We thought we’d start off this blog series by focusing on what the social media algorithms mean for your social strategy. But we realised that not all small business owners know what a social media algorithm is or how they work. So we thought we’d start with a brief history of the algorithms and what they have meant for the evolution of social media marketing strategies.
If you’re clear on what a social media algorithm is and how they became ubiquitous across all the platforms you can skip this blog and go straight to part two.
The history of social media algorithms
2002 to 2009
When social media platforms first sprung up the posts and tweets that you saw in your feed when you logged in were generally in reverse chronological order, with the most recent tweets/posts showed up first. This worked pretty well for users at the beginning.
This also worked really well for brands because if posted a lot then you had a very strong chance of getting in front of your followers.
2009 to 2015
As the platforms started to grow and user numbers increased year on year the competition to get into the home feed increased. By 2014 the average Facebook user had 338 friends. Let’s say each friend shares a post every day that’s 338 posts to get through. You risked not seeing the posts that matter to you the most
In 2009 Facebook tested the first true algorithmic feed. Instead of simply using recency of posts as the determining factor of where posts sat in your feed they designed a complex computer programme to serve you what they thought you would be most interested in seeing.
The rest of the platforms started to follow suit and test their own versions.
While the platforms would cite user experience as the sole driver for introducing social media algorithms for the first time, there is another big driver towards algorithmic feeds happening at this time.
By 2012 investment in the main social media platforms was in the billions. Early stage strategies had all been about a growth in user numbers, reaching more and more people. Now investors wanted to start seeing a return on their investment and strategies moved towards monetising the platforms.
Enter social media advertising. It’s no coincidence that Facebook introduced sponsored posts into the home feed in 2012, once they had tested and adopted the algorithmic feed. Prior to this they sold advertising elsewhere on the platform but not through sponsored content that looked like your average post. Users had become adept at ignoring ads on the site but ads served in the home feed are difficult to ignore.
In the old days brands had just as much chance of their posts getting into people’s feeds as posts from friends and family members. If they could do this why would they bother paying for their posts to get into people’s feeds? They wouldn’t.
The below graph represents the growth in ad revenue on Facebook pre and post algorithm. It’s clear that the algorithm was a gamechanger for Facebook’s ad revenue.
2016 to present day
Today all four social media platforms use a social media algorithm to serve you the tweets and posts they think you will want to see most. All platforms want to see a better user experience but also to serve you ads and to grow their revenue.
How do the social media algorithms work?
Before discussing how they work and what this means for brands we want to be clear that the true social media platforms are LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Twitter. YouTube and Pinterest are predominantly search platforms and their algorithms work more similarly to SEO algorithms (Search Engine Optimisation) which is about optimising your content for discoverability. Snapchat is predominantly a messaging platform where people message their friends, with a Discover area for large brands to publish content.
Social media algorithms work differently on the various platforms but have lots in common.
Statements directly from the social networks themselves state that:
LinkedIn | Prioritises connection strength and engagement to showcase quality business content.
- Facebook | Prioritises meaningful interactions to generate friendly conversations.
- Instagram | Prioritises quality and relevancy to display the best content.
- Twitter | Prioritises timing and relevancy to give users the most relevant content.
At this point it’s useful to understand the algorithmic updates that have happened over the last couple of years to learn more about the trends.
LinkedIn announced that while it was seeing record levels of engagement on the platform that vast majority of these were weighted to the top 1% of users on the platform - big thought leaders and celebrities with mass folllowings. So in 2018/19 it has been changing the algorithm to give more weighting to those with smaller followings to broaden out the engagements across a wider number of users. The algorithm prioritises what it calls “audience builders” those that create and share content.
In 2018 Facebook announced significant changes to the algorithm to prioritise posts from family and friends, less posts from brands and media and crucially to give more weighting to posts from Groups. In 2018 organic reach for brands was already down to 1.2%. Following these changes most brands saw a further decrease in the reach and engagement of their posts. It’s important to note that this decrease in reach and engagement is also because of sheer competition as it’s the platform that has the most brands.
Interestingly, in 2019, Twitter introduced the ability for users to play around with how they want their tweets to appear and they have the choice to view “Latest Tweets” and turn the feed back to reverse chronology or to view Top Tweets to use the algorithm and few people actually make the changes. Twitter, more than any other platform, is still a real-time platform because of the nature of the platform. People turn to Twitter for news and trending subjects. So the algorithm does still use timing as a key element. They have also now introduced Topics so that people can follow topics as well as people, and the algorithm is at play in terms of what will show up under these topics.
More than any other we’ve seen our graduate community of almost 2,000 social media experts complain about a reduction in organic reach and engagement on Instagram since 2018. This has coincided with a lot more ads being served in the home feed. In 2018 Instagram invited a bunch of journalists to Silicon Valley to understand exactly how the algorithm worked because there were lots of myths floating around. So we know that it predicts how much you will care about a post based on your previous behaviour, that it does care about timeliness, taking recency of post into account and that it uses the relationship you have with the account that posted to determine how much you’d like to see from them. They also stated that “ranking higher in your followers’ feeds goes hand in hand with creating great content.” So no new updates to the algorithm in 2019 just a much clearer understanding of how it works.
At Digital Mums we have always used the analogy of how to behave at a party for how to behave on social media as a brand. In 2014 we saw so much spammy activity from brands that just pushed sales message after sales message and it was frustrating to see them get it so wrong. By 2014, the organic reach rate for Facebook Pages was already down to 6% and brands needed to change their thinking to compete. So we trained almost 2,000 women and showed over 600 brands how to do it the right way. To get social media marketing right you have to be social and the evolution of the social media algorithm has only made this more true.
The algorithms give more weight to quality social interactions, quality content and relationships and less weight to anyone being overly promotional or spammy. If the algorithms change further in 2020 you can bet that they are only going to further move in this direction.
So what do these themes mean for your social media strategy for 2020? Find out in the next blog in the series.
This is the first blog in a blog series but why not download “Success on social media in 2020” to get all this content packaged up in an easy to access white paper and make 2020 the year you nail success on social.
To learn more why not sign up to find out more about our next Foundation in Social Media Marketing course here.
If you feel ready to outsource your social media then we have over 1,500 trained graduates that have undertaken 350 hours of learning to become leading social media experts. You can find them via the That Works For Me platform here.