While trends don't follow a calendar, the New Year certainly summons the temptation to prognosticate. As a communicator, I constantly watch for innovations in the marketplace, but more so, how audiences react (if at all). In communications, trends aren't established by all the effort, creativity, and planning they require, but ultimately, by the receptiveness of audiences.
In the spirit of New Year prognostication, here are communications trends that will follow one of three paths in 2012: emerge and grow; exist and evolve; and hopefully die off.
Emerging and growing
I call my favourite emerging trend "Awesome Apologies." The power of individual people and the multiplication effect of their networks have led corporations to make up with their customers in a BIG way.
In the past, this would start as the classic tale of the company that messes up, followed by customers complaining to their social networks, ending with millions of people talking negatively. Lately, this story has had a new ending.
Leveraging hard-won insights, some forward-looking companies have made some incredibly generous gestures to their customers for failing to live up to a promise or making a BIG mistake, while actually hoping news of the slip-up and recovery will take flight on social networks.
An apology from a corporation is so much more meaningful when they put their money where their mouth is (some I've seen this year would cost a mint). Think of an airline giving away countless flights to make up for a labour dispute a packaged goods company creating personalized musical apologies and coupons because the product is no longer available. Or, a beverage company halting its distribution of a newly launched line because of some potential confusion.
In 2012, when awesome apologies happen, I'll be watching for two things. First if the apology fits the mistake -- if millions are inconvenienced are millions being compensated? Second, does that same juxtaposition return on the investment put into the awesome apology. Essentially, the question isn't whether companies can turn lemons into lemonade, but whether they can turn that lemonade around for a profit.
Existing and evolving
While I feel this is an emerging trend, I've put it in the evolving category, because the approach and the purpose are fresh. This trend is a "Try-It-For-Me" approach. While having a beta test group is not new at all, taking everyday people with huge social influence and giving them exclusive and special access to everything from online content to new products is taking flight. And, it's no wonder. Social networking, at its core, plays off a very real human craving for status. Being "first" satisfies that desire each and every time. So companies are providing hundreds or even thousands of samples of their products to people who are active online and likely to talk about their experience -- a lot!
One of the fastest evolving trends is the blurred line between digital and physical worlds, suggesting that when it comes to communications "Offline is Online." People want what they can get online while they live in the real world too -- 24/7. For businesses, this means higher expectations (think digital speed), seamless access, transparent communications (no corporate legal jargon) because people will soon want (if not demand) all the choice, control, and action they have become accustomed too.
The other side of this and what I believe will become the evolution is the final recognition that online is not the be all and end all. In fact, I have seen a resurgence of companies leveraging offline to impact online and doing it with great success. In some cases, the approach and implementation is purely offline and yet the outcome (and the measurement) is all online.
In communications, I'm hopeful that our discipline will finally get over its identity crisis and see that social media in itself is a great channel and offers a breadth of new tactics and opportunities, but it's a part of the communications mix, not the only part! The companies that balance online and offline going forward and use them with synergy, will win the race.
Maybe my favourite trend is today's inextricable link between reputation and citizenship. I would almost say "Citizenship = Reputation." Companies will continue to stretch in the area of corporate citizenship and environmental stewardship. The days of pure compliance are coming to an end as we finally enter a time where actions DO speak louder than words.
Forward looking companies are getting creative in how they "give back" with meaning, and involve as many people as possible -- employees, customers, partners, etc. Similarly, the environmental movement has evolved in this vein, because the fact is people are smart enough to separate the real leaders from the wanna-bes and they will reward them accordingly. What you'll also notice is that when a company slips and falls, its level of generosity or citizenship and their response to the mistake (aka "Awesome Apologies") can be the difference between viral applause and boycott.
This desire for leadership and citizenship has also brought on a trend I wish would die, but it's likely to stick around for a little while -- passive activism. The rise of social media, for all its benefits, also allows a person to randomly suggest they are giving back or doing their part by simply "pledging" on some website or social networking page.
This type of activism allows for some superficial status as if it equates to a modern day petition, but the fact is most of these pledge campaign are so arbitrary and short-lived they cause no action and rarely amount to anything more than another pledge campaign and contribute to a festering issue I call the scarcity of good information. So, one can hope that these ridiculous campaigns are either given some substance or take their last breath.
More importantly, if you watch really closely in the year ahead, you can look to be disappointed and then blown away by the acknowledgement, you could possibly be the first of your friends to try something new and while you'll "Like" more companies for the good things they do, you'll likely demand a lot more from them than ever before too.