The truth about social media algorithms – and why marketers should welcome rather than fear them

For the past five years of social media marketing nothing seems to have got the industry (and at times the users) so continually excited as the discussion of 'algorithms', their updates and their introductions.

While talk of Facebook's newsfeed algorithm was becoming old news, Instagram's and Twitter's decision to introduce their own variants has reignited the debate more fiercely than ever. The notion that these algorithms hide our content from our followers and make it harder for us to market to them is pretty ingrained within, and duly hated by, the marketing narrative. Facebook lured us in with the promise of free advertising and then trapped us with having to pay, right? Wrong.

An entire industry of gurus, technology and partners have shot up to help protect us marketers and fight back against these dark forces. Which makes what I'm about to tell you a little bit awkward – in fact we might be approaching the marketing equivalent of PPI: algorithms don't hide your content, they often actively promote it; the very focus on them misses the entire opportunity of modern social media marketing; and if anything marketers should be first in line to campaign for more of them to be introduced.

If we're going to moan about social media algorithms then shouldn't we at least understand them? Today I'd like to propose a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Social Media Algorithms*, and a three step plan to help us deal with their widespread mistreatment:

1. Understand What Social Algorithms Actually Do

An awful lot of content is posted to social networks these days. Blame Apple for allowing us to post our holiday snaps whilst we're still by the pool. Blame Buzzfeed for relentlessly churning out interesting content. Blame the social networks for making it easier to share exactly what you're doing, live even, at any moment.

At the same time, while we are spending more time consuming content, we’re not spending nearly enough time to balance that out. As a result we're missing stuff. You don't see everything your friends tweet, your family Instagrams or your favourite website posts. Social networks are faced with a choice: either randomly let you miss stuff based on whether you happen to be online at the time it was posted or not, or come up with an algorithm which tries to learn what you're interested in and surfaces that first.

I recently quizzed a room full of 200 marketers and virtually all of them said they believed Facebook's algorithm was decreasing the reach of their posts. They were virtually all wrong. The sheer amount of content on Facebook decreases your reach, the algorithm actually shows a brand’s content to MORE of its followers than a truly real-time and unfiltered feed would allow. That's because every time you log into Facebook there've been somewhere between 1,500 and 15,000 updates that it could have shown you. Brand content is probably actually more interesting to you than some random friend you haven't spoken to in 10 years' morning rant and is weighted accordingly.

Without an algorithm you’d reach about 0.1 per cent of your fans every time you posted, so even if you only reach 5 per cent you’re still 50 times better off. Don't believe me? Here's one of Facebook's chief engineers saying the same thing. Two years ago.

Instagram's new algorithm (which users and brands alike responded to by desperately begging followers to turn on 'notifications') doesn't even hide content at all, it simply reorders it. If a user was going to scroll down and see everything that had been posted anyway they'll still see your posts. If they weren't going to, there's every chance they wouldn't have seen your content in the first place. Surely it's better to compete on quality and interest of content rather than the sheer luck of when people log on? Unless you're saying you think your content is rubbish...?

2. Understand why they shouldn't affect marketers

So now we've accepted that with or without algorithms only a small percentage of people could ever hope to see our content – what next, is this the end of social media marketing? Quite the opposite in fact. This is the point at which social media marketing begins and why it starts to matter that Facebook, Twitter and Google all offer ways of getting content in front of the best part of a billion people.

You can devote your efforts to endlessly trying to game the system to reach 10 per cent instead of 5 per cent of your followers, or you can realise that to be truly successful you probably need to be reaching 1,000 per cent or 10,000 per cent of your followers. McDonald’s has 65 million Facebook fans but sells to 1 per cent of the entire world's population every single day. Oreo has almost 50 million, but it has sold 450bn cookies.

Not only can we pretty much guarantee that you don't have enough fans to begin with, it's also pretty safe to say they're some of the people you least need to reach with your marketing message. Brands grow by increasing penetration and persuading new people to buy from them, which means driving front of mind awareness for all of those people who until now haven’t really given you much thought. Does that sound like the same group of people who have actively chosen to follow your account?

Of course it would be nice to live in a world where we could freely contact, market to and activate our existing customers but all CRM methods have costs associated with them, so it’s a myth to think social is any different. On the plus side you can get some additional earned media and reach when you do promote content to an audience, as long as you invest to make sure someone sees it in the first place. When Facebook introduced Promoted Posts, it wasn’t putting a tax on reaching your existing fans, it was opening up its entire audience to you. Arguably the biggest single media channel on the planet appeared overnight. Here’s the bottom line: when you pay to promote your content, which you must do to reach a meaningful audience, the algorithm becomes completely irrelevant. If you’re not willing to pay to promote your content, stop making it.

We like to say that ‘content is king’ and believe in a world where really great creative has a divine right to rule the media world and be seen by millions. It’s more accurate, however, to say that ‘content is a democratically elected president’ – good content can indeed become ruler of the free world but you’ll have to invest a lot in promoting it to people to begin with, and make sure it speaks to the passion points and interests they have.

3. Understand why you should want more algorithms

Like it or not everything has a filter. Every website, every search engine, every video platform faces the challenge of trying to surface you the best content out of everything they offer. Google search is an algorithmic filter on the whole internet and the very reason that it’s so successful is because that's a hugely useful thing to have. There’s far more content out there than we can consume so thank goodness someone helps us sort through it, but from a marketing perspective as that content has increased it’s become harder (and ultimately more expensive) for us to ensure it’s our content which comes out on top. It’s true on search, it’s true on YouTube, it’s true on every digital platform. And that’s just life.

If Google switched off its algorithm and became a blunt list of every site on the internet we’d stop using it immediately. We think we want Facebook to freely show us everything but if it dumped 15,000 posts from people we cannot remember friending in front of us every day we’d stop logging on pretty quickly. A vocal minority objected loudly to Twitter’s algorithm but only two per cent of users have opted out of it, and on its Q1 earnings call chief operating officer Adam Bain said “it's seen an increase among those using the timeline in tweets, retweets, replies and likes”, having also stated that early tests showed users spending more time on the platform.

For social platforms to remain useful to marketers they need to continue attracting a large, regular audience, who are happy to consumer the content which our advertising slips between. Algorithms are an essential part of that and they’re a sign of scale and maturity when a platform needs to introduce them. Rather than panicking and demanding change we should welcome and embrace them.

It seemed at first that the industry had matured and was willing to welcome Instagram’s algorithm, but the landslide of ‘death of Instagram advertising’ articles came in the end, as did those awful and desperate ‘sign up to my notifications’ posts. Can you begin to imagine how annoying it would become if every time you thought you’d got an interesting message on your phone it was a brand updating its Instagram page?

Instagram became a truly useful marketing opportunity when it introduced its promoted posts and the opportunity for brands to push content out to a large, targeted audience. Twitter has long since stopped being just a platform for brands to quietly tweet alongside big events; it’s a video-dominated media platform where your content can reach hundreds of millions of people, if you invest in it.

Social media algorithms make these services more useful, which attracts more users and keeps them online for longer. In turn this means there are more people for marketers to reach with advertising and less competition for every available slot to get in front of them. Algorithms increase your reach & prevent your costs from spiralling. Best of all, because your competitor hasn’t read this article, algorithms are still distracting them and sucking up their time and efforts. Don’t miss this opportunity to focus on what really drives marketing results.

*This society shares a similar name to the NSPCC which is a far more worthy organisation and much more worthy of your attention and donations.

Jerry Daykin is global digital partner at Carat and tweets @jdaykin

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