Social media platforms have played a major role in digital marketing for years. Taking on some iterations over their time, they continue to evolve with adjusting algorithms to both support and manipulate user behaviour. As marketers, or brands and business owners leveraging social platforms, we’re constantly playing catch up, particularly when these changes occur literally overnight. It can be a frustrating pursuit to constantly play the social game, but there are some ways to switch your thinking about social media and hone your focus to better understand how it works and, more specifically, how it works for you. 

Confirm and set meaningful mid- and big-picture goals

Understanding your goals before you begin, or re-begin, your social activity is vital. It can feel overwhelming, but it sets you up for success from the outset. This is mid-picture stuff. What do you need to achieve? If you’re having trouble narrowing it down, the top three goals for most businesses as it pertains to social media are:

  • More followers (brand awareness)

  • Greater clicks to website (conversions)

  • Higher engagement (audience growth and community engagement)

The big picture is obviously what you want to see in your bottom line results. There are few businesses, though (unless using social media as a direct retail portal - Facebook marketplace etc) who will see direct purchasing from organic (not paid ads) social media posts. Your social media platforms are spaces to present your business’s personality; your digital front-facing customer service, if you will. 

Expecting the wrong kind of success from your social media platform risks the success of your big picture goals. Allow (what could be) your strongest, cheapest marketing tool to be the quiet conduit that builds valuable relationships with customers, rather than the loudspeaker for sales messaging and fast track to direct sales. 

Expect this to feel counterintuitive. The more counterintuitive it feels to sales, in fact, the better you’re probably doing. 

Understand each social platform’s algorithm

Think of the last time you walked through a shopping centre and pretended to be on your phone to avoid the temporary sales stalls shouting out their promotional plight to you. Even if they attempted to mask their sales intent behind a friendly greeting or personalised question, you are a savvy consumer and can see right through it. Why? Because we know that these stalls are set up to sell us something, and we’re intrinsically repellent to being sold things we don’t need or want. Actually, even if we do need or want the service they’re selling, the heavy-sales stench is too strong and we duck and dart to avoid eye contact. 

The beauty about social media is that you can, firstly, work to make yourself visible without being a pest, and secondly, decide if you want to be the patient and helpful service or product customers want instead of the screaming sales pitch that prompts a hit to the unfollow button. 

The best way to do that is to better understand the algorithm of each platform. That is, work out the content that these platforms support and show to users. Which, incidentally, aligns with the kind of content users want to see. 

How the Facebook algorithm works:

In 2016 and 2018 Facebook made changes to their algorithm that affected brands in two main ways:

  1. It favours organic content from family and friends, over brand content. 

  1. It favours content that is highly engaging to the audience and essentially hides low performing content. 

Brands shouldn’t work around the algorithm, so much as with it.

How to do this:

  1. Encourage ‘real person’ sharing. This can be achieved with employee advocacy, encouragement to share and direct tagging. 

  2. Create engaging content. 

This might seem quite broad, and it is. There is actually no one size fits all version of what this is. But, we can’t emphasise enough how much testing is required to find what your audience finds shareable, worth their valued time and engaging. 

As an example… It is common best practice to use imagery and video, in particular, to garner the highest engagement across the board. Some even go so far as to recommend never posting unless it is accompanied by a visual. However, by doing our own testing, we found that on at least one of our used platforms, captions alone do the best overall. 

What does remain broadly true, however, is that conversing with your audience in a helpful, balanced and un-salesy way is the fastest route to community trust, communication and engagement. 

By not shoving a proverbial sales poster in the faces of your audience every time they interact with you, you allow space for them to understand your brand, your values, how you treat customers and the quality of your service or product, without ever saying so directly. 

This is where your feeling of counterproductive sales messaging is your best marker of success. 

How the Instagram algorithm works:

Instagram is a machine-learning algorithm, adjusting constantly based on user behaviours, rather than to instigate user behaviours (in theory, at least). 

Since 2016, they dropped chronological feeds and migrated to a multi-factor sorting of content. The three main factors Instagram favours are:

Relationship:

The algorithm presents posts to users from accounts they already interact with, or accounts that are similar to the interests users indicate to Instagram. This means that community engagement is vital. Introducing users to new brands/accounts is done through ads and the ‘search’ feed; curated content based on posts a user has shown interest in. Plus, created categories based on user interest are above the feed to further filter what a user wants to see. 

‘Interaction’ means:

  • DMs

  • Tagging

  • Comments

  • Likes

  • Reshares

  • Views

Interest:

This means, what the user likes, the user sees. If someone interacts with an account, they will continue to see its content, or other accounts with similar content. This includes the theme of the content, and the medium it is presented with (reels, video, stories, still images etc.). Users can also indicate their interests by following specific hashtags. The Instagram algorithm gives users what they want, and more and more of it. 

Promotional material that does not offer immediate and genuine value to users tends to not work on Instagram. 

Timeliness:

Timeliness is relevance, which is considering the valued time of your audience. If your posts are timely with what they’re looking for, when they’re looking for it and (sometimes) in the right social instance, you are far more likely to appeal to the genuine interest of your followers, and their followers. 

With testing and monitoring the (digital) social behaviour of your audience, you will be able to post more of what they want, at times they are most active and in language styles that appeal to them now. This is not a stagnant pursuit. Watch as they evolve, as their behaviours evolve and as they become more savvy to sales and ‘easy get’ approaches (anyone else remember the old ‘if you don’t like this post something really terrible will happen’ of the early social media days? Yuck). 

How the LinkedIn algorithm works:

LinkedIn’s algorithm changed in 2019 from a ‘pro-popular’ format (where celebrity-level popularity polarised the feed - Oprah, Branson etc.) to one that prioritises connection and interests of all users. That is, they prioritise relevant content and promote posts with high and immediate engagement. 

LinkedIn look for some top signals to curate the feeds:

Personal connection

  • Who you’re interacting with

  • Who you’ve interacted with

  • Information on your profile

  • Work connections

  • Industry connections

Interest relevance

  • The measure of a post’s connection scaled against the interests of users based on followed groups, hashtags, people and pages. 

Engagement probability

  • Likelihood the post will be shared, commented or reacted to, as well as its match to content users have previously engaged with. 

  • LinkedIn calls this, “Multi-objective optimisation”.

Timeliness of feedback is strongly considered by LinkedIn. The quicker the response from users to the post, the quicker LinkedIn will feature it on user feeds. 

Strong recommendations by LinkedIn are:

  • Know your audience. Post accordingly. It’s about them, not your objective. By default, your objectives will be met. 

  • Encourage engagement. Talk with your audience, not at them.

Social platforms are for brand support and to remain top of mind when someone is ready to buy. To remain top of mind, they have to be the centre consideration of everything you do. 

They can be your most valuable promotional tool… if you stop thinking of it as one. 


Thanks to George Pagan III for sharing their image on Unsplash.

Written By

Rikki Hodge-Smith

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