Making social media algorithms work for you in 2021

By Mulesa

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Why is my post reach dropping? Why am I losing more Instagram followers than I gain every time I post? Why is it that when I like one post, I’m flooded with the same kind of content all the time?

These are a few questions that have come up in conversations I’ve had with influencer and digital marketer friends. I figured that doing my skills share on social media algorithms was a good way to answer these questions, out of both personal and professional interest. I find social media quite captivating, especially the way it has grown to become such a big part of our existence as people. It’s also quite exciting (and somewhat scary) that social media algorithms, though supposedly guided by our own behaviour and interests, are seemingly designed to know more about what we want than we know ourselves.  

In the context of social media, an algorithm is, simply put, the formula by which a social media platform determines which content to display at any given time to a particular user. Machine learning and data science are used to rank posts based on certain criteria. In other words, what comes up in your social media news feeds is based on two things: the quality of content being shared, and your actions and reactions to different kinds of content. But this criteria is often hard for most marketers to pinpoint, partly because they are forever changing and partly because the platforms leave us guessing as to what they are.

While many marketers have offered some insights into the kind of content prioritised in news feeds, algorithms are still a bit of an enigma. So, we have to use statements made by companies, research, our own analysis of insights, and common sense to get to grips with their inner workings.

Before we dive into the criteria used by major platforms to determine what you see in your feed, let’s look at the rationale behind why these particular benchmarks are used. Social networks have evolved from platforms that connect people, to channels for the distribution of news and information. This meant that alongside all the reputable news sources, not-so trustworthy sources of information came up. Clickbait articles, fake news, bots, trolls and political warfare inevitably started to saturate social media platforms like Facebook. Over time, these platforms became inundated with content from human and non-human users (i.e. brands) alike, so they began to diversify their offerings and capitalise on opportunities to monetise. Due to privacy concerns and an overload of content, however, users began to have less personal conversations online and reported feeling a lot less enthusiastic about life after logging on to Instagram or Facebook. In order to win users over again and have them stay for good, the algorithms were tweaked to prioritise more “meaningful” connections and relationship-building. For marketers, the focus is now on building a community rather than an audience; creating conversations rather than grabbing attention.

Facebook

Factors that influence how content is ranked in your Facebook news feed include: who a user typically interacts with, the type of content posted (e.g. video, link, photo, etc.) and the popularity of the post (i.e. number of engagements it has). Facebook’s algorithm changed significantly after the company started taking more responsibility for how the platform affected users’ well-being. Of course, the objective of Facebook and other platforms is to have you spend as much time online as possible. So they directed their efforts towards increasing the quality of time users spent on the platform. Emphasis shifted to sparking more meaningful, genuine interactions between members of the community which they hoped to achieve by ensuring that users only saw what is relevant to them.

Brands had major concerns about huge drops in post engagements, given that the algorithm started to recommend more posts from friends and family to users over news articles and other content. However, there are ways around this for brands. In 2021, posts in Groups and Events are now being prioritised more. Facebook also wants us to use more hashtags through recommended tag listings. There is now an opportunity for brands to build niche audiences on Facebook, establish their own communities and refine and publish the kind of content that their audience loves.

Instagram

Much like Facebook, of course, the Instagram algorithm rewards users who are building a rapport with their audiences. A user’s interests (determined by the content they engage with often), the relationship that user has with another, the timing of post publication and posting frequency will determine how content is presented in their main Instagram feed. The platform is also very concerned about clamping down on spam and abuse, as well as bought likes and followers (it’s really not worth it, by the way). So, marketers are encouraged to create high quality, original content that will bring about genuine engagements from their audience. This means that your goal should be to have users comment on your posts, share your posts and save your posts because they see them as relevant and valuable to their lives. Instagram’s hashtags are another important component of your marketing strategy. To reach more users, try to avoid oversaturating your content with too many generic hashtags as this looks like spam. The algorithm is most likely to recommend your posts if you use more niche hashtags or branded hashtags that speak to your audience’s interests.

Twitter

Killing automation (i.e. bots creating fake engagement) is one of the main reasons why the Twitter algorithm has evolved the way it has over time. Timing is key here. The platform’s algorithm prioritises recent content (published in the last 24 hours) with high engagement from users you follow as well as content with fewer characters and just a handful of hashtags. Engagements such as retweets, mentions and replies are also instrumental to your content being seen by more users. Use of relevant hashtags will ensure that those with an authentic interest in your content will get to see it more often and use of trending hashtags will help it get discovered by new users at a faster rate. Lastly, it’s also important to make sure that your account looks credible in the eyes of the algorithm. In other words, it should look like there is a human being behind it. Maintain your account’s credibility by updating your bio and profile picture every few months or so.

LinkedIn

Nowadays, LinkedIn wants us to be a lot more human in our approach to social media. The platform’s algorithm now prioritises more personal status updates. Users will see more content from people they actually follow as well as content from other users with high engagement, even if they are not following them. Lengthy comments over many reactions are the type of engagements that will get your content noticed by more people because they signify that users are interacting with what you post. Thus, the platform favours native content (including videos which are becoming increasingly popular) that keeps people glued to their LinkedIn. Another great way to get people interacting with your company’s posts is by getting owners and employees to share content through their personal profiles. Much like Twitter, LinkedIn wants you to show the more human side of your business.

Honourable mentions: Pinterest, YouTube and TikTok

Like Instagram, Pinterest is all about the visuals, so you want to make sure you pin high quality content that is regularly updated. Re-pins and comments will also get your content attention. As with every other platform, YouTube recommends videos based on what you’ve previously watched as well as viral (high engagement) videos. TikTok has taken the world by storm and exceeded all expectations. To get on top of what its algorithm prioritises, you want to post videos that are 15 to 16 seconds long as users are most likely to watch videos of this length all the way through, and the algorithm favours content that is watched to completion. TikTok creators are also fed content that is similar to what they usually watch. I won’t go into too much detail here but I would encourage you to check out this brilliant article by StoryChief which gives a great overview of these platforms’ algorithms and things to look out for in 2021.

 

These days, the way we acquire and absorb new information online is all determined by algorithms. As PR expert, Stephen Davies, points out, social media platforms are always learning by taking in information from us about our usage, the content we interact with (or simply view) and the length of time we spend on a platform to determine what they think we want to see. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they simply annoy us by showing us too much of the same stuff.

From a digital marketing perspective, I think these platforms are now mostly encouraging us not only to be active, consistent users, but to be thoughtful in our messaging, sincere in our interactions with our audiences and to develop strategies that are centred on both distributing information and igniting conversation. They inspire us to push the boundaries of our creativity by diversifying our content, continually testing what works and, ultimately, finding our voice to establish our own little niche in the wider social media community. Whether or not this has the effect of dividing us further rather than achieving the noble but somewhat lofty goal of creating a sense of community online is a debate for another day.

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