Social media in 2018: Time to grow up or get out
Columnist Mark Traphagen suggests social media marketers can learn important lessons from what happened in search engine optimization.
It’s always tempting to see the present moment as the peak of chaos and disruption, whether we’re talking about politics or just how those teenagers behave today. The same is true in marketing, because in many ways that profession is always in a state of chaos and disruption.
But I don’t think it’s hyperbole to apply “peak chaos and disruption” to social media marketing in the first quarter of 2018. Let’s review just a few of the upheavals we’re experiencing right now in the social media world.
Facebook news feed changes
Sure, Facebook has always tinkered with its news feed algorithm, and organic reach for business pages has been shrinking for years. But no past change can equal the bombshell dropped by Mark Zuckerberg in January, when he announced that Facebook would radically throttle most brand content in the news feed like never before in favor of more content from “friends and family.”
Moreover, there is increasing evidence that young people are abandoning Facebook in favor of more private social networks such as Snapchat and Instagram.
Twitter cracks down on bulk posting
Facing growing criticism for how easily spammers and bots used its platform to push political and hate group agendas, Twitter has announced that as of July 2018 users and third-party apps will no longer be allowed to post the same post to multiple accounts. Also banned will be creating auto-engagements at scale, such as mass-liking or retweeting posts.
Social sharing declines
According to a recent study by social media metrics company Buzzsumo, average social shares per post had declined by 50 percent in 2017 compared to 2015. Their data also demonstrates how quickly most hot topics become saturated with content, resulting in only a relatively few winners getting most of the social shares and links.
The rise of dark social
Dark social isn’t dark in any nefarious way (for the most part). Rather, the “dark” here refers simply to “hidden.” Dark social is all the online social sharing and activity that occurs outside of public social media posts. Examples would be email, private messaging, chat forums, and even good old-fashioned word of mouth.
Dark social can’t be tracked or measured, and therefore it lacks one of the main selling points of digital marketing: the ability to tie results directly to campaigns. Sure, dark social has existed as long as social media, but it is growing rapidly, according to a report by RhythmOne (then RadiumOne), and more and more online sharing and conversations are happening in private.
Influencer abuse and scandals
As the organic reach of traditional brand social posts has declined, influencer marketing was supposed to be our salvation. People still want to see the posts of celebrities and “thought leaders,” so if you could get them to talk about your product, you found a way around the social media throttles.
However, a sopping wet blanket was thrown on the concept due to some well-publicized scandals over the past year. It turned out that many influencers did not really have the reach or influence they claimed, with much of their following being bots or purchased followers. It can be even more damaging when celebrity brand representatives engage in foolish or scandalous behavior that gets reflected onto the brand they hawk.
Ad blindness and blocking
Another potential savior from organic social depression is paid social ads. You can always pay to get to your audience and have the added benefit of knowing you’re reaching a targeted audience, which makes the reach all the more valuable. But two threats loom over even this happy paradise:
- Ad blindness. There is growing evidence that users are becoming more immune to ads and in many cases are not seeing them at all.
- Ad blocking. A few years ago, I predicted that ad blockers would never become a major threat because users were too lazy to download and install the software. I was wrong. Very wrong. It turns out that as consumers became more aware they could block ads, they flocked to do it. In addition, more passive ad-blocking options are now available, such as automatic blocking of excessive ads in the Chrome browser.
So is social media marketing dead?
To paraphrase Monty Python, it might appear dead, but it gets better!
As I’ve watched this unfolding situation, I’ve been struck by the similarities to what search engine optimization (SEO) has gone through over the past several years. Gaining organic search traffic used to be relatively easy, especially if you were willing to indulge in gaming the system. Eventually, Google cracked down, and the infamous Penguin and Panda updates (along with others) pretty much killed off the easy pickings.
But despite many predictions to the contrary, SEO not only didn’t die, in some ways it’s healthier than ever. It did change, though.
A pivotal moment for me as a digital marketer was Wil Reynold’s MozCon 2012 talk, “Real Company Stuff.” It was a wake-up call to online marketers that the days of tricks and hacks were coming to an end, and we had to grow up and become real marketers.
That’s what the SEOs who thrived after the Google algorithmic purges did, and it’s what social media marketers should do today. It’s time to grow up into the maturity phase of social media.
Next-generation social media marketing
So, faced with these many disruptions to business as usual (and I only listed a few above), what are we social media marketers to do? How can we grow up and do real company marketing using social media?
Most of us would likely agree that the social audience is still worth our marketing efforts. Social media remains one of the most amazing mass communication devices ever devised by humans. It’s still where a good deal of the online conversation and sharing happens.
Here is what I’m recommending for next-generation social media marketing that not only survives the apparent chaos but triumphs with better marketing results tied to real business goals.
1. Assess whether social still makes sense for you
For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been that because of the size of the social media audience, all businesses need to be present and active on it. But some businesses, just by the very nature of their business, may find it difficult to get the level of engagement now required to get any meaningful level of reach or results from social media.
If these businesses have been diligent and tried out different marketing channels, and they are tracking their results, they may find it a better use of their limited resources to push more on channels that are working for them (email, traditional media, whatever) rather than into the increased effort it now takes to punch through on social.
