Welcome to the machine
“Social media algorithm” is a term you must have heard of at least, and possibly with growing frequency. It remains massively important, and little understood.
It was a defining moment in the industry, a moment that changed everything.
You see, the thing is really this: Social media platforms, quite like Google in that sense, have all to lose and nothing to gain from “getting gamed” by abusive online marketers. And frankly that applies whether they describe themselves as white/grey/black hat online marketers.
They have all to gain from keeping a great user experience, to grow and monetise. That includes obviously giving them the best content, the most relevant, the least click-baity content as possible.
All to gain from promoting cool, authentic content on their feeds in terms of customer UX, and not overly-sanitised commercials. Let alone click-bait.
And it takes an awful lot more now than just 1-2 years ago for content to travel organically.
Millennial marketing at large, inbound marketing, social media marketing, content marketing have raised the bar very high in terms of content mileage.
If you’re reading this then you’re probably looking how you can go about optimizing social media. The problem is the old adage of scheduling content at the right time and place to secure the most traffic is dead. What killed it? Two words: content shock.
Content production has grown much faster than our ability to consume it. Which means… lower content mileage, content arms-race and over-saturation of social media feeds. (We addressed what Content Shock precisely is here)
This is why social media marketing algorithms were born.
FaceBook’s 2009 “News feed” content prioritiser – The original game changer
The first big major algorithm was probably FaceBook’s 2009 “Feed prioritiser” update and its content default sorting order. The popularity of content started topping classic sorting orders, such as chronological as it was till then. And popularity already meant post engagement. Highly engaged posts starting appearing on top of users’ news feeds. This major change obviously riled a few, but the social media algorithm was born, on a massive scale.
a) Because they just can’t serve all the content inventory to all users anyway
b) because their core business is ensuring their members are exposed to the most valuable, quality, relevant information as possible.
Put differently it means they need to make sure their platform cannot be “gamed”.
Obviously, as for every Google update for SEO marketers, social media marketers cried blue murder. Death bells rang. Drama ensued. The end fell upon us.
The truth is far more optimistic, however. Instead of sounding a death knell it was instead the beginning of a new chapter. One which, if you want to have any hope of growing organically you’ll follow.
What this is then is not a simple guide of how to “beat” or “trick” the algorithm, but instead simply work within it.
But how can we define social media algorithm?
What are Social Media Algorithms?
Social Media Algorithms were first cooked up as a way to aid the consumer in finding only the best content suitable for them and cleaning up their feeds by reducing the amount of content that would appear to them.
Sounds simple of course until you realise each site has their own individual algorithms which all follow their own individual programming and are constantly evolving.
Yes Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram algorithms are all working around the clock imposing different rules that are constantly changing at the drop of a hat. And you never know when that hat will finally drop.
The last major social network to implement a full-scale algorithm was Instagram in 2014. In the meantime, all other major networks are not only rolled out but expanded/refined their algorithms.
Just to give you a sense of where we have already come.
Come 2014-2016 and the online marketing news were brimming with “decline of organic reach“. Most publishers and marketing managers were bitterly hand-wringing, as their FB reach and engagement metrics kept hitting new depths.
The Good old days are over
“Just schedule your content at the right time and repost your best content.” That was the advice social media marketers gave, and what some still give but the truth is that time is now long past.
Nearly everyone after the introduction of algorithms saw a sharp decline in traffic, some even claiming that over 80% of their social media traffic vanished. You have to truly understand this, scheduling content doesn’t mean as much as it used to. You are playing a different game now with different rules.
Robotic sampling of your lovely news and emotions
High-quality content can be seen at any time. With the focus on uplifting the best content, algorithms scan the substance of what you publish and actually show it to a sample audience and see how they react.
That’s right, even when you publish your content it isn’t directly sent to your audience right away. That sample audience’s impression of your content is paramount in deciding how far the algorithm promotes it or not.
Not only is the algorithm sending it to a sample audiences, it’s actively scanning each individual posts you make for certain keywords, rewarding and punishing a post based upon that.
For instance, did you know that asking for a share will actually harm the visibility of your post? Remember what I said about cleaning up click bait trash? So instead what you should be pushing for is instead a focus on producing genuinely good content that can stand on its own two legs.
How much should such content be promoted in this brave new world? Well according to some only once. Yes, according to Michael Stelzner of the Social Media Examiner, he promotes his content just once on Twitter and Linkedin while selectively reposting on Facebook.
Remember your content will be promoted by the algorithm depending on how much the audience loves it. It doesn’t matter how many times you repost a piece of content if the audience doesn’t care for it.
However, there is one important thing that you have to remember here as well and that is:
Good content can last you a lot longer
If you produce good content that your audiences love then it has a higher chance of greater longevity than it might have under the regular method of scheduling. The key, and this was tried effectively with Facebook, was ensuring that posts were quickly liked by as many people as possible.
It is, therefore, necessary that before you promote any content, you develop a list of influencers and promoters. What is the difference you ask? Well, an influencer is someone with great clout and followership. It could be a news site, a prominent figure in your field or just someone with a lot of followers.
A promoter, on the other hand, is just someone who can help like and share the piece, who helps “trick” the algorithm in heavily promoting the piece. We’ll go into more detail on how you can gain influencers and best use promoters another day but for now, the most important thing to remember is that it’s no longer about scheduling content but instead people liking it.
And this also means the days of evergreen content are finite too. Sure, you could currently get around the algorithm by changing the text of the post as well as the picture while keeping the URL but it won’t stop the inevitable.
