This sponsored post is produced in association with beBee.

The course of social media marketing never did run smooth. The top platforms now could disappear tomorrow, marketing strategies that worked previously could suddenly backfire and drive customers away. But with over 2 billion social network users around the globe — a number that leaps by double digit percentages every year — you can’t afford to take your ball and go home.

Keeping tabs on which way the wind is blowing, where your customers are going, and what they’re saying is the only way to stop the scramble to keep up and start getting ahead instead. Here are the top 5 social media trends we’ve identified, and you need to watch, in 2016.

1. Social media spend goes up

The major social media platforms are essentially torpedoing organic reach. Consumer use of ad blockers grew by 41 percent through 2015. What’s a brand to do?

Social media advertising is finally coming into its own, with ad spend reaching $23.68 billion worldwide in 2015. The major platforms have been sinking a lot of research and revenue into their advertising platforms, developing sophisticated new strategies to help brands reach the right customers at the right time.

Similar to Twitter and Facebook’s sponsored posts, more platforms are blending ads seamlessly into the user’s experience. Plus segmentation has grown increasingly sophisticated — making your ads more relevant and click rates rise. Companies interested in being relevant to today’s consumers will continue investing in social channels.

2. Specialized social networks will grow

Despite fierce competition, social networks will continue to bubble up, but now armed with new social and technology angles.

The search for innovative ways to connect users continues at a fierce pace. Affinity networking, the domain of apps like beBee, is focused on merging business and social networking, allowing users worldwide who share the same professional or personal interests to connect through affinity groups. With 3rd-degree connections, beBee is challenging the established 2nd-degree connections freely available through platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn.

Players like Periscope (snatched up by Twitter) and Meerkat are leveraging tech innovations to snag users—in this case, live streaming video, broadcast from around the world. And apps like Blab leverage that tech for live, interactive video chat. 

Some apps, like the recent blaze of glory Peach, hope that their eccentricity (using “magic words” to update, the ability to throw cake at other users) will not just get people buzzing, but give them a lasting edge.

Companies will also keep using established app concepts as stepping stones. Storehouse, a visual storytelling app, is hoping to take the basic Snapchat concept to the next level.

3. Word-of-mouth gains traction

With competition for organic visibility reaching Thunderdome proportions, companies need to uncover smarter — and cheaper — ways to reach their customers.

Companies are turning to employee social advocacy programs, setting their people loose on their own personal feeds to write and share updates about the company. Stats show it works — that content tends to show eight times the engagement with official company-branded marketing.

The need to get people talking will also mean a rise in the use of influencer marketing campaigns. Nailing down right person, with the credibility, expertise and relatability that get your target customer to take action, means a return of $6.50 for every buck spent.

4. Business gets personal

Since the birth of social media, users have tended to keep their business profiles and interactions separate from their personal ones — a natural separation of church and state that seemed to make sense. However, that division may be more erroneous than helpful since, as people pour themselves into their careers, the personal and business often spill over into one another, and make for important connections. New social networks like beBee are tapping into this, offering users a way to connect on many levels — by their work activities as well as by their personal interests. “Oh, you’re a devOps master and are into Minecraft? Sweet!”

5. eCommerce becomes surprisingly viable

Social media is already a huge influence on purchase decisions, but the U.S. has been far behind in the ability to monetize that word-of-mouth magic. China and Korea long ago figured out how to merge social and ecommerce, but U.S. companies are now catching up.

The incorporation of Buy buttons and functionality into sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, and Google are turning browsers into buyers — without ever leaving the app they’re in.

It’s an innovation that’s expanding potentially huge sales channels for marketers, powered by organic search, and eliminating extra clicks and open windows — fulfilling the average consumer’s love of both ease and instant gratification. Advertisers will also see a measurable boost in brand engagement, and, most usefully, more detailed, more extensive customer data to funnel back into testing and refining your ad strategy.

6. Marketing automation gets social

Marketing automation: this enterprise-grade marketing technology scaled to the SMB market has powerfully transformed marketing strategy and reach, and it’s an increasingly critical tool for maximizing and monetizing campaigns across channels.

It’s increasingly clear that the fundamental benefits of marketing automation — identifying, qualifying, converting, and growing customers — are especially powerful in the social media arena.

Automation allows you to scale social media engagement up without crowding out other more focus-intensive marketing tasks. Social media automation tools power prospecting, targeted content delivery (the messages your customers want, when they need them), and customer engagement. Metrics are seamlessly integrated into your marketing dashboard to track how social activity drives conversions and revenue, and help you continually refine your strategy to increase the ROI of your campaigns.

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