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Social Media: The Great Equalizer? Maybe Not

January 26, 2021


Social Media: The Great Equalizer? Maybe Not

Ask almost anyone for their thoughts on social media, and you’ll get a mixed bag. Some people think it’s terrible. It damages people’s mental health and gives them unrealistic expectations. Others see it as a great way of letting us connect with each other, even over enormous distances.

Like the Internet before it, social media was also to be some great equalizer. Sites are free, and (almost) anyone can sign up and start tweeting or livestreaming.

Lots of us were also led to think of social media would level the playing field for marketing. Posting is free! You could reach potentially billions of people by writing a few words and hitting “post”! You don’t even need to spend any money. That's a huge difference from print and radio, where advertisement can be costly.

So what happened? Every year, it seems harder for small businesses to breakthrough.

You might think it’s that there are so many people out there, all vying for attention. If Facebook has 2 billion users, that could be billions of post every month. That’s a lot of content to sift through!

But the size of networks and the amount of content isn’t the problem here. Like so many things in modern life, it’s algorithms. More specifically, it’s how social media companies like Facebook use algorithms.

Has Your Instagram Engagement Dropped?

You might have noticed the new Instagram feature Reels. The social media platform introduced this feature in late 2020 to take on competitor TikTok.

Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, has a history of pulling this kind of stunt. Before that, they “cloned” Snapchat’s signature feature—posts that disappeared in 24 hours. On Facebook and Instagram, these are Stories.

Snapchat has its own problems (leadership micromanages, they haven’t innovated in a while, etc.). But Facebook’s blatant copying sealed the deal on Snapchat. People still use it, but it would take a lot for it to dethrone Instagram at this point. People picked up Stories and then had no reason to abandon the Instagram app they were familiar with.

Facebook is betting Reels will keep Gen Z opening their app over TikTok. What’s more is that they changed the algorithm to favour people who use Reels.

Get this—if you use Reels, your entire account will experience a boost in the algorithm. That makes it easier for other users to find you and see your content. Instagram’s algorithm gives more weight to accounts making use of Reels, and making use of it on a regular basis.

As a result, Instagram users who adopted Reels saw their engagement increase. Those who aren’t using Reels saw their engagement go off a cliff in November and December 2020.

Instagram favours a few other things, like posting every single day and using IGTV and Stories too.

It’s likely that Insta’s algorithm will change a bit in the future as well. Once Reels isn’t quite as new, it won’t get such an unfair weighting in the algorithm. You’ll still want to make use of it, but you’re not going to be “punished” as much if you don’t.

The Case of Organic Posts on Facebook

This isn’t the first time the social media giant has made changes aimed at whatever suits Facebook. A few years back, Facebook’s own algorithm changed to encourage people to buy more ad space.

How’d they manage that? They devalued organic posts in the algorithm. Brands that had been getting engagement with organic posts alone were getting crickets.

That’s because Facebook wanted to drive ad revenue and grow their own business. Tweaking the algorithm this way made it harder to get traction with free posts. If you wanted to get your brand in front of Facebook’s 2 billion users, the best thing to do was pay for it.

Obviously, that created a pay-to-play regime on Facebook. Those who can pay more will get more exposure, because they can always outbid “the little guy.” Brands were once able to do Facebook marketing with zero budget. Now they have to be able to put some advertising dollars behind it.

Facebook’s official line on this was that the algorithm change made it “fairer” for those who were paying good money for exposure already. What it actually does is make the effectiveness of your campaigns tied to your budgets.

Benefiting the Big Guy

The long and short of this is that social media platforms aren’t exactly benign. And they’re sure not here for the little guy. In fact, the two examples of Facebook’s algorithm changes benefit one of the biggest players on the scene—Facebook itself.

The organic post change forced many small business leaders’ hands on buying ads. That drove up Facebook’s own profit. It also rewards those who can pay more to play—which is usually the big players, who have deeper pockets.

