The Top Social Media Trends for 2021, According to Experts

The pandemic has changed how many of us shop, interact with friends, work, and are entertained. We’ve leaned heavily on the tools social media provides to stay connected, and in turn, the platforms have released new features, like Instagram’s video chat, to help further our connectivity.

In 2020, TikTok was—and still is—big news, while other (possibly?) surprising events included the closing of Quibi, the short-form video platform with serious investment backing. So what does 2021 have in store? Talkwalker, a platform offering social media insights for brands, partnered with marketing software producer HubSpot to interview 70 experts and professionals on what we can expect from social media in the coming year, and the report gives brands some insight into how they should approach their strategies.

Here are the top 10 social media trends to look for in 2021, in order of least to most popular, according to the experts interviewed.

10. Remixed user generated content

User generated content, or UGC, is content that has been posted by users and then shared by brands to show how customers are using or experiencing their product. Consumers now seem to be generating content in new ways—or “remixing” it—by taking a brand’s existing content and repurposing it to suit their own personality or ideas.

“User generated content will be the ‘crown jewel’ for great brands in 2021,” said Heba Sayed, strategy leader for Cloud and AI, IBM Middle East and Africa, in the report. “The best pieces of content will be the ones marketers don’t create, but facilitate. At a time where consumers’ lives have changed dramatically, they look for people, not brands, for inspiration about products and services that fit within their new lifestyles post–COVID-19.”

One key takeaway from the report is that brands should provide users with the right assets—brand logos or templates, for example—to create their own remixed content. The report also warns brands that consumers might use the assets to be critical of the companies, or misuse them in other potentially hateful ways that a company wouldn’t want to be associated with.

9. Community, contactless, cleanliness, compassion

Coming in at number 9 on the report are the 4C’s of COVID-19 content: community, contactless, cleanliness, and compassion. These topics are trending online, and they will presumably continue to do so even if the pandemic is resolved in 2021, as the ways in which it’s reshaped consumers’ lives will continue to linger.

“It’s not ‘Finger Lickin’ good’ anymore, as KFC temporarily dropped its iconic slogan because, with a pandemic going on, finger lickin’ is not currently advised,” said Janet Machuka, founder of ATC Digital Academy. “As the 4Cs of COVID-19 continue to be the new normal in marketing, it’s bound to change how message is relayed. The effects of COVID-19 will be felt for months to come. Brands need to consider the 4Cs in future marketing and PR efforts.”

While brands may be eager to promote their products, the report reminds businesses to be aware of consumers’ current concerns. Advertising can be seen as invasive; instead, offer content that addresses consumers’ needs and concerns.

8. Memes 24/7

Memes have become one of the major methods of communication online, with a reported 55% of 13- to 35-year-olds sending them every week. Brands should take note of this data, but they should also be aware of the risks that using memes can hold, since they can be used maliciously. It’s also important for brands to pay attention to regulations, particularly when using a meme for marketing purposes; ensure your use of images or memes is done legally.

“Talk about [the] last 10 years or last 6 months, there has been immense fatigue in the content listed on all kind[s] of social channels,” said Komal Gupta, head of content marketing and storyteller for Ferns N Petals. “Consumer[s are] evolving and their options are ever-growing, hence it is important that a touch of innovation is constantly there in content marketing charters—memes have evolved from simple stickers to GIFs and now video memes. The old-school style of satire is the new-age catalyst in marketing.”

7. Marketing nostalgia

How many times have you said the words the good old days recently? Nostalgia for a time that has passed—even a time as recent as early 2019—is big right now. Appealing to the nostalgia of consumers is smart; if done well, it will give them much-needed good feels.

Nostalgia marketing was also popular during the 1920s’ Great Depression, as well as the late 2000s’ Great Recession—sense a pattern?

“After 2020, we need to remind our community, how precious a world full of freedom was,” said Aji Aditra Perdana, head of social media and content marketing for Home Credit Indonesia. “With some nostalgia marketing, we can create fun campaigns and look back to the good old days.… Staying positive is the best way to [live] with this pandemic.”

The report advises brands to consider their audiences in different demographic sets when using nostalgia marketing. Expect each campaign to hit an audience within a ten-year age bracket; taking gender, location, and other factors into account can help achieve the ultimate effectiveness.

6. Conversational marketing

We’re all aware of the importance of engaging with followers—marketing is no longer about just sending a message, it’s about having a conversation with the customer. Humanizing a brand is the first step to connecting with consumers, as well as building lasting relationships that lead to sales.

We’ve seen, especially this year, how important social issues are to shoppers—they want to put their money in businesses that share their values and make a difference. This desire will surely continue into 2021 and beyond.

“Revealing the human side of the brand: Smart businesses will understand that being transparent, authentic, and even vulnerable is smart marketing in 2021,” said Michael A. Stelzner, CEO and founder of Social Media Examiner. “People connect with people. This means the brand should be personified in a way that reveals who they stand for and what they stand for. Get more faces out there, create more video, and talk about what matters to your core tribe.”

One of the report’s most important suggestions—especially for larger businesses—is to bridge the gap between marketing and customer service. Since so many consumer-related conversations start in the customer service department, having the two departments work together can positively impact a brand’s outreach to customers.

