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Beating Algos on Social Media

Back in the good old days of social media marketing, brands could boost the number of people who saw an update and interacted with it in some manner (like, comment, share) with simple tactics – adding an image, including hashtags, asking questions and, heck, even begging for engagement (tag someone, comment if…, fill in the blank).

Today – and likely for the better – it takes more than bare-minimum optimization strategies to not only get seen by relevant audiences (even those who have already indicated interest in a brand), but also to get reactions.

While everyone can agree filtering out spam, click bait, NSFW content and “fake news” is important for maintaining the health of a social media network (and the ’Net in general), the use of “quality control” practices and the hyper-sophisticated algorithms that now influence a company’s visibility have come at a cost to marketers. Web professionals, however, are learning a hard lesson: the audiences they acquired on social were really never theirs to begin with.

NETWORKS STAKE THEIR CLAIM

Fully aware they will be marketed to, current and potential customers are still very much willing to follow the publishers, retailers and service providers they want to support on social media networks. Need proof? People are 57.5 percent more likely to buy from a brand they follow on social media (Sprout Social, Q3 2016) indicating they understand the brand-consumer relationship on social media but want promotions and products that interest them.

Despite users’ willingness to receive branded material, the networks themselves are limiting exposure – to the detriment of marketing goals and even user experience.

Most networks are news feed-driven experiences. In other words, unless there is a specific goal in mind, users simply trust that what is in their feed is what they should be seeing and have few reasons to ever go directly to a Page/profile to look for updates. Thus, users are unaware they are missing posts or promotions from their favorite brands/businesses.

Will there be an uproar if the average consumer starts to pay more attention to social media algorithms? Of course not, but social users may be less inclined to follow or Like a brand if those noted affinities are used more for advertising purposes (i.e., target people who Like this Page) than the organic delivery of relevant – and requested – content.

It is a frustrating time to be a social media marketer for those unwilling to adapt. It is time for brands to address the current climate of organic reach and visibility – paying special attention to Facebook as the world’s largest, most advanced and most influential network – and take back social by focusing on content that does receive algorithmic boosts and advertisements that generate the results that could once only be obtained organically.

Linking & Ranking First to Go
It should be reiterated that, unlike say an email list, brands do not own their social audiences. They cannot take them with them when they go (like downloading a file of contact information) and they have very little say in how they can be reached. For this reason, building a brand presence on any medium (yes, that Medium too) other than a company’s website is a risk.

The reason why marketers post their content on third-party sites, however, is to expose it to new audiences and deliver messaging where their current audience spends time. Facebook, for instance, tends to be a top traffic source for some companies. Across Parse.ly’s network of digital publishers, for example, Facebook remains ahead of Google as the top source of traffic for information providers.

Traffic is what readers of this publication should be after. Websites are where forms are completed, products are purchased (social commerce withstanding), visitor data is collected for additional marketing efforts (we do not want this to be the person’s first and only visit) and the foundation of a company’s entire Web presence is housed. For further reading, check out, “Retargeting in 2017: What’s New and What’s Tried and True” at wsm.co/getreturns.

The problem is when Page admins share links to websites, their posts tend to receive less engagement (likes, comments, shares) versus entirely visual content. With the latter, a person can simply gather information in one glance and keep swiping. A couple years ago, there were multiple studies indicating link posts “crush” photo posts in terms of organic reach, but in May 2016, NewsWhip found that links are not getting as much engagement on Facebook as they used to. Across the top 10 Facebook publishers, monthly engagements declined from 287 million in July 2015 to 162 million in April 2016 – in other words, engagement for publishers dropped by more than half. Since then, the Chicago Tribune and other reputable publishers have reported even more drastic drops to organic reach even those with Facebook Instant Articles enabled. Not a publisher? With the incredible rise of content marketing, most companies are providing information, so if these algorithm updates have not hit a brand yet, the time is near.

To understand why, we have to look at Facebook’s priorities: revenue (it is essentially a paid marketing channel) and time in app and on site (one reason the network is prioritizing native video over outbound links – more on that soon).

+ On this Day: A Timeline of Facebook & Publisher Problems
The agenda of Facebook and publishers have clashed many times over the years. Read more at wsm.co/pubproblems.

Links take users off Facebook (to consume content elsewhere), so they are held to more scrutiny within Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. Facebook algorithms, for example, take into account that if “reading an article makes people significantly less likely to share it, that may be a sign that a story has misled people in some way.” Read plus share, in this situation, would equal higher rankings. Read with no sharing, would demote the content because it must be “fake news.”

