Social media marketing is at an inflection point. In the ’90s, the first social networks enabled users to upload a profile, make friends with other users and contribute their thoughts and opinions to a virtual public square. Twenty years on, those concepts sound both familiar and quaint. Just as social media’s beginnings gave us clues to what it would become, what do today’s trends tell us about the future of social media?

What do current social media trends tell us about audience behavior?

Networks are finding their niches: Pinterest cemented itself early on as the wishlist platform for weddings and home improvements, whilst Twitter’s role in breaking news continues to grow — Twitter use seems to be ubiquitous among the media class despite having far fewer active users than Instagram. Rising stars in the social media space, such as Tik Tok, have articulated a clear niche — and even produced a genuine hit song.

With this specialisation, organisations have become more careful about where they’re investing. Access to first-party data has become even more important — brands, quite rightly, want to feel as though they are building a community that they can engage and build in the long term without being at the mercy of algorithms they can’t control.

One recent example of this in practice comes from current client Lloyds Banking Group, who have launched The M Word as a platform to help couples become more comfortable talking about money. In the past, such an initiative might have been a social media campaign; the output now becomes a tangible product that Lloyds can help build, develop and iterate over time, themselves — without relying on social networks.

Influence will evolve: It feels as though the glory days of influencer and brand partnerships are drawing to a close, with recent news considering the harmful effect of some ‘influencers’ and their picture-perfect lifestyles that make many people feel inadequate. Some are even pronouncing the glossy ‘influencer aesthetic’ dead, with social presences that appear more ‘authentic’ now in vogue.

The future of partnerships is likely to be a lot less top-down and instructive. If brands are forced to truly consider who they’re pairing with and why, both sides will see long-term arrangements that develop something a bit more meaningful than just an ‘#ad’ post.

People will disconnect: Perusing an endless feed of manicured photos has become exhausting. The rise of encrypted networks and group messaging apps such as WhatsApp, along with peer-to-peer recommendations in smaller groups on platforms like Facebook, suggests that social media fatigue is leading people to once again prefer more private, intimate relationships.

If trust in social media is declining, what comes next?

Globally, only 41% of people indicate that they trust social media, a figure that continues to drop in Europe, the US and other countries. This rise in cynicism is changing the flow of conversation that takes place between brands and consumers, charities and donors, political parties and voters.

So how should brands seek to start meaningful social conversations? Ideally, brands need regular and accurate views of their audience, through social listening or in-person focus groups, to discover the topics and outlets they’re engaging with and are passionate about. UNICEF showed how this can present an opportunity to build two way conversations with younger supporters through the U-Report, a social messaging tool and data collection system designed to improve citizen engagement, inform leaders and foster positive change. The program sends SMS polls and alerts to its participants, collecting real-time responses using the results to create compelling visuals, inform messaging and shape campaigns.

Gone are the days of brands tweeting, “Happy World Pumpkin Day! RT if you love pumpkins.” Simply uploading your TV ad as a Facebook video won’t cut it either. We’re in a new practical era for communication: When organisations say something, they need to mean it — and have the credentials to back it up.

Trying to imagine what the future of social media means for you? Let’s talk about it.