Will 2016 be the year when corporate digital communications grows up?

Consumer-facing brands have long understood the power and possibilities of social media, running highly targeted and frequently interactive digital campaigns to win the hearts and minds of consumers. But the rest of the corporate class, particularly financial companies and other B2B businesses, have been slow getting out the gate, often hesitant to engage with the speed, immediacy and constantly-changing dynamics of the online world.

These concerns are certainly valid: recent times have brought a swathe of changes from the mainstream social platforms and online media. There have been the much-debated moves to algorithmic timelines by Twitter and Instagram; the launch of Twitter Moments; video continues its rapid rise, with autoplay and native video available across social channels; and Facebook is about to open up Instant Articles to all publishers. Likewise, media brands such Guardian Labs and FT Squared are investing heavily in branded content offerings, City AM is about to allow brands to directly publish content on its website, and Buzzfeed continues to see most of its traffic coming from Facebook shares.

There is a clear pathway for consumer brands and advertisers to take advantage of these new developments. But for corporate communications professionals, the proliferation of channels, which are often interconnected, and the growing need to pay for visibility, require a new skillset and way of thinking. It is certainly daunting, but financial and corporate communications has always been about telling the stories behind the numbers and bringing the business case to life. Communications professionals now have a huge playbook of tactics to do so and there has never been a better time for brands to explore the creation of compelling content, ripe for storytelling.

Indeed, excellent, organic content is still hugely important for the social networks. However, with such rapid change taking place in the media and with more competition than ever for cut-through, it is in fact harder than ever to be heard. This isn’t news to the media agencies and ad players, but increasingly it is becoming accepted among communications professionals that social media is here to stay and communications strategies without a paid distribution element are likely to struggle.

All too often the temptation for businesses is to wait for a more pressing rationale to invest in owning their digital persona. However, it is crucial to start planning and piloting an approach and tone of voice – before it is really needed. There have been endless, well-publicised social media crises from companies that have been ill-prepared. And the hard fact remains that business journalists, investors, customers and other key stakeholders will Google your corporate website or find you on Twitter to learn more. They are used to the speed of a digital world and expect frequent and up-to-the-minute content from corporate brands too. This isn’t changing. Ever. It therefore makes strong business sense for a brand to curate a corporate presence online, ensuring that all audiences hear first hand the business strategy and brand values, rather than leaving it to others to fill in the gaps.

The comforting thing is that the longstanding skills of building relationships and networks and crafting compelling narratives still hold strong. The advantage is that it is now easier to identify the most influential voices and discover insights which support those narratives. Importantly, the technology exists to make this all much more manageable: from social listening and influencer identification tools, to new-generation software that allows brands to run whole campaigns within a website, from audience identification to data analysis. It serves to allow corporates to take more creative and strategic steps to communicate with stakeholders, while affording visibility over performance metrics and enabling speedy evolution of strategies to maximise the impact of campaigns.

Understandably, corporate communications may be traditionally risk averse. But even with the dawn of this fast-paced digital world, a careful and strategic approach can still be, and should be, employed. It is businesses that marry a thoughtful strategy with an investment in the right technology and skills, to start experimenting, that will produce reputational rewards that flow through the whole business.