Beating the social media algorithms: what brands need to know

Society’s awareness of how social media algorithms impact our personal and professional lives has been amplified since ‘The Social Dilemma’ took the world by storm. So much so the documentary appeared in Netflix’s top 10 most popular movies and TV shows list in September.

With the issue of fake news and political echo chambers still rife, brands need to be careful. The Facebook boycott saw organisations including Coca Cola and Unilever pause paid ad spend on Facebook and Instagram as part of the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign.

And trust has also been top of the agenda. Twitter made moves during the US election to censor unfounded comments from then incumbent President Trump, which drew ire from many who want social media companies to take more responsibility for misleading content on the platform, while it led others to complain its suppressing conservative content.

Today’s consumers expect brands to be clear about their values and where they stand on social, political and cultural issues. And brands are acting on this. It will be interesting to see how a new Biden-led US government impacts the pressure on the likes of Facebook and Twitter to do something about fake news and hateful content surfacing on their platforms.

Playing to the social media algorithms

Algorithms tend to prioritise content that is likely to demand people’s attention. In many cases, this is content that elicits a strong emotional reaction. Changing the algorithms to reduce social and political polarization is no doubt a good thing. However, this action may have a wider impact on the reach and engagement brands can enjoy. Staying abreast of these changes can help marketers plan ahead.

While the platforms don’t make the inner workings of their algorithms public knowledge, there are changes we can see that will impact how brands plan content to engage most effectively with their audience.

For example, Instagram is introducing the ability to search via keywords rather than just hashtags.  Users will be able to search for general interest terms and the algorithm will show them content based on signals, such as content type. This opens up how people can find content on the platform and provides brands the opportunity of greater discoverability. Of course, this is as long as brands can understand how their content can be surfaced by the algorithm through related and relevant keywords.

We’re seeing that platforms want to help with discoverability. Facebook is introducing recommended hashtags for when users compose a post. This new development will make understanding which hashtags are relevant to your brand conversation more important. Facebook is also said to be prioritising posts in the areas it thinks most people visit the site for: Groups and Events. This could pose a problem for brands relying on business pages to get their messaging across. It could be worth considering employee advocacy to reach these parts of Facebook, alongside the business page strategy.

On LinkedIn, video isn’t immediately top of the feed as it was when it first launched. The algorithm instead appears to prioritise posts with strong engagement, especially longer comments, suggesting a focus on quality engagement and discussion. There have been some suggestions that LinkedIn is de-prioritising content from bigger influencers on the platform to surface more content from the regular users of the platform, helping to make it feel more accessible and intimate. Again, this could be a great opportunity for focusing on employee advocacy to drive engagement levels up.

And with Twitter’s Spaces feature on the horizon, we may even see a shift towards social media algorithms prioritising new features such as audio.

What this means for brands

Platforms are changing how their algorithm work, but each platform is changing in its own way. For Instagram, keywords come into play. While for Facebook, hashtags may become more important than ever. Thinking more about employee and executive advocacy on the likes of LinkedIn and Facebook could also help you drive the best engagement.

These nuances between how each platform surfaces content makes it even more vital for brands to have clear social strategies that focus on how to get the best from each channel’s algorithm.

As online audiences increasingly care about media ethics, brands should be mindful of their use of these platforms to ensure they are being true to their values and protecting their reputation. Marketers should be sense-checking activity against questions such as:

  • Is there anything potentially unethical about your use of targeting?
  • Is the creative sensitive to the context of your audience’s lives?
  • Does the behaviour of the platforms align with your brand values?

Of course, brands shouldn’t be scared from using certain platforms. In the case of the Facebook boycott, we saw brands return once they made a statement. And the Facebook updated its policies saying it would start labelling content it wouldn’t have previously flagged if they were considered ‘newsworthy’. We expect this to be an ongoing situation in the months ahead.

It’s important to remember these are still effective places to reach and engage with your audience. So again, thinking audience-first here is vital, while being mindful of the changing perception of certain channels for consumers.

This article is part of our five trends to expect in 2021series. Catch up on all the trends we’re expecting to see play out over the next 12 months:

If you’d like to know more about how we can help you make the most from social and digital comms, please get in touch at [email protected].

Or find out how we can help you start thinking about creating a strategic online approach in our ‘Five steps to social media success’ guide here.

Written by Kinda Jackson, MD Digital & Influencer