Dispelling the mystery of social media algorithms
One of the more powerful tools in a modern-day business’ back pocket is social media. Literally, it is in your back pocket (or possibly your hand, depending on how you are reading this) and the back pocket of all your current and future customers.
But social media is run by confusing, frustrating and ever-changing algorithms, and understanding them is vital to success. To help you navigate these challenges, local social media experts Andrew Todd, senior manager of social media at Extra Space Storage; Blake Hadley, founder and partner of My Social Practice; and Kylie Brooks, social media manager of university communications at Brigham Young University (BYU) gave their best tips for how to better understand social media algorithms and boost performance.
First, let’s get on the same page. Social media algorithms exist to help “social media platforms decide which content to show you,” Todd says. “It uses thousands upon thousands of data points to sort, rank and ultimately determine who to display the content to.”
And how important is it to focus on this? Very. Hadley explains that working with algorithms will help businesses adjust their content strategy to increase visibility and reach their target audience. Todd agrees, saying understanding social media algorithms is critical to success.
Now, the tips.
1. Create quality content.
Social media algorithms favor quality content, Todd explains. “What do I mean by quality content? I mean content that is intentional, original, unique and valuable.”
Hadley recommends avoiding “clickbaity” content that lacks genuine creativity and authenticity. Brooks agrees, saying, “If your goal is to go viral, you need to rethink your entire strategy. Instead, focus on creating content that resonates with your intended audience so deeply that they feel compelled to share it. Then, watch your data to learn what content is most shareable.”
Before you post anything, Todd suggests a simple gut check. “If you create a piece of content that you’re not super excited about, don’t post it,” he says. “If you can’t wait for others to see the content because you absolutely love it yourself, then it’s a good sign others will like it, too.”
2. Be strategic.
This may seem obvious and sound impossible, but even with the constantly-changing nature of social media algorithms, there are certain things that never change. Algorithms want to promote what is naturally popular.
Brooks has noticed that “getting wide, organic sharing and high engagement” will encourage algorithms to boost posts. Brooks and her team have pinpointed the types of BYU content that garner national attention and plan around it.
“If we have a piece of content that performs well, the algorithm is likely to reward our next piece of content by putting it in front of more eyes, so we try to be really strategic about each piece of content and who might see it,” Brooks continues. “For example, Halloween content always does really well organically for us, so we are very strategic about our November content because, algorithmically, it’s likely to end up in front of more people.”
3. Watch out for tips from the platform or platform executives.
Stay up-to-date with algorithm changes by going straight to the resources provided by the platform. For Instagram, Hadley suggests following the @creators account.
“Their posts explain what is working well for their creators, influencers and brands. Even if you completely understand the rules of the algorithm, it’s hard to come up with creative content that works under those rules,” he says. “I have found that seeing examples of what others are doing really helps!”
Platforms also often have documentation, blog posts and help centers that update creators on how the algorithm is shifting. Hadley follows the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri (@mosseri), for updates straight from the source.
4. Don’t buy engagement.
Engagement is a large, if not the largest, signal for social media algorithms to push your content out to more people. You want eyeballs on your content, and platforms want eyeballs on their site. The best way to measure that is through engagement metrics—likes, comments, shares and saves. Unfortunately, this need can drive accounts to buy likes, comments or followers to boost engagement. Todd cautions against this, “The algorithm will never favor counterfeit engagements.”
5. Understand your audience and interact with them.
Instead of buying fake engagement, spend time learning about your audience, understanding them and engaging back.
“Understanding your audience is key. When you can create content that provides real value to the right people, they will engage with your brand,” Hadley says. “And for most social media algorithms, engagement is the metric that will push your future content to the top of their feeds.”
Specifically, Hadley suggests “paying attention to the insights and analytics provided by the platform for business users.” Effectively tracking your engagement and which types of posts do well can help you discover the type of content your target audience wants to see. From there, being consistent in your publication of popular content will naturally have the algorithm rewarding you with more eyeballs and engagement.
Brooks agrees. “One of the biggest mistakes an organization could make would be to ignore audience user behavior data,” she says. “Simply creating content to ‘meet’ the algorithm stifles the opportunity to create niche content that will resonate with your specific audience.”
Brooks also includes responsiveness as a key signal to the algorithm. Remember to consistently interact with those taking the time to like, comment or share your content.
6. Don’t give up.
Todd’s best piece of advice? Don’t give up. Sometimes it will take a few tries before you find something your audience wants and resonates with, but “all you need is that one good post to get noticed,” he says. Then, it is just about capitalizing on that momentum.