One key to staying up-to-date on the ever-changing social media landscape is old-fashioned networking.
Facebook's $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp caught many observers off guard, if not because they were unfamiliar with the mobile messaging service, whose strength is in connecting consumers in international markets, but because of the size of the transaction.
Both in-house and agency-side communications practitioners say the mammoth deal underscores the breakneck pace of change in the social media sector and how challenging it can be to keep up with what these developments mean for PR campaigns.
The challenge is two-fold. There are many startups touting themselves as the next big thing in social media. An example is just-launched Jelly, a photo-driven question-and-answer app created by Twitter cofounder Biz Stone.
Meanwhile, established social media companies are innovating through redesigns and new products and services.
Keeping on top of both new and old-but-improving platforms is important, says Mitzi Emrich, chief social strategist at MWW, who says her team meets regularly with social media vendors.
"As important as social trends and new technologies are, it is really the personal relationships that lead you to that," she says. "Our agency constantly connects with people who make new tools and has them come in to show us how they work."
However, she quickly points out that it is important for most brands to prioritize relationships with social media companies they already partner with on campaigns.
"Ninety-nine percent of brands are already working on major platforms – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Pinterest – yet a lot of people get caught up in a new, minor social media tool, become an advocate for it, and wonder how their brands can use it," says Emrich. "Meanwhile, Facebook makes a huge acquisition, and they have no idea how that will affect something they are already doing."
She asks, "Why not take those opportunities to get onto something new and cutting edge through existing relationships, rather than trying to figure out something that is brand new?" That way, even if an investment doesn't work out, a brand can still grow a relationship.
For example, MWW invested time and money into Facebook's Grass Search, which it eventually scrapped.
"But ultimately, it helped us establish a bigger relationship with Facebook, and so when they moved into phase development of a different tool, we got to be in on that because we had already worked with them on Grass Search," explains Emrich. "We were able to grow with them."
Megan Hennessey, social media manager at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, who has also worked on the @HiltonSuggests Twitter initiative as part of Hilton Worldwide's team, agrees that networking is particularly important.
"I use Meetup.com and make an effort to go to as many social media, PR, and marketing meetups as possible," she says. Many of these are free and unstructured, she adds, "where we can discuss best practices in a casual setting."
Ogilvy Public Relations recently created a role on the West Coast to keep on top of social media. Luca Penati, formerly global MD of Ogilvy PR's technology practice, was promoted to MD of content and social.
To stay abreast of emerging trends, Penati recommends "keeping in touch with the VC community not only in Silicon Valley, but also in New York City and other key markets."
"Understand what they're investing in because these VC firms put a lot of effort and due diligence into their investments; you can learn a lot when you follow the money," he advises. "They are betting on something, and it may end up being great and it may not, but it is a great way to take a barometer of where the market may be headed."
Taylor Aldredge, ambassador of buzz at Grasshopper, a Boston-based virtual phone service for businesses, agrees.
"I keep tabs on what accelerators are looking for or accepting," he says. "When you look at the companies that are picked up at Y combinator, Techstars, or at MassChallenge in Boston, sometimes you can see a trend of companies emerging that could solve a certain problem on social media."
Aldredge also keeps tabs on trends through Reddit and Twitter. "[They] are the best for this because things happen in such real time on the platforms," he explains. "You can really get an idea of what the Internet is up to between those two sites."
Ultimately, though, the communicators interviewed for this article agree that social media is such a big playground that it is impossible to be an expert on everything.
Eric Fischgrund, director of marketing at 5W Public Relations, who recently joined the firm to help it build its digital capabilities, says one way to prioritize social media is through experimentation.
"Just because Twitter allows for promoted tweets and Facebook now has boosting" – posts that can get additional paid reach – "doesn't mean we have seen a significant enough ROI that we would recommend it to clients," he says. "It is about having a plan of what you know does work, and then slowly experimenting first with our [agency] brand, seeing what works, and then adding that to our client packages."