7 Emerging Digital Trends For 2013

INN's Technology Director Adam Schweigert presented at the Kiplinger Program's Social Media Summit in November. This is a summary of his presentation.

Everyone wants to know what the next big thing will be. The temptation is to hand this crown to the latest, shiniest object, but for organizations with limited resources (which is to say, nearly any organization), it’s important to avoid jumping on every bandwagon. Being able to quickly evaluate and decide which new tools, sites or apps are a good fit for you and which are better ignored.

Contrary to what some tech blogs may lead you to believe, you don’t need to be on every new social network, to download every new app or to spend every last waking moment in front of a screen.

Identifying Trends

Last week I gave a talk about emerging social media at the Kiplinger Program’s Social Media Summit at Ohio State University. In my talk, I identified a few larger trends in technology and social media:

  1. The Pinterestification of Everything - The rapid growth of Pinterest and the outsized impact a relatively small site in absolute terms has had on the design of today’s web.
  2. Visual Publishing Comes Into Its Own - How the wide adoption of mobile technology and tools like Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr have democratized the publishing of visual content in the same way blogging democratized the publishing of textual content.
  3. Conversations as Content - The rising popularity of forum and discussion sites and experiments seeking to elevate the quality of discussion on the web.
  4. Open Alternatives - A number of experiments with open source, community-driven alternatives to incumbent social media behemoths (particularly Facebook and Twitter).
  5. The Power of Small Numbers - The move from mass to niche as reflected in the proliferation of apps and tools that seek to do one thing particularly well (instead of trying to do everything) and the development of niche communities around increasingly narrower interests.
  6. Context is King - It’s no longer enough to just create great content. Increasingly it’s important to think about how, where, when and on what device content will be consumed so that you can tailor the content appropriately to fit the context.
  7. Wearable and Embedded Computing - Powerful computers are moving off of our desktops and out of our pockets and into our homes, cars and even our eyeglasses.

You can see more examples of each of these trends in the slide deck from the presentation:

With how quickly these trends are moving (and sometimes in different directions) it’s easy to become overwhelmed. So I spent the second part of my talk outlining some ways to choose how best to spend your limited time, attention and resources.

How To Decide

When evaluating any new tool you can start by asking a few simple questions to start to understand whether or not it might be a good fit for your organization:

  • Who do I want to reach?
  • Where do they spend their time?
  • What do they do there?
  • When are they online?
  • How can I contribute in a meaningful way?
  • Why does this make sense from a business perspective?

Answering some of these questions is a bit harder (and more time consuming) than others. You might have to do some surveys, research the demographics of various social media sites or even spend some time using the sites yourself but rest assured that the time spent in advance of launching yet another social media channel that you will then have to maintain is well spent and will likely save you time and money in the long run if you learn early that a new site or tool may simply just not be a great fit for your organization.

Once you feel like you can answer these questions, one other test you can use that works particularly well as you try to answer the last question about business purpose is called “The 5 Whys."

The idea is simple: Ask “Why?” five times. You'll better understand the motivations, underlying beliefs or the root cause of a problem.

So if someone at your organization says, "We need to be on Pinterest!" You'd ask:

Because we know our potential customers (e.g., readers, consumers) spends a lot of time there.
They find it useful as a way to discover new products they might like to buy, or content they would like to consume and share.
They follow people who have common interests and share cool stuff.
They want to be viewed as tastemakers.
It’s cool to be a trendsetter.

By drilling down, you gain insight to help you tailor your approach.

If you had asked why only once (or not at all) you might have decided that since your prospective customers are on Pinterest, you should use it as a broadcast channel to push your content out and get it in front of people who may want to consume it.

But drilling down a bit deeper your approach might evolve and become instead to reward your most loyal fans by allowing them to participate, to help curate and share content on your behalf and to be recognized as trendsetters so that they feel more connected to your organization.In this way you have accomplished not only your primary objective (get content in front of prospective consumers) but also gotten more bang for your buck (or maybe even saved time and money) by rewarding your most loyal current fans by helping them feel more connected to your organization and to each other.

Social Media is NOT a Strategy

As you make decisions about where to spend your time and money, make sure you understand the difference between strategy and tactics. You should be engaging in strategic thinking, and not just reacting to a changing environment. Employing tactics without a clear guiding strategy behind them is like trying to kill a rhino with a butter knife. Your strategy should be a grand plan, in line with your mission, that doesn’t really change all that much. It should outline a problem and how you intend to solve it. Tactics are the specific measures you use to push this plan forward. These tend to change frequently and are particularly shaken up these days by changes in technology. So nothing about your strategy should be technology specific. “Launching a Facebook page” is a tactic you might use in service of a broader strategy to become more connected with your customers but it is not a strategy.

Establishing Goals, Metrics and Targets

Once you understand your audience, have a strategy and have selected the tactics you’ll use to bring that strategy to life, you're ready to establish goals. Select the metrics you’ll use to track your progress towards those goals, and then set targets for each metric that will determine whether your efforts are a success.

Goals: What do we want to accomplish?
Be as specific as possible and make sure defined in terms that allow you to measure your progress.
Example: Increase the depth and frequency of conversations around our political content.

Metrics: How will we measure our progress?
Some common web metrics might be pageviews, unique visitors, new vs. returning visitors, time on site, conversions, etc. and your choice of the metrics you use will depend on the goals you set. There are a number of excellent books about using web metrics, but one word of caution: Make sure the metrics you choose measure what you think they measure. Every website visitor didn't read your article in its entirety, and all of your Facebook fans and Twitter followers probably didn't see your most recent update.
Example: Number of comments on an article per thousand non-bounce visitors.

Targets: What does success look like?
It is really, really, really important to have clearly defined targets. It's easy to get excited and say, “We have more followers today than we did yesterday so our efforts must be working!” But unless you use meaningful metrics, set clear targets, and evaluate trends over time, you will have no idea whether the amount of effort you’re putting in is really paying off or if the trend you’re seeing should actually trigger a change in your approach.

Be as specific as possible and make sure each target has not only a direction (e.g., increase, maintain or decrease a quantifiable measure you hope to achieve) and a date when you hope to reach this target.
Example: Increase the average number of comments per post per thousand visitors in the politics section of our website by 10 percent by Nov. 31, 2012.


Here are a few key points I hope you’ll take away from this post:

  • Try lots of little experiments, with an eye towards how new tools and approaches might fit into your bigger picture strategy.
  • Ask a lot of questions. It’s the best way to dig deeper and understand your audience — and your own motivations.
  • Set clear, specific goals and targets and regularly evaluate your progress.
  • Remain flexible, Iterate frequently, but know when to say no. It’s perfectly alright if some of your experiments fail, but you need to recognize what failure looks like (and also when to double down on a promising effort).
  • Celebrate successes. Another great reason to set clear targets is you get to reward yourself when you blow them out of the water.
  • Spend more time outside because there’s more to life than the Internet and inspiration can be found everywhere.