We’ve all heard, and likely tried to understand social media algorithms – but how far should we go in letting them guide our marketing tactics?
TL;DR – focusing on our audiences is a far more effective approach.
This blog is based on a LinkedIn live discussion with Professor Laura Chamberlain, part of a series diving into the topics of my new book, Planning for Success: A practical guide to eetting and achieving your social media marketing goals
You can watch the full session here:
What are Social Media Algorithms?
Algorithms are mathematical formulas or sets of rules used by social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, X (Twitter), and YouTube to determine what content appears on its users’ feeds. These algorithms are designed to improve the user experience by showing individuals the content they will most likely engage with (among many other factors)
Myth vs. Reality: Debunking the Misconceptions of Social Media Algorithms
There’s a certain mystique associated with algorithms. They are one of the largest enigmas in social media marketing, so let’s try to dispel some of the common misconceptions that I get asked about:
Myth 1: The ‘Secret’ Algorithm
Myth: A hidden, secret algorithm exists, known only to a select few.
Reality: Social media platforms offer transparency about the factors influencing their algorithms. While they may not reveal every intricate detail, they often provide valuable insights into their functioning and what their users need to be aware of to get the most out of their platforms. This information serves as the most reliable foundation for understanding algorithms.
Here’s two examples:
- LinkedIn: Mythbusting the Feed: How the Algorithm Works (August 2022)
- Instagram Ranking Explained (May 2023)
I check a variety of credible sources daily and share social media updates on my resource website, www.thelighthouse.social (so you don’t need to check every website yourself!)
Myth 2: ‘Hacking’ the Algorithm
Myth: You can “hack” the algorithm to gain an advantage.
Reality: While understanding how the algorithm works is beneficial, there are no shortcuts or secret codes to exploit it. Algorithms are not something you have to battle and beat. They serve a purpose: to help users discover content that appeals to them. Rather than chasing elusive hacks and secrets, focus on creating high-quality, engaging content that genuinely connects with your audience. This approach will override any changes to the algorithm. You do not need to follow every piece of ‘expert advice’ you read, especially when it is provided in a generic manner that does not match up with your own organisation, products, services or audiences. When we teach – either from a practitioner or academic perspective – we share our experiences and insights; it is up to you to determine the best approach for your needs.
Myth 3: Everyone Wants to ‘Go Viral’
By ‘going viral’ we mean that a piece of content becomes so popular that it spreads exponentially across the Internet and multiple social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.
Myth: Going viral is the magic answer for everything.
Reality: It’s not! It’s very difficult to make something ‘go viral’. When content goes viral it is not always for positive reasons. It is also very difficult to repeat something that has gone viral.
Myth 4: One-Size-Fits-All Solutions
Myth: Algorithms are one-size-fits-all, universally effective for any individual or brand.
Reality: Algorithms are not all the same. The context and the specific audience play a significant role in determining the success of different activities. What you see in your own feed will be very different to your partner, friend or colleague. What works in terms of creativity (visuals and tone of voice) might work well for one organisation, but be a poor fit for another. There is no ‘cookie cutter’ approach to follow. There would be no opportunity to stand out from the crowd if everyone followed the same path. The ideal solution for your organisation will be unique to you, and it can be best identified through a series of test and learn activities.
To note: While there is no ‘silver bullet’ to marketing, there are recognised best practices such as supporting accessibility and ensuring diversity and inclusivity. Many established frameworks can be used to guide planning as a starting point for the test-and-learn programme.
The Algorithms-Audience Connection
Amidst algorithm discussions, it’s easy to lose sight of the most critical element of social media marketing: your audience. Understanding your customers and audience is key.
The conversation about algorithms and audience personas is intertwined. Algorithms are designed to help users discover content that aligns with their interests. To succeed in social media marketing, it’s essential to create content that resonates with your target audience.
Personas are not rigid, one-dimensional characters but rather dynamic representations of your ideal customers. One legitimate concern often raised by marketers is the seeming limitation of focusing on one persona when the audience is inherently diverse. However, it is important to acknowledge that focusing on one persona doesn’t equate to excluding others. Instead, it involves personalising your content to forge a deeper connection with a specific segment of your audience.
Customer personas are versatile tools that allow you to humanise your audience. They provide a means to visualise the people behind the screens, understand their motivations, and cater to their unique needs. Rather than stifling creativity, personas liberate it.
Much like algorithms, personas are not static; they are ever-evolving, especially as the world around us impacts behaviours. Personas should be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure you are meeting the needs of your target audiences through the content you share.
In Chapter 3 of Planning for Success I explore the marketing fundamentals of market segmentation and targeting and we learn how to create customer personas. We can then use personas to guide our social media content.
Social Media Content Planning: Leveraging Social Media Trends (Free Tool)
Going back to algorithms, we do know that when content resonates with audiences, it starts to ‘trend’. It gets highlighted by platforms in terms of ‘What’s Happening’ right now, which reflects the real-time nature of the channel.
When relevant, marketers can embrace these trends. To highlight, the decision-making here should be focused on relevance to the target audience, and your organisation – and not embracing a trend to ‘hack the algorithm’.
When discussing the opportunity to embrace trends, I turn to a free resource from HeyOrca!, Trending Reels & TikTok Audio is a brilliant Google Doc. When content planning, this Doc allows us to review past trends, enabling us to make informed decisions about our participation or non-participation and the rationale behind those choices. By curating examples and presenting them at the board level, we can secure buy-in from stakeholders. This approach streamlines our ability to capitalise on emerging trends moving forward since we’ve already shared our thought process and eliminated the need for repetitive approval cycles.
- Social media algorithms are real and can impact your marketing activities. The best resource for understanding the algorithms is to refer directly to information provided by social media platforms.
- Understanding your audience should be prioritised. Creating and using customer personas is a valuable tool for guiding the content that will resonate with your potential customers.
- There are no ‘silver bullets’. The dynamic nature of social media requires constant testing, learning, and adaptation.