What All Marketers Need to Understand About Social Media Algorithms

Lance Concannon Lance Concannon, Marketing Director, Europe

This blog post is a summarized version of our Social Media Algorithms eBook, which features much more detailed information about how to make your content perform better on each of the major social channels.

Whenever you log into a social media platform like Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, the first thing you usually look at is your timeline, the stream of updates posted by the other accounts you follow on that platform.

In the early days of social media the way that timeline was presented to users was in simple chronological order, the newest updates were at the top of the stream and older posts were pushed down to the bottom. As social media grew more sophisticated this changed, and today the order in which posts are displayed in your timeline is governed by algorithms which weigh up numerous factors to decide what content the user sees.

Over recent years there’s been a concerted effort by social media platforms to improve the authenticity of content people see in their timelines. This was a reaction against the rise of fake news and spam-bots that became a significant problem around 2016, and risked making social platforms unusable. Every social platform has its own algorithms, and in most cases the timeline is tailored to each individual user.

This means that if you manage social media profiles for a brand, there’s less certainty about whether the content you post will appear in your fans’ timelines, if at all. So it’s important for marketing professionals to have at least a basic understanding of how social media algorithms work, and the impact they can have on the performance of your content.

The important thing to understand is that no company makes the inner workings of its algorithm transparent, as that would make it too easy to exploit them. Everything we know about how these algorithms work is based on experimentation, observation, and industry experts making educated guesses.

What Factors do Social Media Algorithms Consider?

These days the algorithms try to prioritize posts that look “authentic” and that means posts from people or groups that you seem to be connected to in the real world are more likely to appear in your timeline than posts which are commercial in nature, or link to external websites that are judged to be low-quality.

In fact, linking frequently to external sites could cause problems regardless of their quality, as it currently seems that social algorithms reward accounts which post native content (i.e. content that resides on the social platform itself, rather than an external site) over those that frequently try to get people to click out of the platform.

Frequency of posting is also important. Brands which post regularly will see their content perform a lot better than infrequent posters. In addition to this, if your profile is poorly filled out on the platform, that’s going to damage your chances; high quality businesses take the time to fill out their profile pages and give users as much information as possible. Spammers rarely put in the effort.

There’s a kind of snowball effect in play when you post a piece of content on many social channels. The post is initially displayed to a limited subset of your followers and what happens next depends on how they respond to it. Think of it as a focus group. If that first group of people engages positively with your post, then the algorithm is more likely to show it to a wider audience, but if it fails to generate any engagement then the content will not be amplified further.

In the social media marketing industry there’s been a lot of talk about the death of organic reach, and social channels becoming “pay to play” but the truth is more complicated. If your brand consistently publishes high quality content that people want to engage with, then it’s more likely to perform well organically. If you’re struggling to achieve that kind of engagement organically then, yes, your fallback option is to pay to promote your content, which guarantees it will be seen by the people you’re trying to reach.

In that respect, there’s nothing new under the sun, this same pattern has played out time and time again on the web since day one, it’s a constant arms race between the platforms (be they search engines or social channels) that want to give their users a good experience, and the spammers who want to exploit platforms for a fast buck. In the end, the best strategy is always to focus on producing high quality, authentic content that people want to consume and share.

In this post we’ve covered the social media algorithms at a high level. In our eBook, you’ll learn about the specific challenges of working with each of the major social platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Download it today to learn how you can get better results for your content on each of those channels.