Sooner or later and I predict sooner the algorithm will scan even the destination of your post and that will quickly stamp out any signs of excessive reposting. With that evergreen content will have taken another hit, and leave us with nothing but our ability to produce good content for our select audience.
What does this mean then?
Optimisation is King
Producing good content is one thing but packing it with keywords that’ll see your google rank climb higher is more imperative than ever now in improving your traffic. Which leads to one question.
What is social SEO?
Use SMO tools like the keyword finder to discover the best-optimised keywords to use. Reuse that if it works in natural voice, into a blog headline, etc.
That’s the thing you have to understand now, optimisation is key. With the difficulties that now exist, optimising your content is key.
SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and SMO (Social Media Optimisation) services are more critical than ever now.
The old days of writing short blog pieces frequently “because Google likes fresh content” are now entering into sunset days. Marketers are discovering that long-form pieces, of up to 2,000 or even 3,000 words can vastly improve the SEO rankings.
CRO (conversion rate optimization) is even more necessary than ever as you’ll look to turn your audience more and more towards your site. Which brings us to the next most imperative thing you need to understand in this day and age:
Numbers don’t mean anything
No one is going to see the numbers they got pre-algorithm days and fretting over such figures will at best lead to stagnation, hair loss. Instead, marketers are going to have to return back to their roots, their community.
Yes before the importance of terms like “reach” and “leads” took over each company nurtured and grew their own special community of audiences. Going back to that community building is imperative now.
Do focus instead on your mailing list, grow it to around 500-1000 and through that begin nurturing them and turning them into promoters by sending them high-quality content which addresses their pain points.
That’s one thing you have to understand if you want to “beat” the algorithms, they won’t penalise your audiences for promoting you. So do whatever you can to turn them into promoters and let them spread the good (and free news) of your business across the internet.
Think of it like this, its great to have over a million users in site traffic but how many of those actually convert into possible customers and then from there think about how many customers you actually need as a business to be successful.
That number is the community you need to grow, to nurture, to delight and to ultimately convert not just into leads but into promoters. Once again, this ties back to what I previously mentioned before about optimising your emailing list and effective content development.
With that this leads to the one final question that has followed you just all throughout this article, just how can I keep the algorithm and keep up to date with it?
Understanding the algorithm
The thing you have to understand is this, you can never beat the algorithm. Why? Because it’s constantly changing, evolving, and growing. Worst, each social media platform has its own algorithm each at different stages of growth and all scanning for different keywords and content to promote and punish
For example, did you know that Facebook previously announced they’re giving preference to longer videos and that users use FacebookLive will find their streams get heavily promoted? And that in doing so their non-live videos get a boost in promotion too.
Comparatively for Twitter, whose algorithm unlike Facebook is, so far at least, less refined and constantly evolving at a much higher rate, announced it would give a preference to tweets from people you follow or engage.
Add to that Instagram, Linkedin and a host of other platforms and you can see how hard it becomes to understand and “beat” the algorithm. You cannot grow lazy, you have to keep up to date with the ever-changing nature of the different algorithms at play.
Deeper trends and adapting to social media algorithms:
How do you stay on top of it all?
One simple meta-principle you can start applying, is to move away from a mindset where you should “game” the system. Ultimately social media algorithms are here largely for our own good. So write in a natural voice even if you optimise content. Actually engage with your connections, and do not just “collect” connections.
That should already keep you on the better, more sustainable side of social media marketing. These tools are actually made for interaction, use them, and see your returns naturally grow.
How to follow the technical evolution of social media algorithms
You may ask?
We understand that our lovely invitation to remain as authentic as possible may be concrete advice. It doesn’t help YOU explain the dropping/stagnating metrics of your social media activity at the next board meeting.
And it never hurts to know what platform favours what best format type, right?
Well, you can’t simply rely on Facebook or Twitter telling you I’m afraid. After all, how do you know they’re telling you everything? Therefore you have to experiment, to explore and follow digital marketing trends.
- Algorithms do not mean it is impossible to organically market on social media now.
- Scheduling content is not as valuable as it used to be. It is now compensated largely by producing content supported initially by a list of promoters.
- Optimisation is key not only your site but the very content you produce. Find the best SMO, SEO, Headline optimisers, influencer engagement tools.
- Community building is paramount. Grow your customers and convert them into promoters. Always manage and grow your mailing list
- Never allow yourself to get slack. The algorithms are constantly changing and adapting and you have to do. Do not waste time clinging to the old ways.
You will have to actively follow SEO legends such as Brian Deacon or Neil Patel. Or content legends like Mark Schaefer. Funnily enough you can do that on social media, better than anywhere else!
And while you are at it, stop following that guy on LinkedIn with the massive L.I.O.N. logo of compulsive serial networkers.
OK great so should I revert to cold-calling and direct-mail nag-ads?
With all that said you’re now (hopefully) ready to greet the brave new world that social media marketing has become. Social Media algorithms are a good thing on the whole preserving UX in the end, lest some platforms may keel right over like Twitter. There usually there for more relevance, and more enjoyment out of the social media user experience. Occasionally for extra monetisation from the platform admittedly but that also has to do with simply prioritising an ever-overflowing inventory of content.
Just remember to never allow yourself to get lazy and complacent and likewise never get disheartened by a sudden slowdown or drop in traffic. There is always a way to the social media algorithm, typically that’s just by following the guidelines it set in the first place.