One can argue that why a person shares an article has more to do with their personal level of social activity and how interested they are in a topic versus their opinion of the material, but it is Facebook’s network, and it is Facebook’s rules. In another effort to combat fake news, the network is removing the ability to customize link metadata (e.g., headline, description, image) from all link-sharing entry points on Facebook. If the information populated is not ideal (includes wrong-sized images, out-of-context copy), that could mean fewer reactions, fewer clicks and less reach through no fault of the publisher. Facebook did not reply with comment when requested but its newsroom material suggests using Open Graph meta tags to customize link previews. Website Magazine developed a guide to implementation at wsm.co/bookmeta.

Facebook also made updates to prioritize friends’ posts over pages (in some cases cutting already low organic reach by more than half) and in May 2017 stated people will see fewer posts and ads in their News Feed that link to low-quality Web page experiences (like those that load slowly). Sound familiar? It should, as Facebook is applying a number of the same factors Google uses within its search ranking algorithms.

Website Magazine
predicted many of these scenarios in a 2016 “News Feed Optimization Strategies” article that is still very much relevant today. Read this material at wsm.co/feedopt.

In the coming years (possibly months), Facebook will no longer be a place for links. The traffic that companies are currently enjoying will likely only happen as the result of paid efforts. Newer networks are taking that stance from the beginning with little to no opportunity to link content somewhere outside of the network (at least organically). Website Magazine covered “Ranking on Link-Less Channels” at wsm.co/linkless17, but it bears repeating in this context that users are increasingly getting used to never leaving a social app to chat with friends, get inspiration, watch programming, pay friends, read reviews and a number of other goals that used to require websites and search bars to complete (i.e., via links).

Some industry insiders argue that links have been out of place on Facebook for quite some time, however, as they do not make sense in a place where people want to consume info quickly.

Mobile & Video the Way of the Future
If Page admins want to gain favor with Facebook algorithms (i.e., to rank in the News Feed), they must consider their mobile experience and start to leverage video.

When Fortune asked Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president for Facebook in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, about the future of Facebook, she said the social network would “definitely” be mobile and would “probably” be “all video.” Marketers will have to prepare for this mobile and video future.

Like Google warns smartphone users when a site is not mobile friendly (and likely pushes those sites down in the rankings as well), we can image Facebook will de-rank content from sites that do not load quickly and do not cater to mobile users. Likewise, we can assume material not shared in Facebook’s preferred formats (Facebook Instant Articles and, increasingly, Facebook Live) will not enjoy much if any visibility on the network.

While tech reporters continue to write about Mark Zuckerberg’s “obsession” with live-streaming content, video is simply outperforming other types of content. According to NewsWhip, online-only publishers and BBC News saw far more videos as their most engaging content versus the link posts that they shared.

“There has been an immense shift in our news feeds, from a heavily image and text-based display to the intense proliferation of video,” said Jessie Moore, marketing manager at Yellowball, a digital marketing agency. “It is simple: brands who have embraced this trend are the ones avoiding a dip in organic reach and engagement.”

It should be noted, however, that brands report an uplift in organic reach when using Facebook Live – a testament to the importance of using new features that social networks offer as the release of such products indicate what the network is prioritizing at the moment.

“The trouble is that a lot of small businesses hear the word ‘video’ and despair,” said Moore. “Many brands avoid adopting this trend due to a misconception that it requires high production values and therefore an extravagant budget. How many videos on your news feed display these attributes? Some of the most successful videos are shot off the cuff with smartphones or in the living room at home. Videos posted for organic reach should be first and foremost about the content, not the production value.”

+ Learn the secrets of creating successful videos at wsm.co/algovideos.

Whereas today it is video, tomorrow algorithms could favor different content formats. Moore, however, believes that achieving high levels of organic reach and engagement is still possible; it just requires a little extra thought and consideration to ensure that content is carefully curated and it is material that users want to see (see sidebar).

+ Driving Outside-the-Box Engagement
Genuinely entertaining social campaigns still have the power to break through algorithms, forcing networks to realize people are interested in a piece of marketing because they have shared it or sought it out. On Aug. 1, New York-based Healey Lincoln challenged five prominent local residents, who have never owned a Lincoln vehicle, to get behind the wheel of five models, one per month for five months. With no strings attached, they will share their honest experiences – good or bad – on social media. Website Magazine interviews Healey Lincoln Executive General Manager John Koerner and follows this campaign at wsm.co/drivenshare.

