Last year, I wrote an article for IE Domain Registry about the relative merits of building a company’s online presence on social media platforms or websites. I concluded that any business that relies exclusively on being discovered through social networks had made a dangerous choice because their customer reach was vulnerable to changes on those platforms. Twelve months on, I’ve upgraded my assessment from ‘dangerous’ to ‘commercially suicidal’. This article explains why.
Dancing to the algorithm
Web algorithms, the clever formulas that make automated, rule-based decisions about the content we see online, hit the headlines in 2017. Used by online platforms from Google and Twitter, to CNN and RTÉ, they help personalise the information we see based on our prior online behaviour and interests. An internet without content algorithms is like a community newspaper without an editor; it’s just a load of random stuff thrown together by anyone who cares to take part. With billions of contributors on the internet, we need automated systems to control who gets to see what.
Like systems used elsewhere, the automated decision engine behind Facebook’s newsfeed has been designed to make the platform “sticky”, so visitors enjoy the things they see and regularly return for more. For instance, the algorithms are programmed to ensure we see every post from our closest friends and connections and only stories and ads that match our existing beliefs and interests. Unlike a balanced journalistic view, these algorithms have been shown to have an unwanted side effect of creating powerful echo chambers where the views we hold can be endlessly played back to us on repeat.
In the face of rising criticism and signs that Facebook was losing its stickiness, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced major changes in January 2018 designed to ensure that time on the platform will be “time well spent”. The noise volume from organisations and advertisers would be turned down, and authentic, original content from friends and family would take centre stage once again. The effect on business pages has been dramatic.
The death of organic reach
Organic reach on Facebook—the percentage of a page’s followers who see each post—has fallen from 100% when the platform launched in 2004 to as little as 1% today. This means that if you’ve worked hard to recruit 1,000 followers to a business page, as few as 10 people may see your next post. And those will be your most engaged followers, probably your employees, friends and family. With investment, of course, it’s still possible to reach larger audiences through these platforms, and each social network’s ad sellers will be delighted to take your money. But the free audience promise of social media is now dead, buried and should be forever forgotten.
What is a business owner to do?
With vast audiences still using social media and other third-party platforms, businesses have an understandable desire to promote their services and offerings there. But how can we cut through when the algorithms have been programmed to bury all company-created or obviously commercial information?
The answer lies in creating better, more relevant content and publishing it intelligently to the places where our customers and prospects may be open to consuming it. A company-controlled website remains the single best place to host your original content.
Third party platforms like social networking sites and forums then serve to publicise this content. Done well, social media posts can help draw traffic back to your website or facilitate other encounters, face-to-face or virtual, with your business.
When sharing content to algorithmically-controlled social networks like Facebook, it’s now crucial to avoid overtly commercial messages. Put simply, if your post reads like an ad, that’s what it should be, not an organic post. It’s also wise to steer clear of clickbait tactics like those teasing, over-promising headlines popularised by sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy. The worst headlines try to “sell” what’s inside, the best simply “tell” what’s inside.
Instead, put your effort into creating and sharing helpful, insightful information that will support prospective customers on their journey to purchase. For example, if you sell doors and windows, don’t just push promotional discounts and offers—you can use advertising for those messages—but rather concentrate on the insights customers need to make more informed buying decisions. For example, how exactly do certain windows keep a home cool in summer, what security and insurance considerations should be borne in mind when choosing a front door, and what colours and styles are proving popular this year in different regions of the country?
Helpful, information-rich content is what your future customers, not just your followers, desire.
And the most important aspect is that the actual content—the blog posts, articles, factsheets, videos, whatever—must reside on your website, under your permanent control.
This way, no third-party algorithms can ever assume control of your business message or divert prospective customers away from discovering it.
Allister Frost, Digital Marketing Expert at Wild Orange Media and allister live. Allister is an award-winning Chartered Marketer who helps businesses adapt and thrive in our rapidly changing, technology-driven world.
Read: Allister’s previous blog Which is better: A website or a Facebook page
Watch: Allister spoke at our Internet Day 2016 – here are his top tips for SMEs to make the most of their online presence.