends on trust

To Pay or Not to Pay is the big content creation debate emerging so far in 2015. As marketing and advertising experts continue to power their work through WOM (word of mouth) communications, so PR practitioners are securing budgets to integrate social network advertising in their activities. But, it’s not so much about blurring PESO (paid, earned, shared and owned) media as ideas that work – both for the communicators and those who engage with them. The key word is TRUST – with the UK Competitions and Market Authority opening an investigation into manipulation of online reviews and endorsement, brands falling foul of Google’s rules over seeking to game its SEO, and Google itself under fresh investigation by the European commission for favouring its own vertical search products. Can anyone trust what they find online? It’s getting tougher – especially as ‘sponsored content’ challenges traditional editorial independence and integrity. Building and maintaining trust is essential both when generating content, and when evaluating the best channels through which to share it.

6. Risk, issues and crisis management – standing up to online moral outrage

Organisations of all shapes and sizes are being forced to face up to growing waves of moral outrage through social media and communicate with value driven, robust responses rather than knee-jerk, sacrificial strategies. The apparent brutal treatment of the eminent scientist, Sir Tim Hunt by UCL and the Royal Society following a twitter storm over his poorly considered ‘joke’ has led to calls for organisations to kick back against cyber-bullying and online shaming and stand by their principles rather than cave to the baying mob.

Most of these trends reflect that developments in digital and social media communications are building on existing practices, but require continual review and adaptation of these to stay ahead, and apply a pragmatic and informed understanding that is appropriate to the particular organisation and situation it faces.

Click here for further details of the September 2012 PR Academy Social Media and Digital Communications Certificate which is now enrolling.  The course involves an intensive, immersive study period, where learning is derived from tutor-supported activities, independent research, social learning techniques and an individually developed portfolio assignment. It combines emerging and established knowledge with a focus on developing insight into strategic, and effective, social media and digital communications, that complements and integrates with existing organisational communications plans.

A story of superhumans – inspiring a PR generation

Today I met the 2012 intake of public relations students at Bournemouth University. To use the vision of the London 2012 games, this is the next generation that we need to inspire to lead our occupation. A quick poll (well asking them to put up their hands) revealed pretty much all use Facebook, but perhaps a quarter have a Twitter presence and a handful can be found in LinkedIn or Pinterest. So are they a digital generation – who live an always-on, hyper connected lifestyle, ruled by apps and online news?

If they are not, then they will soon need to address this gap in their competencies as they look to engage fully with the world of public relations, and indeed, modern University education. Rather than Google and Wikipedia (which undoubtedly have become their primary sources of information at school), we expect them to engage with online learning resources, electronic journals and ebooks, web and mobile based communications, respected blogs (such as PR Conversations) and social media based professional networks.

Their future careers need to be about more than getting to grips with the tools of digital communications however. We need to inspire them to change perceptions and become highly regarded strategic managers. This aim requires the practice of PR also to change its perception of students and not see them only in terms of craft skills destined to follow a career that relies on time-served and step by step promotion up the agency or corporate ladder.

In the new world of work, you need to create your own opportunities – this was the message from the final year students who came along to share experiences of their placement years. If you want to be recognised and have a great personal reputation, this takes superhuman effort rather than floating along waiting for chances to come your way.

As the Summer of superhuman efforts in the Olympics and Paralympics fades into our memories, it is worth reflecting on how perceptions were changed during a few weeks of inspirational sporting endeavours. At least for a while, our opinions of being British changed. We felt a vicarious satisfaction in delivering a world-class games, that reflected our unique culture and showed the rest of the planet that we are more than the impressions often left by our politicians and drunken holidaymakers.

One legacy that it is hoped will have longevity is a new view of those with disabilities – thanks in part to the Meet the Superhumans campaign by Channel 4. This involved more than a short promotional video however, as Channel 4 had invested in getting to know the Paralympic athletes over a two year period. But the phrase, superhuman, was inspired and helped reposition the Paralympic games, and its competitors, as people who demonstrated superhuman abilities rather than disabilities.

But without the achievements – and genuine personalities – of those who participated in the games, no creative communications campaign would have altered perceptions. What challenged our opinions, beliefs and attitudes was the realisation that the athletes were, to an extent, just like us. Well, in reality, they aren’t like us, as most of us never aspire to, let alone achieve, the pinnacle of our potential. Whether that’s being a medal winner, or delivering a personal best, it means striving and sacrificing to realise dreams.

That also means being better than the previous generation – I genuinely want to be inspired by those entering public relations. Yes, as an educator, I can help them on their career paths. I can introduce them to the theory and practice involved in public relations, and encourage them to engage fully with digital communications and future trends. But what inspires me most is when they push this further and show what they can achieve. Only they can change the future perception and opinion of public relations.