5. Social gaming

Video games have been a popular form of distraction during lockdown, with game-related forums and groups reportedly on the rise. The report predicts the stigmatism surrounding gaming will lift, as we learn more about how games benefit players, and brands would do well to tap into their popularity.

And it’s not just about the games people are playing—it’s also about who they’re playing them with. Since people can’t connect face-to-face in the real world, they’re playing games online with friends, new and old. This is an opportunity for brands to provide some sort of entertainment for consumers through interactive online experiences.

“Gen Z audiences use gaming and social media in equal measure, and that is why these worlds are beginning to merge,” said Ben Jeffries, CEO at Influencer. “As the gaming industry is set to be worth $94 billion by 2024, brands should consider implementing marketing strategies on gaming sites to complement their wider social media strategy.”

One of the biggest pieces of advice the report has to offer about this trend is to up your social listening: Understand what makes these gaming audiences tick, and create content designed just for them.

4. Old-school marketing

Experts predict a return to “old-school marketing” in 2021, where brands seek simpler ways to engage consumers, as opposed to the disruptive ideas that have made waves over the last few years. The report notes the comeback of voice calls as a communication method; even though a reported 68% of consumers still text more than they talk on their smartphones, the reports cites the popularity of features like voice search, voice notes, talk-to-text, and voice Tweets as a jumping-off point for the return of voice calls.

Easy-to-consume formats like newsletters and podcasts now help provide consumers with the information they’re looking for: According to the report, 55% of Americans now listen to podcasts.

“From a brand perspective, studies show that podcast advertising is more effective than other forms of digital advertising thanks to deep audience engagement and strong host/listener rapport,” said Leila Hamadeh, CEO of Finyal Media. “When you look at the opportunities for custom-made podcast series and audio ads, the opportunity to reach a young digitally minded audience is absolute.”

The report’s tips for this trend include using newsletters to nurture your audience, seeking podcast opportunities, and finding community-focused influencers to work with.

3. Dominant social media giants will continue their reign

Experts predict that the most popular social media platforms today (such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok) will be just as significant in 2021 and beyond, so long as they continue to adapt to incoming trends. That means that the Instagram of today won’t necessarily look like the Instagram of mid- or late 2021, but the platform will endure nonetheless, changing to give its users what they need.

Of those changes, the need to adapt to more shopping within social media apps is crucial. “A trend that looks to emerge is social shopping,” said Ashvin Anamalai, chief strategist at Be Strategic. “The majority of modern shoppers already use social media for product research and buyer sentiment, and brands will look to capitalize on this point of user contact by bringing the experience once step closer. E-commerce usage is already a part of our everyday lives, and social shopping looks to be the next big thing.”

The report suggests brands find the mix of social media that makes sense for them, taking note of new niche platforms but being careful not to spread themselves too thin. The backbone of any marketing spend should still involve the big three: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

2. A rise in digital disinformation

With all of social media’s pros, it unfortunately plays a crucial role in the spread of misinformation. From the highly edited lives of Instagram influencers to the increase in fake news and conspiracy theories on multiple platforms, this meteoric rise of falsities will make 2021 the year brands and social media channels focus on highlighting the truth.

“We will continue to see the growth in creators in the social media space,” said Karen Freberg, associate professor of strategic communication. “Influencers will continue to be present, but accountability, authenticity, and transparency will be the areas brands and companies will use to determine who to partner with, and who to pass on. Empathy and advocacy will be elements that will be integrated within messages and purposes for creator campaigns. The days of ‘faking it till you make it’ without any experience other than having lots of followers are over.”

The best things a brand can do moving forward? Be transparent, ensure its accounts are secure, and enforce strict communication guidelines across all levels of the company.

1. Socially conscious audiences

The number one trend heading into 2021 is perhaps not a surprising one: the rise of the socially conscious consumer. Companies should look to connect with these audiences by engaging more in topics like mental health, inclusivity, social justice, and the environment.

“The rise of socially conscious consumers is only expected to grow with Gen Z now moving toward adulthood and nearing their entry into the formal workforce,” said Roha Daud, brand consultant in wellness and food sustainability. “[They’re] known to be the most well-educated generation yet, and one that mirrors similar values to those of millennials, including their outlook on climate change, racial equality, feminism, educational and professional equality, and much more.

“Brands need to realize that they need to go well beyond just lip service and do the work on creating an honest social impact. Based on a poll conducted by Forbes in 2019, 88% of consumers want to support brands that have social causes aligned with their product/service. Aside from it just being something ‘nice’ to have on your mission statement, it’s now also incredibly profitable.”

For brands to get a jump-start on connecting with these audiences in the new year, they should learn what issues matter most to them. Then, when the companies do opt to act on a particular issue, they should ensure it has a genuine mission behind it, align their marketing and PR departments, and commit themselves. The report does warn that while getting behind a social issue will likely result in some flack from a small amount of customers, too much pushback might warrant pulling the campaign.

To read the full report, visit this link.

(Top image via Canva)

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JCK Contributing Editor

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