As former advocates of the Mayan Apocalypse could no doubt tell you, predicting the future isn’t an exact science. We made it through 2012 without facing an apocalypse, and now thoughts are turning to what might happen throughout the rest of 2013.
In social media terms, the future is rarely predictable. Many people were caught unaware by Pinterest’s explosive growth over the last year. There will always be surprises, but there are also some emerging and continuing social media trends that we can both track and predict with a certain degree of confidence.
Social media usage is set to rise everywhere over the next couple of years but growth will continue to be far higher in emerging markets, as Internet penetration and more sophisticated forms of online engagement continue to catch up with those in more established markets.
The two single biggest emerging markets in 2011 and 2012 were India and Indonesia according to eMarketer figures. In 2011 the two countries experienced a massive social network user growth of 51.5 percent and 51.4 percent respectively. Compare this to the US and UK markets, which grew by only 9.8 percent and 9.9 percent.
In 2013 India and Indonesia are still expected to see the biggest growth, at 37.9 percent and 28.8 percent respectively. The established markets will pretty much plateau, with usage in the UK predicted to rise by 7 percent and the U.S. by just 4.1 percent.
By region the Middle East and Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America will see the largest growth rates. The implications for social media marketers are pretty clear: get into emerging markets before they catch up with the rest of us.
In its September 2012 filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Facebook said: “While most of our mobile users also access Facebook through personal computers, we anticipate that the rate of growth in mobile usage will exceed the growth in usage through personal computers for the foreseeable future and that the usage through personal computers may be flat or continue to decline in certain markets.”
Many commentators have marked 2015 as the year when mobile search and online activity will overtake overall static usage worldwide. For social media the tipping point might arrive sooner than that.
Nielsen's Social Media Report 2012 found that 43 percent of U.S. users said they now use smartphones to access social media, with 16 percent connecting via a tablet. Apps were particularly prevalent, with users having increased their social app time by 76 percent compared to 2011. This meant they were now spending seven times more minutes on apps than on the mobile web.
Mobile engagement only looks set to soar even higher this year. The International Telecommunications Union 2012 report found there was still a “huge divide” between broadband penetration rates in developed and developing countries.
In emerging markets mobile access is still often more affordable and more reliable than static connections, meaning mobile social media is often the norm. And, once these usage habits are formed, they're unlikely to change radically as broadband infrastructure catches up.
In developed markets, meanwhile, the advent of 4G will make mobile Internet faster and more versatile than ever before.
According to the Nielsen report, more people are engaging with social media while watching TV. This can spike during events with a global appeal, such as the London 2012 Olympics.
Sixty-three percent of users in the Middle East and Africa use social media while watching TV and 52 percent in Latin America do the same. People aren't just chatting while they do so. They're also shopping and looking up relevant program and product information.
Established Giants vs. Niche and Local Networks
Back in 2009 there were 17 social networks that were the market leaders in at least one country. Last year it was a much more homogeneous picture according to this map (based on figures from Alexa) by Italian blogger Vincenzo Cosenza.
Not only were there just five market leaders in 2012, social media giant Facebook now dominates in all but 10 countries. In the past year, it has overtaken the likes of Mixi in Japan, Zing in Vietnam and other local competitors in markets as diverse as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Latvia.
China, where Facebook remains officially banned, represents one obvious stumbling block in Facebook's quest for complete worldwide domination, while VKontakte and Odnoklassniki remain popular in Russia.
Twitter and LinkedIn held the second spot in many countries but the huge rise of Pinterest and Instagram demonstrated that there's still room for new niche players, especially ones with a unique and innovative hook.
A lot can change in the next 11 months, but the continued overall growth of social media on a global scale shows no sign of slowing down just yet.