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Clever Content Club Blog

Coping With Reduced Social Media Reach

By Tom Salvat 30 September, 2019 0 Comments

You can have the best content on the web, but if it’s not put in a place where the audience can find it, then it’s not going to help you. It’s frustrating to spend weeks on a piece only to have it barely make a blip.

It’s like your audience is a picky cat that will only eat food from a bowl, never from your hand or the floor. You’re unlikely to change the cat’s mind on where to find your content. So, you have to go to where your audience is. That means you need to choose the right channels for your content marketing.

But what if your bowls started hiding your food so that your cat never even knows you fed it? This may be a stretched metaphor, but it’s similar to what is happening now on social media channels.

Organic reach on social media channels has been declining for a few years now. We just talked about why SEO isn’t dead, but organic search on social media just might be soon. Here’s why it’s declining and how to deal with it.

Why Search Engines Don’t Hide Content

Let’s look at search engines for a second. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Other search engines might limit themselves to the web, but the same principles apply.

A search engine doesn’t want to hide information but they do want to surface the best information. They’re digital librarians. Even when people pay for exposure and better ranking, that librarian mentality is still in the background. For instance, people shouldn’t see an ad that’s unrelated to their query and there are strict quality controls.

Search engines do delist some websites but only if they are breaking certain rules that threaten the search ecosystem. There is no arbitrary banning of information. If they did start arbitrarily banning sites, trust in search engines would plummet.

That’s the contract between users and search engines. A search engine will try to deliver the best material first, but it doesn’t hide anything. A searcher could scroll to page 100 if they wanted to in their quest for more information.

Why Social Media Sites Do

But social media sites are different. Social media users also want to see relevant content, but instead of a query on a single topic, it’s a collection of queries from a set of people they consider trustworthy enough to send them information.

It used to be when you logged onto Facebook that the site would pull all the newest content from all of your friends, order it by time, and serve it up whole. This also applied to business pages that you liked. You’d get every post.

What happened was much like what happened to Google before the Panda and Penguin updates. The content that people wanted most from friends and family was getting buried under business content that wasn’t interesting or relevant to the user.

However, unlike a search engine query, social media feeds are like one continuous SERP that you can’t go away from. In theory, everything on a person’s feed would be of interest to them. But it got too noisy and people started abusing the platform as a megaphone into people’s feeds.

The solution they hit upon was to make decisions on what they would and wouldn’t show. Businesses took a pummeling as a result. Unless a user showed a lot of interaction with a brand, it was unlikely that they would see an organic result. At one point, the organic reach of businesses on Facebook was only around 2%.

This is an unflattering metaphor, but social media platforms aren’t librarians. They’re town gossips. The enemy of any gossip is someone who doesn’t pay attention to what they’re saying. So Facebook, and other social media sites that don’t display everything, will try to surface the most interesting tidbits of information by measuring your reactions to what they say.

And, like many gossips, if you give them some incentive to spread information around you can get them to say things that aren’t so interesting either just to put a bug in your ear.

Are They All This Way?

Yes, but they all have their quirks. Take LinkedIn. Right now, it’s the darling of the organic reach lovers. What used to be a networking site is turning more into a social media site with posts, reactions, and features similar to Facebook.

The question is whether or not businesses will abuse that power trying to reach other professionals. If there is too much noise-to-signal that it threatens the site’s usability, we could see a repeat of Facebook.

Twitter has been algorithmically altering its main feeds for some time, but unlike Facebook there is an option to see everything in chronological order. This is one of Twitter’s main features. Watching the organic unfolding of the public’s reaction to an an event is one of Twitter’s main strength. The trouble with that for business is that Twitter streams run so fast that it’s incredibly easy for your message to get swept away before it makes any impact.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has instituted a similar algorithm to Facebook. There have been cries by some businesses that the goal of Facebook and Instagram is to drive organic reach to 0% so that they must pay money to be noticed at all on these platforms. True or not, it’s still bad news for brands.

Pinterest, unlike the others, has aspects of both the gossip and the librarian. Users curate images on boards and then share the boards with one another on their feeds. A brand that creates an attractive board can get their images spread far beyond their followers and really promote awareness. However, these images have to appeal to the platform’s audience. That’s not to say that a B2B business can’t succeed there, but it requires a different way of thinking

How To Cope With It

To sum up, the lifecycle of social media sites starts with lots of organic reach for everyone. As popularity increases, the noise-to-signal ratio between what users want to see and what  is getting added gets too wide. To manage the flow, the site starts to restrict content so the most important things, in their interpretation, get the most visibility. The result is that organic reach drops.

If we truly owned our social media experience like we did our email inboxes, the best solution would be an explicit opt-in with unsubscribe method like we have now. Unfortunately, social media sites don’t offer such an option. It’s their algorithm or not at all.

This means we have to play by their rules, and that means that social content teams have to seriously consider how to use paid promotion of their posts to get enough reach. If we’re going to play on social media territory, we’re going to have to pay to get it done. Paid posts and social media ads go much further than a standard post unless you get lucky and hit virality.

If pay-to-play is the future (at least until the next new channel comes along and the cycle starts again), then every post needs to hit with as much impact as it can. Serious consideration needs to be given to the post types that get the most traction on different channels. On Facebook, for instance, that would be doing live videos. LinkedIn wants deep and provocative think pieces that get people to talk. Instagram wants dramatic photos.

Businesses also need to decide on how they want to measure the ROI of social media posting. If we have to pay to keep it from being a waste of time, we must prove that our strategies are bringing in enough converting leads to make it worth the pay. Those metrics need to be in place before you start to spend.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. While it may be turning into pay-to-play, social media companies know that they can’t just throw up a paywall and expect you to shell out money for exposure. They have to offer compelling ways to get your content to just the right people in a way that you’ll get noticed. 

The ability to target extremely specific audiences is the hidden power of paid services on social media sites. You should learn how to exploit this as much as you can to maximize your ROI.

Conclusion

The lifecycles of several social media sites have shown that a drop in organic reach happens over time as content levels rise to become unmanageable. Unlike search engines, social media feeds are locked to a single results page that everything flows through. 

To keep the feed from looking like a spam-filled email inbox from the 1990s, the companies restrict what is shown based on what they think users want. But they also need to keep the lights on so they offer paid ways for companies to get exposure to more users through ads and promoted posts.

That’s the playing field we have to work with. Companies who still see social media as a free advertising platform must switch their thinking and start paying if they want to be a serious presence there. This means better ROI calculations on social media return. In some cases, it might be better to abandon particular channels that offer too little return.

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