You can't start building and executing a social media marketing strategy for a business or charity without understanding social media algorithms and how they work.
If you’re clear on what a social media algorithm is and how they became ubiquitous across all the platforms you can skip this section and scroll down to how they work and what they mean for your strategy.
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, Instagram and now Tik Tok. 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. And it's likely that Tik Tok will become more SEO focused in the future in terms of the best way for users to find good videos.
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 followings. 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. Now with LinkedIn Stories it will be interesting to see how the algorithm pushes this new content format.
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.In 2020 it also seems to, once again, be trying to get hashtags off the ground and those in know started to talk about hashtagged posts being given priority by the algorithm. We surveyed our alumni and while most have been trialling hashtags in their posts throughout 2020 they aren't seeing an uplift in reach.
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 we haven't seen significant updates to the algorithm since then just a much clearer understanding of how it works. We have heard that contributing Reels can really help with reach but there have been no new announcements recently about this.
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 700 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. If the algorithms change further in 2021 you can bet that they are only going to further move in this direction.
So what does this mean for your social media marketing strategy?
It can feel a bit overwhelming to understand what you need to do in order to be favoured by the algorithm. The key things to remember are that algorithms give more weight to quality social interactions, quality content and relationships and less weight to anyone being overly promotional or spammy. So let's look at what this looks like in practice.
All algorithms give priority to posts that achieve higher engagement figures. While likes do count here, the ultimate engagement to achieve is comments and replies because algorithms prioritise what they call “meaningful interactions” and want conversations to happen.
This means it’s very hard for brands to achieve reach because, let’s face it, you’re unlikely to get as many engagement interactions as a friend or family member.
Out top tips
- Really focus on engaging content topics and formats and use data to work out which content consistently gets the most engagement interactions (we will cover how to use data to track success later in this blog series).
- Post things that encourage a response or comment, such as asking questions, always adding a comment when sharing content, running polls or even better running interactive Live videos where people can ask questions in the comments.
- When you get a comment on your post you should go back to people fairly quickly to encourage further conversation or you may see your commenter lose interest. Algorithms love multiple conversations which means people replying to each other’s comments on a post so try and encourage your audiences to engage as much as possible with you and each other.
- When you go back to someone we advise doing more than leave a generic “thanks” or “yes agree” as this can seem a bit robotic. Aim to leave a short sentence and think about how you can progress the conversation further, perhaps by asking further questions.
- Post when people are online because engagement counts and by ensuring you are posting when they are most likely to see it means you're more likely to see engagement. Use the data available on the social media platforms to find out when this is.
- Think about who will be interested in your tweets and posts and in some cases @mention them to encourage them to engage with you. Only @mention one person at a time this isn’t about spamming loads of people to try and get them to share your content. This also is not about tagging people in random posts. This is about attempting to start a quality discussion with someone that you really think would be interested. It works well with thought leaders and opinion formers.
- Engage in conversations other people are having, so comment and interact with others in your community.
- Encourage people to share your posts/tweets, but don’t be spammy and ask them to do so - they should want to do so. The key here is to post things that they want to share with others and often this is about quality content, which we will cover next.
- Avoid overly promotional or ‘salesy’ language. It’s fine to have the odd post promote a product or service but don’t continually push aggressive sales tactics. The algorithms are sophisticated and will pick up language like “flash sale everything 50% off” and will know if you’re using click-bait or engagement-bait language like “you’ll never guess how much we’ve knocked off our products click to find out”.
Conversations are queen but content is king. The platforms refer a lot to “relevancy” and “quality” content when explaining how their algorithms work. Clearly, users want high-quality, relevant content served to them when they want it.
Which content formats should you share?
This content can take many forms, whether gorgeous photographs and strong graphics, watchable videos, well-crafted blogs or engaging podcasts. While there have been some trends around visuals outperforming text and video outperforming visuals, there isn’t a one-sized fits all content strategy that works on social because the social media algorithms prioritise relevant content and what is relevant for one person isn’t the same as what’s relevant for another. Ultimately, the algorithms use machine learning to build a comprehensive picture of what a particular user likes based on what they regularly engage with and serves it to them. So if someone engages more with video then they’ll show them more videos.
