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An illustration of business people and social media icons.Jori Bolton

The Agenda 2020 series asks experts to discuss what business leaders should be doing now to prepare their organizations to be healthy, efficient and growing by 2020. Read more at

As businesses look increasingly to social media to spread their message, make sales and collect customer information, they also face the challenge of creating messages for constantly changing platforms and apps. We asked Josh Muirhead, director of engage at Winnipeg-based social media management services company ICUC and former global knowledge manager at Edelman Digital in Toronto, and Sidneyeve Matrix, an associate professor of media at Queen's University in Kingston, to examine the role that social media will play in six years' time.

Will social media still be relevant in six years, or is it a passing fad?

Josh Muirhead: Absolutely. I think professionals and businesses are starting to view it not as a separate thing but as part of their communications. What may happen is that not only will it still be relevant, but I think we as a society will be so used to a layer of social media, in whatever way that may look like in six years, being almost an omnipresent experience.

Sidneyeve Matrix: That is so not the case in my day job, in higher education. You might think it would be because of the generation that I'm teaching but when it's everywhere, it really becomes information overload and I find that my students are very savvy in using social media as a filter in such a way that they can decide what information is relevant.

With the acceleration of the information that's out there and the number of platforms that are available to tap into, is there a danger of reaching a breaking point?

JM: Working in digital and social media for eight to 10 hours a day, I know I make a conscientious effort that once I get home I turn off the computer, the phone, the tablet and I disconnect. From a broader perspective, you do see people on their phones all the time, constantly checking whether it's social, or e-mail, which are the big two.

SM: One thing I'm also finding is gravitation away from the bigger platforms where all the social media is aggregated, like Facebook, to really brief and ephemeral updates, through Instagram or Snapchat, or Twitter, BBM, or multimedia messaging.

JM: I don't see that shift but I don't necessarily disagree. I do agree that people are finding different ways to express and to communicate.

SM: Personalization is key because if all of my friends are using multimedia chat, then I'm perhaps going to spend a lot less time on Facebook or Pinterest or Twitter, because no brand message can compete with how interesting my friends are when I'm 20 years old.

Can we see big businesses try to further integrate themselves into more personal social media spaces in the next six years?

JM: Many people see the big brands on Facebook and say, 'Why are they investing so heavily here?' If I'm a major brand and I'm on Facebook and a few of your friends like me enough to hit that "Like" button, then through methods that Facebook is very open and honest about, I can start to use that information to hopefully attract you and your friends, and friends of those friends, because ultimately we put a high value on things that are friends-and-family trusted. Most of our purchasing decisions are based on those factors.

SM: It sounds like social amplification. In the future we can be less worried about platforms and more worried about creating content that people will want to share because as soon as you have it you do get that organic virality because of the trust factor on these sites.

JM: Our No. 1 focus was to really push our clients to not be platform- or channel-focused, but to be platform or channel agnostic and to develop the story or narrative that allows audience, whoever that may be, to have that personal buy-in. Do I think brands are going to continue to push on those and have deeper relationships? Absolutely. At the end of the day, advertising is still the No. 1 spend for any business out there.

As social media is constantly evolving, how can businesses adopt a strategy when the ground keeps shifting?

SM: They can look to the younger generation and see what is happening in the education space because those are the expectations that the next generation of consumers are going to bring to the marketplace, and when we look at the K-12 classrooms, we see a real emphasis on highly personalized learning experiences, a real emphasis on mobile-optimized content, high interest in video content.

JM: If you were to say, 'How can we plan six years from today?' which is a very tough question, likely you can't, to be honest. If I was forced to answer it, one thing is to really focus and understand the story or stories you're trying to tell, what are you wanting people to believe of your brand? The other thing is to really understand the target audience that you want to be engaging with. Is it the next generation coming up, because if it is, you should be looking at what they're doing, what they're reading, what they're consuming now.

With teenagers and the next generation being so familiar with technology and social media, how do we expect the demographic makeup of our society in six years to affect the use of social media in business?

JM: We won't look at technology like technology. Right now we see that barrier of learning, that barrier of technology. In six years, as young professionals start to come into the work force who have grown up with technology, that barrier will start to diminish. You also won't be able to take technology for granted. You're seeing this already, but people have smartphones and it has passed the 50-per-cent mark of people owning smartphones, so you can no longer say, 'Well, we'll get to that.' It's going to be, if we want to be engaging, if we want to be relevant, if we want to be converting, taking technology for granted will be a huge detriment for any business.

SM: I love this vision of technology that's all-pervasive and it not only enables a kind of agile productivity from an individual standpoint but it also enables new transparencies for business. So it's not just employers who are doing social screening when they're hiring, it's also consumers that are doing showrooming when they're making purchase decisions, it's applicants that want to know the socially good initiatives that a company is involved with and that kind of information is available and it's crowd-sourced and it's on the Web and it's on smartphones.

In future, will social media still be a specialist area of expertise, or will it be more integrated into everyday roles within any given company?

SM: I've been seeing more and more media professionals saying that we should probably stop talking about social media as a separate entity; it's more of a mission-critical business communications tool that we need to use to meet all kinds of business objectives. It's not something special that should be silo'd in one department with particular experts, but all across the corporation in all the business units.

JM: It is becoming almost a part of everyone's job, such as the guys working construction outside. They at least should know that if you are on Twitter and Facebook and you're sharing things that can impact your employment, that can maybe enhance or detract from your employment, so I do see a kind of generalization happening to social media.

Can you make any projections on what we'll see in the next six years in social media?

JM: One of the biggest things I see is that whatever a brand offers and whatever a brand does will have to have that level of value for us to even care about it. So whether that is telling a more compelling story, making it more customized, that transfer of value is only going up and going up at a very steady rate to a point that, in six years, if you do anything that doesn't offer value, it's going to be dead on impact.

SM: Also to touch on the idea that mobile data services are going to be huge, possibly because of wearables and our fascination with portable computing, how to add value is that the wearables and apps that constantly get used, purchased, opened over and over are those that help us make sense of our own data trail, our digital breadcrumbs.

JM: The way to add value is to add value to our own individual lives and for companies to be super successful in six years' time is to tap into that core of 'We're going to help you live the life you want to live.' And those companies that will do that well, and we're seeing that already, will be and will continue to be, successful. Those who struggle with that, I perceive will eventually fail.

Comments have been edited and condensed.

Follow Paul Attfield on Twitter: @paulattfieldOpens in a new window

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