What you need to know about social media algorithms

In late April, Instagram began testing a new algorithm that will filter and reorganize the posts users see.

This change is making a lot of brands nervous about their effectiveness to reach customers on this highly engaging platform. And they have a right to be nervous.

For years, Facebook sold ads to brands based on the idea that they would have a direct line to potential customers. More “Page Likes” meant more business. Then, slowly over time, it changed its algorithm until posts from brand Pages were seen by just a fraction of users who followed the Page. In 2015, a study from social analytics and reporting firm Locowise showed that Facebook organic posts only reached 2.6 percent of a Page’s fans. Facebook began to encourage brands to pay to sponsor their posts.

What was most frustrating to brands trying to leverage these powerful platforms was the mystery around these “algorithms.” They were seeing significant drops in their engagement and visibility but had little understanding of what they were doing wrong or how to adjust to the changes.

Luckily, since the first algorithm change in 2009, we’ve learned a lot about how to leverage social media algorithms and use them to bring branded content to customers and help companies rise above the competition.

First, let’s start by understanding what the social media algorithm is:

What is an algorithm?

When Facebook first introduced its News Feed feature, it defined the algorithm change as a way to “deliver the right content to the right people at the right time so they don’t miss the stories that are important to them.”

Each social media platform uses its own algorithm to automatically rank, filter and reorganize each of the posts that come through on your feed. Some algorithms simply organize the information in reverse chronological order with the newest content automatically fed to the top of the feed. Others prioritize content that has more “likes” and comments. Others prioritize “sponsored posts” paid for by brands. Every platform is different, and these algorithms are constantly changing.

To understand how to adjust your marketing to get the most out of each of the platforms, you should consider the differences between the different mediums and their customized algorithms:

Facebook: Similar to the Google page ranking system, Facebook uses a point-based system to define which posts to show users. The most important factor is social interactions.

The News Feed filter takes into consideration over 100,000 uniquely weighted factors to decide which posts are the most authoritative, relevant, and timely. So identifying precisely why certain posts gain traction and others don’t is nearly impossible.

There are, however, certain factors that the algorithm clearly favors including:

  • How often a user has “liked” or commented on that type of post before.
  • If/how often the post has been hidden by others.
  • How much engagement a page has received from that user previously.
  • How well the post has performed with users who have already viewed it.

Twitter: When Twitter announced a new algorithm in 2016, enraged users declared the end of the platform with the #RIPTwitter hashtag. But Twitter made the confusing new “best tweets you may have missed” feed optional, and many users opted out. Still, it is slowly catching on and offers many benefits to brands.

The new algorithm can be good for nurturing a growing customer following. Brands that produce engaging content are given more reach within the algorithm-based feed.

It also keeps that engaging content in feeds longer, increasing the chances that users will interact with it. Again, interesting and relevant content is the key to gaining lasting attention.

Instagram: Instagram will grow 15.1% this year, compared to just 3.1% growth for the social network sector as a whole. Its popularity and growth have taught Instagram that with overwhelming popularity comes overwhelming content. Instagram claims that feeds are simply becoming too crowded and an algorithm is the best way to cut down on the clutter.

Brands will still benefit from using Instagram. Unlike Facebook, which hides content from users, Instagram will still show all posts to users, although it will change the order of the posts to promote the best content.

How to get the most out of social media algorithms

While algorithms are mysterious and the details behind them are proprietary and constantly changing, the purpose of the system is simple: to create a better experience for users. For most brands, this should align with their own marketing goals.

Instead of focusing on how to manipulate the system, the best way to rise to the top of the social media marketing game is to create valuable content that is interesting and relevant for your customers. Get specific about who your audience is and you will better understand how they use social media and how you can reach them.

Data analysis and tracking will be important in the coming years. When you see unexplained changes to your engagement or reach, research whether potential changes to the algorithm.

Social media is no longer a set-it-and-forget-it system to be run by a team of interns. Your social strategy should be integrated into your larger brand and marketing goals and should be reevaluated often by experts who understand the shifting social market.

If you are interested in growing your social reach and getting the most out of your social media efforts, get in touch with our media experts to schedule a consultation.

 Galen KashtockBy Galen Kashtock

I lead sales support strategy and execution. Our team is hands-on from start to finish with the sales process, ensuring that we build and execute wildly successful media strategies for our clients.