That said, unless a campaign is wildly creative, posted by an influencer who is wildly popular, or marketers are leveraging a new feature that gives a short-term boost in reach (like Facebook Live or Instagram Stories), then they will simply have to accept that paid reach is required to compete on social media today.

“Too much content and too little space, combined with the more cynical realization that Facebook ultimately wants your money, has resulted in a trend for paid advertising,” said Moore of Yellowball. “If Facebook advertising is not already a key part of your social media strategy then you are missing a trick. It doesn’t mean that organic reach is no longer important or necessary; rather, a healthy combination of the two is the most effective method of leveraging the marketing potential of Facebook.”

Leverage Affinities or Leave
With the decline in organic reach, paid ads are the best way for brands to get their messages in front of their key audiences according to Aaron Goldman, CMO at 4C Insights. Goldman’s company recently released “The State of Social Advertising” for Q2 2017, which indicates that total social ad spend on 4C was up 104 percent year-over-year (YoY) and 42 percent quarter-over-quarter (QoQ).

While we know that social media managers are relying on paid ads to boost their posts and ensure they get seen, Goldman says that many brands are also creating “dark posts” that only run as paid ads. Learn about optimizing dark posts at wsm.co/postdark.

Knowing that posts with links are subject to greater scrutiny, it is understandable why Page admins would cut straight to advertisements. Like how pay-per-click ads and organic search optimization can work together to increase visibility on Google, Yahoo and Bing, however, it is critical that companies use both paid and organic tactics – both of which require immense audience understanding.

Facebook (and we can imagine other social media networks will follow suit eventually), for example, allows admins to target audiences for their organic posts (e.g., people who have expressed interest in a competitor, people with certain job titles or interests, etc.). While it does not mean that all of those audiences will be reached, it does put relevant posts in front of relevant audiences (however small). This feature also speaks to the importance of social affinities, which align advertisements with audiences most likely to be receptive to the message based on known relationships, interactions and other elements between two audiences (read more at wsm.co/trueaff).

+ Advertising on Live Formats
Understand the push for real-time on social media and learn about the increasingly popular “live” advertising formats on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram at wsm.co/adsgolive.

“Every marketer should know what social affinities their customers have with their brand and with their competitors,” said Goldman. “For example, Coca-Cola should know that people who engage with its brand on social media are five times more likely to engage with Advanced Auto Parts, and people who engage with Pepsi are 1.5 times more likely to engage with Meijer. By understanding affinity overlap or lack thereof, marketers can create conquesting strategies to expand their audience and steal share from competitors.”

Listen or Lose
Part of understanding an audience is listening to what they have to say. After being “talked at” for so long, social media users are now in control – algorithms rank their content higher than a company’s content, brands must reply to their concerns and compliments on various channels (read “Choice and Context in Digital Customer Service” at wsm.co/cxforwin), and enterprises’ success relies on identifying and catering to brand advocates.

“All too often, brands limit their use of social media to introduce new products, seasonal offers, and other promotions – essentially they are continuously selling rather than engaging consumers in a conversation,” said Michael Baglietto, global head of product marketing at NetBase Solutions, Inc. “Using this approach can alienate potential customers, causing them to ‘tune out’ your message.”

“Social consumers don’t want to be marketed to – they want to feel like they’re in the ‘inner circle’ as if you’re talking to them one-on-one. Brands can deliver individualized messaging to different audience segments they identify through a social listening strategy to create passionate brand advocates who will promote the brand and amplify its message.”

Knowing not just what consumers are saying about a brand, but also understanding how they are interacting with competitors is critical in today’s social environment where inbound messages are as important as outbound. Baglietto advises that social analytics should be used to uncover opportunities to drive revenue and inform content strategy to optimize reach and engagement with social analytics providing immediate feedback into campaign performance, allowing organizations to adapt and iterate in real-time to maximize conversations and improve results.

+ To read our full interview with Baglietto, which includes five best practices for maximizing the value of a social media listening strategy, go to wsm.co/inboundsm.


BEAT THEM, OR JOIN THEM

Despite brands having a hand in helping social companies build their networks, they are being ousted in favor of companies that advertise and align themselves with network priorities (like ads and video). There are still wins to be had by thinking outside the box and understanding audience affinities, but if enterprises cannot beat the algorithms limiting reach, they will have to join them.

It is important to remember, however, that a company’s website is the only channel they truly own on the Web. Having a two-way conversation with audiences on social has its place, but failing to make the website the center of all marketing activities will prove to be a mistake as each new channel stakes their claim to the audiences businesses thought was theirs. 
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