It’s always a bit of a high wire act to write a post listing your predictions for the next year. This is because prediction posts are one of the safest ways to ensure that by the end of the following year, you’ll look like a fool — and that there will be people reminding you in December of what you said at the previous year’s end and telling you how wrong you were.
It’s even harder when you’re writing about digital and social media. The landscape changes rapidly and frequently by its very nature, so trying to stay ahead of the curve well enough to accurately predict what’s going to happen in this industry is like trying to hold a wet bar of soap in the shower.
That said, if you’re paying close enough attention, there are some things that stand out as more likely than others in 2016. Here are my predictions about what you should look for.
- The Rise To Dominance of Social Commerce.
This one is easy to see coming. Twitter has now added a “buy now” button for retailers. Over the course of the past few months, so has Pinterest. Instagram has added click-to-shop ads. YouTube has done the same, adding “shop now” advertising. Facebook, too, has more fully integrated a “buy now” button as well — but it’s not stopping there. Facebook is actually adding a whole shopping tab to the user experience.
It’s not hard to recognize where this is going. If anyone really questions whether consumers are going to be comfortable buying in large numbers through social networks, remember that 20 years ago, some were questioning whether people would ever be comfortable engaging in commerce over the Web. Remember when Clifford Stoll famously dismissed the potential of e-commerce in Newsweek in 1995?
“Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping—just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn’t—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople. What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact.”
I don’t mean to single out Mr. Stoll; he spoke for a lot of learned people in 1995. But as we all know, history proved the skepticism about e-commerce very, very wrong. Any skepticism about social commerce, and whether people will be comfortable enough to choose to buy via social networks, should meet the same historical fate. Now that the major social networks have gone so far out of their way to enable the process, there’s really no holding back the flood.
2015 was for working out the kinks; 2016 is going to be all about people adopting the model and shopping via social networks. Social commerce is going to be one of the dominant stories of the coming year; expect lots of early adopter case studies from brands seeing significant return from their social shopping efforts, and expect the resulting flurry of “if you’re not doing it yet, you’re behind” posts and stories as we enter the second half of the year.
- A Market Correction In The Cost Of Facebook Advertising.
Facebook, of course, would like you to pay no attention to the trends behind the curtain. Facebook wants to sell as much advertising as possible to brands eager for access to its 1.5 billion strong user base. That eagerness has allowed Facebook to make lots of bank on advertising and kept marketers clambering back for more no matter how Facebook treated them.
But there are two trends that I see driving something of a market correction in the cost of Facebook advertising in 2016:
- After encouraging brands to spend money in order to accumulate as large an audience as possible on the platform, Facebook’s algorithm changes still have resulted in organic/non-paid reach still being way down. This is hardly new news, of course. But brands have been chafing for a while at the bait and switch, and at watching ad prices rise while reach even for those ads declines. Given Facebook’s dominant presence, brands have had little choice but to grit their teeth and accept it. But with new usage trends emerging, that may be about to change.
- While the “Facebook is dying” meme has been around for a couple of years now and isn’t any closer to true than it was when it first surfaced, Facebook users are demonstrating new attitudes and behaviors — or lack thereof — that don’t bode well for Facebook’s ad rates. Increasing numbers of users are reporting that they spend less time on Facebook, are “bored with Facebook,” and that their friends aren’t using the platform as much as they used to. Fewer users are posting statuses or photos, according to the Global Web Index survey.
If you combine the declining reach of Facebook ads with these new revelations about decreasing user engagement, you may see advertisers balking at paying increasing costs to reach fewer, less engaged users. My prediction: a significant decrease in advertising rates on Facebook as marketers call Facebook out and hold them to a better or more demonstrable ROI.
- Ad-blocking adoption will flatten.
There’s certainly been lots of hand-wringing within the advertising and publishing communities about the rise of ad-blocking software. There was lots of concern expressed across the publishing side of the Internet when Adobe and PageFair issued their annual ad-blocking report in August and reported that use of the software had increased by 41% in the past 12 months, that now more than 200 million people worldwide use the software, and that the practice stands to cost publishers almost $22 billion in 2015. The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report suggested that the numbers might be even higher, with up to half of all US users now using ad blockers. Advertisers sounded the alarm, calling the companies that produce ad blocking software “highway robbers” and “economic terrorists.” Apple’s move to allow the installation of ad blockers on the new iPhone 6 induced panic among many advertisers and led TIME to proclaim that Apple’s decision might “change the Web forever.”
(At least one of the industry’s leading trade organizations acknowledged that as a whole, the industry has “lost track of the user experience” — as one woman said in the Reuters report, “Online ads are obtrusive, obnoxious, annoying” — and recognizes that creating less intrusive, more relevant content might help the industry get users to stop wanting to block ads. There’s at least a little self-reflection from the industry amongst all the hysteria.)
The panicked reaction of the industry, however, may contribute to its salvation. The topic of ad blocking is now front and center at many industry conferences; even some of the companies behind ad-blocking software are holding “peace summits” and inviting advertisers, publishers, and consumer advocates to join them in discussions about how to improve the internet advertising experience for everybody. All this attention is going to result in a handful of things that I think will limit the growth of ad blocking software in 2016:
- Now that ad-blocking has the industry’s full attention, advertisers and publishers will put their full weight behind efforts to limit the use or availability of the software. Call this one a result of the big elephant stepping on a flower, but when advertisers and publishers and others who are adept in shaping public opinion unify around defeating a threat, it’s hard to see them failing. Whether by scaring the public into thinking that the free Web is endangered by ad-blocking, by the threat of using their collective free market force to pressure for change, or by enlisting legislative or regulatory intervention on behalf of the industry, I expect that the advertising and publishing industries are going to change the dialogue and impact the environment around ad-blocking. They’re scared, and they’ll fight hard to protect their domain.
- On the positive side, the industry will likely also react by making changes to advertising methods and models. When millions of people are willing to install software to avoid exposure to your product, it opens some eyes and makes the industry realize that it needs to change things. There are voices within the industry challenging their peers to get better, be more creative, and seize ad-blocking as an opportunity instead of seeing it as a threat. I think the industry will respond. There are few things that bother advertisers more than being seen as irrelevant, and I think there are enough inspired people in the industry who will take up the challenge and find more creative, less intrusive, more relevant ways to reach consumers. (I could write a whole ‘nother post on what it means that people don’t want “regular” advertising but also don’t like native ads and feel “duped” by it, and maybe I will at some point, but for the purposes of this post I’m running with the idea that the industry is going to get better and less intrusive in response to this threat.)
- Ad-blocking software companies are going to try and reach some sort of detente with advertisers and publishers. These software companies are not run by ignorant people; they know the industry sees them as a dire threat and is mobilizing against them. To survive, they have two options: dig in and fight to the death, or try to find some sort of accommodation with the industry. Signs are already pointing to the latter solution. As a matter of self-preservation, ad-blocking companies will try to find some sort of peaceful coexistence with the ad industry.
To be clear, I’m not saying ad-blocking is going away. It’s here to stay. I just think the meteoric rise in the adoption of the software has probably plateaued. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I leave to you to decide.
Other predictions for 2016 include that America will elect a new president, that a full half of the country will be really ticked off at the election’s result, that Taylor Swift will continue to show celebrities how to execute social media really well, that Adele will have at least one more #1 hit in the US, and that the Kardashians will continue to be attention hounds.