What topics should you focus on?
The algorithms learn what topics people are interested in too. So while our CoFounder Kathryn will see a lot of English Bull Terrier related content on her feeds because she owns a Bullie, our CoFounder Nikki will see a lot of French Bulldog related content on her feed because she owns a Frenchie. This happens because they are a bit obsessed with their dogs and will engage with any content that relates to them.
Our top tips
- Have a robust content strategy that adds value to your audiences, don’t just have a content strategy that revolves around pushing your products and services. We will cover content strategy later in this blog series.
- Place your customer at the heart of your content strategy.
- Be consistent with content. Create a consistent and well-rounded set of content topics that makes sense for your brand and will interest your audience. It’s also important to be consistent with your creation schedule and posting schedule so people learn what to expect from you. Twitter’s new Topics feature, for example, will see the algorithm link content to Topics if accounts consistently share content on that topic that gets a lot of engagement.
- Spend time analysing your content results using the insights/analytics available on the platforms. See what content topics and formats people like. This relates to the conversation tips because generally, if they like the content they will interact with it.
- When new content formats are introduced, try them out. Brands that jumped quickly onto Stories formats are reaping the rewards. Often, when new features are introduced on a social media platform the algorithm will prioritise this new content format in order to fully launch it. This then stops once they have take-up so it pays to be the early bird. Instagram have introduced Reels, video content formats similar to those on Tik Tok, for example, and rather than thinking about you might use Tik Tok (yet another platform to get your head round and spend time on) instead explore this format on Instagram to see if it might work for you.
- As much as possible, post native content. Native content is hosted in the platform itself, for example uploading a video directly to a Facebook post rather than linking to a video on YouTube. Experiments done on the Facebook algorithm revealed that it’s likely the algorithm penalises external links to YouTube one of its biggest competitors. There is some evidence that external links to quality written content hosted elsewhere is marginally lower but not so much that it outweighs the benefits of sharing this high-quality content. For video there does seem to be a strong bias, which is likely because Facebook is actively trying to compete for eyeballs on video.
- Capitalise on trending topics with real-time marketing. Real-time marketing involves looking out for relevant trending events/topics and jumping on them with marketing efforts. If a topic is trending in your space/industry then it’s clearly relevant for your audiences and can help you gain reach.
- Invest in a hashtag strategy. Sit down and spend concerted time and effort searching for the relevant hashtags around your brand and use them. The more people you reach with your content the more people that will engage with your content, which means more people are likely to see your content.
When deciding whether to serve a user a post, the social media algorithms also look at their relationship with the account that posted it. Users that regularly engage with you are more likely to see your tweets and posts. This can also help you to reach their connections, even if they aren’t following you. For example, on Twitter, users that regularly engage with your tweets are more likely to see more of your tweets. Their followers are then more likely to see your tweets, even if they don’t follow you themselves. And if your tweets become really popular within your industry generally then the algorithm with prioritise them even further. This explains why, on Facebook, for example, you’re likely to see more posts from friends and family that you have closer and deeper connections with.
So you are looking to become a credible and quality user of social media.
Can you game the system?
We get asked this a lot from our Foundation in Social Media Marketing students because it's always tempting to think there are easy shortcuts. And there are even people online that claim you can game the system. You can’t. The social media platforms are clamping down on the sort of behaviour that people think can game the system. Spammy content. Bots that auto-post on thousands of accounts a day or follow thousands of accounts only to unfollow the next day. A common myth is that you can game the algorithms by using personal profiles for your business instead of business accounts in an attempt to trick the algorithm into thinking you're a person. However, that won't help.
The 3 most important things to remember are:
- Place your customer at the heart of your social media strategy because you need to add value with quality conversations and content and the better you can understand and empathise with them the more effectively you can do this.
- Craft a content strategy to bring quality and relevant content to your community to reach them and their connections.
- Make data-driven decisions to learn what drives the most engagement in conversations and content. Regularly look at your insights/analytics on the platforms and do more of what is working and less of what isn’t.
For more useful social media stuff check out our free social media taster lessons, courses and podcasts here or why not sign up to find out more about our next Foundation in Social Media Marketing course here.