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Social Media in 2014: It’s all about show, not tell

Apu Gupta, Special to CNBC.com
Thursday, 5 Dec 2013 | 10:28 AM ET
The social media effect: Retailers continue to be a big beneficiary of Pinterest.
Getty Images
The social media effect: Retailers continue to be a big beneficiary of Pinterest.

Social networking already reaches nearly 1 in 4 people around the world, or 1.73 billion people. And, according to a new eMarketer reporter, that number is expected to rise to 2.5 billion by 2017. Clearly, the industry is in constant transition, and next year it will evolve again, with a focus squarely on images.

With a camera in everyone's pocket and the web itself becoming high-definition (think bigger images and less text), it's become easier than ever to communicate visually. In fact, between Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr alone, more than 400,000,000 images will be shared daily. Add in Snapchat, Google, and Pinterest, and these numbers skyrocket, further emphasizing that consumers really do want to show, not tell. Here are four ways that social will change in 2014:

Pinterest will become universal.
Pinterest's recent $225 million venture capital fundraising brings its market valuation to $3.8 billion. It's clear, this network is on fire. It's driving traffic and revenue to brands, and it's going to be an even bigger deal in 2014. Retailers, of course, continue to be a big beneficiary of Pinterest, but brands of all stripes will start to recognize that they have to go where their audience is. A significant number of brands will jump into the Pinterest waters in 2014, recognizing that playing catch-up later will be far more expensive than getting smart now. We'll also finally see forward-looking brands from underrepresented industries—i.e. financial service, health care, and industrials—make a bigger push at humanizing their brands using imagery and visual storytelling on Pinterest.

(Read more: Apple predictions for 2014)

New ad products will spring up.
Pinterest and Instagram have both announced that they are experimenting with ads. Brands are lining up, eager to buy reach on these networks, causing ad spending on social to rise. The most successful brands on these networks will be those who are investing now in growing their Pinterest and Instagram presences to better understand how the platforms work and how consumers engage. These brands will use this knowledge to develop ads that look and feel native to the network they're advertising on.

"In 2014 you'll see more product recommendations from brands and retailers that are influenced by how those products are performing on social networks." -Apu Gupta, CEO of Curalate

User-generated content will be embraced.
Brands want user-generated content. For some time now, brands have been pulling in Tweets and Facebook conversations into their sites. Increasingly, this is starting to look like a censored social listening post: lots of conversations from lots of networks, with brands displaying only the ones they want. In 2014, brands will cut through the clutter and create a more engaging experience by focusing on images. They'll bring visual user-generated content (UGC) into the website and associate those pictures with the products they represent, making UGC shoppable. In other words, consumers can instantly purchase the products their peers are wearing and using. In doing so, brands will also showcase the fans that are celebrating the brand to reward loyalists at social scale.

(Read more: Wall Street: The day of reckoning nears)

E-commerce will get social.
Large brands, social media and e-commerce operate in silos and rarely talk. That's going to change. In 2014 you'll see more product recommendations from brands and retailers that are influenced by how those products are performing on social networks. Brands will start harnessing "social cues," such as likes, pins and reblogs to understand what products people share most actively. They will use this information to highlight socially accepted products in emails, on their websites and in stores.

Gone are the days where the goal of social media was to simply rack up "likes." In 2014 social media will be the key to racking up sales.

By Apu Gupta, CEO of Curalate, a leading marketing and analytics company for the visual web. Follow Mr. Gupta at @apugupta.

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