2. Accept that paid is no longer optional for social media marketing
Actually, it hasn’t been for a long time for the smartest marketers. Sure, organic social media seems more attractive because it’s free, and who doesn’t like free? But even when organic had better reach than it does now, you could never be sure you were reaching your target audience.
Instead of complaining that you are being “forced” into “pay for play” on networks like Facebook, embrace the fact that social paid promotion is probably the most sophisticated marketing tool ever created.
There is a steep learning curve to doing it right, and the need for a regular investment of time to properly manage campaigns. Additionally, even for paid campaigns, you still need to have content that doesn’t trigger ad blindness. But the ability to target your messages to exactly the right people, and to creatively remarket to those who have already shown interest, is unparalleled.
If you can’t afford the time to learn and manage Facebook and other paid social options, consider hiring a qualified agency or individual to help you do it.
3. Be superior or go home
Earlier in this column, I drew a parallel between the disruption happening in social media now and the upheaval in SEO a few years ago. A lot of the shift in SEO had to do with the importance of content quality, and those chickens have now come home to roost for social marketing, too.
Just as the digital advertising world worries about ad blindness (the increasing tendency of people to not even see ads on a page), so social marketers should be concerned about content blindness. Mark Schaefer called it “content shock,” the result of way too much content going after a limited amount of attention.
The huge Facebook news feed change I mentioned earlier was in part motivated by this user passivity toward brand content. Facebook noticed that too much typical brand content in the news feed turned users into passive scrollers: less engaged, less happy, and therefore more likely to drop out of Facebook.
This means that just as serious SEOs had to become serious content marketers, so it goes for social media marketers. We have to shift from the mindset of getting as much as we can into the feed on a daily basis to investing more in high-quality, highly useful content that viewers actually want to see and engage with.
It’s important to understand that Facebook’s news feed algorithm change did not target brand content per se. It went after content that did not tend to produce “meaningful interactions” among users. It just so happens that most brand content fails in that regard.
Effective content marketers know how to create content that builds a bridge between their business’s goals and their customers’ and prospects’ needs and desires. Invest in creating social content that does that, and you can still shine in organic social.
4. Figure out how to become more engaging but less clickbaity
For algorithmically driven social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and to some extent, Twitter and Instagram) engagement has always been the key metric. It’s the primary way those networks have determined which posts should be seen more by more users.
However, those networks have now figured out that not all engagement is equally valuable. Engagement-based algorithms gave rise to the onslaught of “clickbait,” posts written with the primary purpose of enticing or even tricking users into performing simple but mostly meaningless interactions (“like if you agree!”).
The networks have figured out that clickbait makes for unhappy users. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg cited research that shows that kind of user experience actually has a negative effect on users’ overall sense of well-being. So, just as Google developed the ability to detect and devalue spammy or thin content in search, the social networks are now taking steps to eliminate it from their users’ feeds.
What social media users do value, and social networks will therefore boost, is content that creates genuine human involvement and interaction. Posts that get a dialog started, that get users to express their opinions, that make people want to call their friends into the conversation… those will actually thrive in the new order.
There is a major side benefit to moving toward that kind of content, beyond just keeping you in the news feed: Truly engaging content is better for your business. It helps make your brand more respected and remembered. It develops positive feelings toward your business that help influence people when it’s time to make a buying decision.
5. Develop real influencers and strategic partnerships
The lesson from the influencer marketing scandals of the past year is that using people who are influencers merely because of their follower count is a losing proposition. But that doesn’t mean influencer marketing is not valuable.
The key is to seek out relationships with influencers who have truly earned their influence. You should be looking for people who have real respect, trust and authority in your industry, or in an area that at least relates to your industry. The pitch here is a genuine exchange of value, where you bring something to the table for the influencer (other than just a hefty check), and they contribute their sincere endorsement and amplification to their audience.
The influencer relationships that produce the most long-term value work more like strategic partnerships. An example might be connecting with a data or research firm and offering your ability to create intriguing and useful studies from their data. The resulting content would be highly relevant and engaging to both of your audiences.
6. Adopt other uses for social beyond promotion
If you’ve only been thinking of social as a broadcast medium for promoting your products or services, you’ve been missing out on many of its other valuable capabilities.
In many verticals, social media has become a primary means of providing customer service. As more users instinctively turn to social when they have a question or need help from a company, the brands that are able to provide it quickly and effectively are going to stand out.
Investing in customer service assets and monitoring social feeds in real time have an additional benefit: the power of social listening. You can employ those agents to collect brand sentiment, product/service feedback, new ideas and user-generated content worth re-sharing.
For some brands, there may be great value in using social to build valuable communities associated with your brand. Twitter chats, forums and Facebook or LinkedIn Groups can all become places where your customers and prospects come together, and the help and information they get there gets associated with your brand.
Finally, social can be the best place to initiate and nurture the kind of influencer and strategic partner relationships I advocated in the previous section. Being helpful, supportive and genuine with real influencers or potential partners on social can open the doors to mutually beneficial projects and content ventures.
It’s way past time for social media to grow up and become a mature marketing channel. It’s unfortunate that it’s taken a kick in the pants from the social networks to make many realize that (if they have at all). But those who see the shifts as an opportunity to shine, rather than an obstacle to gripe about, will probably end up reaping better benefits from social media than they ever have before.