The recent Instagram Reels algorithm tweak isn’t quite as obvious. But Facebook is making a play to scuttle TikTok’s ship. They’ve changed the algorithm to try to make sure that happens. The more people adopt Reels—which is like TikTok—the more they might feel they don’t need to leave the Instagram platform.

Who benefits from that? Facebook, obviously—they don’t want to bleed users to another social media platform.

It doesn’t benefit small business leaders who don’t have the resources to make video content on a regular basis. While Reels are still free to use, they do take more time to produce. And since Instagram wants you to use them on a regular basis, it means you need to give them a lot more. More time and equipment, creative ideas, and even the people to make the darn thing!

Many of us find content creation is exhausting without platforms heaping more on us. Many of us just are not comfortable doing videos!

Again—Facebook doesn’t care that your budget is strained or your content doesn’t lend itself to Reels. They’re doing what’s good for their business, which is angling to take out a competing threat.

Does Social Media Even Work?

It's not surprising to hear people question whether social media delivers results.

After Facebook’s algorithm change to organic posts, the effectiveness of freebie advertising took a nosedive. Ads are still far more effective, so you have to pay-to-play on Facebook.

Twitter, LinkedIn, and other platforms are experimenting with advertising still. There’s a good chance we’ll see them try to push their ad programs soon. Twitter’s an excellent case-in-point: the platform’s had incredible trouble monetizing. Its ad program isn’t as popular as Facebook’s, but it could very well be the answer to that bird app’s money woes.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Twitter changed their algorithm to favour promoted tweets and ads. That would give the program more value to advertisers and encourage brands to put more money behind it.

But back to the problem at hand: does social media marketing even work?

It can, but it definitely does not have great numbers. You’ll have better luck with email marketing. Email ranks as one of the most effective digital channels. Instagram beats out both Facebook and Twitter in terms of engagement.

LinkedIn is actually the top social media channel. It drives the most leads and generates the most traffic for brands. That might be because people actually look for products, services, and even brands themselves.

Consider Why You’re Using Social Media

There are still a few reasons to keep social media in your marketing strategy—even when the going gets tough. The first and most important is that your customers want you there!

Social media can seem like you’re screaming into a void if no one engages with you. And you might feel like you’re wasting your time or even taking a risk—brands screw up and get called on it all the time.

But most customers—especially Gen Z and Millennials—want you there. They feel a brand that has presence on social media is more honest and transparent. And, if you’re not, they can hold you accountable by subtweeting you and throwing shade.

Social media is also the most important channel for most Zoomers—more than half of them say they use social media to learn about brands and products. Millennials aren’t far behind—a little less than half agree with the Zoomers.

So, you need to be on social media to connect with your customers. Even if they’re not liking every post or clicking every ad, they can still see you there.

Social media can also play into content marketing and SEO. Basically, almost all digital marketing works together. If you’re thinking about leaving a pillar out, consider why you want to drop that channel. You don’t need to be on every social media platform, but you should pick at least one.

Quick Tips for Social Media Success

All right—how can the little guy win when it comes to social media? These tips will get you going in the right direction:

·          Stick to a schedule! As much as I want to hammer home that we’re still engaging with people, we have to play nice with our robot overlords. Algorithms love schedule, so pick one and stick to it. Can’t post every day? That’s fine—so long as you are consistent in setting a minimum number of posts per week.

·          Video kills the Instagram star? Video is the most popular format, and it engages people more than anything else. Better yet, you can move it across platforms—Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram all use video.

·          Treat others how you want to be treated. If you’re never giving out likes or retweeting, why should anyone engage with your content? Social media users are in relationship with each other, so everything is reciprocal. If you want likes, hand some out yourself. That’s why follow-for-follow still works.

·          Connect with your customers. Finally, remember that social media marketing is all about connection. A lot of us are used to pushing messages, but that’s not why we’re on social media. We want to draw people in. We can do that with entertaining content and by listening to our customers.

We also need to make sure we’re picking the right channels. If we go where our customers are and pay attention to their needs, then social media won’t seem quite as tough.

And like always, start with the why!


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I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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