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As we run from the turbulent year that was 2020, the world’s attention has turned to what we can expect in 2021. If last year is anything to go by, expecting the unexpected is probably our safest bet. In terms of the social media landscape, 2020 had just as many twists and turns as the government's daily briefings, so the opportunities to speculate on what lies in store are endless. From activism on social media to platforms on the rise for 2021, I looked at a few of the most interesting trends and how they could play out for brands this year.

Scroll and shop

When it comes to platform changes from the major players of social media, the trend of e-commerce looks like it could be one of the biggest. For the average user, 2020 brought subtle changes to their favourite apps. New features like Shops on Instagram as well as developing in-app checkout features demonstrates a major shift towards e-commerce and away from its more polished visual led content.

Facebook will also look to focus on integrated online purchases with their new storefront, evolving from its current Marketplace feature, and we can expect to see platforms like TikTok and Snapchat follow suit.

For many retail brands, this will mean exciting new opportunities to build their own digital shop front and offer a more streamlined experience for users, from feed to purchase. But will e-commerce on these social media sites go one step too far in 2021? Instagram in particular has rapidly moved far away from its roots with multiple new features last year and so it will be interesting to see how both brands and users respond to these commercial changes on their beloved feeds.

Gamers, make room for non-gaming audiences

From the virtual storefronts to the introduction of Instagram reels (the copycat of TikTok), the mainstream social media platforms and their features are gradually becoming more indistinguishable. As they become increasingly focused on revenue opportunities and cluttered with new features, this could be an opportunity for alternative social platforms to expand exponentially in 2021.

Twitch is arguably the front runner for rising up the ranks. Acquired by Amazon in 2014, the platform has had over 1000 billion minutes of content watched during 2020 and 140 million monthly users, according to TwitchTracker. Impressive figures for what is traditionally a video game live streaming service.

We are already seeing more and more non-gaming content creators move towards platforms like Twitch, embracing long-form, lo-fi streaming. This year, we can expect more brands to be quick to follow as they get their head around the platform and how they can maximise their presence there.

Take a breath and dive into social media activism

Activism on social media reached new heights in 2020 and is clearly here to stay. Black Lives Matter became one of the defining features of the year, from a social media post to global civil rights movement. For many brands, the movement online meant a pressure for them to lean into the conversation publicly, in a way that no social cause had done previously. Until last year, social media activism has been somewhat optional for brands.

The brands that stumbled were those that shared their solidarity with the cause on social media but the buck stopped there. Without offline action, the online gestures of brands were seen as performative and open to criticism – and rightly so. Doing something, not just saying something is what sets a good brand apart from the bad.

However, an approach of posting first and action later is when brands could find themselves in a sticky spot. Taking the time to pause and reflect before engaging in the debate is where brands like Patagonia did well this year. In response to the BLM movement, they paused all media spend during the height of the BLM movement and donated it to the cause. It not only demonstrated their alliance with BLM but it also meant they created space online for other voices.

Whether it be in response to a crisis or part of a brand’s broader values and proposition, this year I hope to see more brands engage in social media activism with genuine and meaningful action.

New horizons for brand safety

Social media is often just a small slice in the pie when it comes to a brand’s budget and yet it’s often what keeps marketers up at night when it comes to brand safety. In this new year, brands may increasingly feel that issue is mitigated somewhat by the emergence of new regulations, platform policy changes and social media accountability being on the rise. From country-wide bans on TikTok to Twitter’s fact-checking tags on the President of the United States’ tweets, the debates around transparency and accountability is arguably one of the biggest things to come out of 2020.

Last year tech giants, brands and governments all grappled with the blurred lines of where content responsibility sits and how to tackle harmful content and misinformation. As recently as December 2020, we saw major regulatory changes for social media platforms which will shape their policies on content for the year ahead.

Take Twitter for example. To address fake news and bot accounts, the platform is looking to introduce new verification categories alongside its fact-checking tag. Some may see this as a minor attempt to tackle the problem but for a platform that has stayed relatively the same for a decade, it could yield some interesting results in 2021.

It’s no surprise that these changes could result in alternative platforms emerging and making headlines. During the US 2020 Elections, a new social media platform, Parler became one of the top trending apps on Apple. With users citing free speech as their reason for switching, Parler has been flooded with right-wing leaning content and leading conservative politicians, in reaction to Twitter’s perceived anti-conservative bias and censorship. Perhaps this year the platform will secure one of Twitter’s most controversial users, Donald Trump.

The social media evolution, not revolution

We could speculate endlessly on what lies ahead in 2021, but one thing I think we can be certain of is it’s going to be a defining year for social media – and platforms and brands will have to evolve like never before. I for one am looking forward to seeing how brands adapt and navigate lo-fi live streaming and social activism. The debate surrounding online accountability will rage on and I am curious to see if users will really start to question the increasing commercialisation of their feed en masse. Perhaps after the world has been glued to screens more than ever, 2021 will see us all throw our devices out of the window and head into the real world? Probably not…

Katy Deane, account manager at The Park.