Facebook and Instagram are two of the most popular and potentially powerful social media tools in the world of business – and in recent months, algorithm updates have made them smarter than ever. The machines are learning, and marketers and brands will need to adapt to and play by their rules.
For many digital marketers, hearing the word ‘algorithm’ provokes a sensation that’s not a million miles away from having ice water poured over your nether-regions while someone removes your appendix with a rusty spoon.
While algorithm updates might have historically only been seen as a part of search engine marketing, things have changed – fast. Social media may once have offered a brief respite from the hoop-jumping forced upon us by pandas, penguins, and a host of other seemingly innocuous fluffy animals, but alas, things have changed.
These AI systems are now an integral part of almost all social media platforms – and in recent months, Facebook and Instagram in particular have seen some fairly hefty changes.
In January, the world of marketing trembled as Mark Zuckerberg (the social media equivalent of a demigod) announced that Facebook’s algorithm would be altered (again) to favour content created by friends and family. Brands are reeling, but this is far from the only change in the social media game.
From virtual sin-binning to banned hashtags, these are the Facebook and Instagram algorithm updates marketers should be aware of in 2018:
Facebook Algorithm Updates
Arguably the Godfather of all social media platforms, Facebook has gone through a huge number of changes over the years.
The newsfeed that many of us take for granted today is, relatively speaking, a fairly recent addition – and the algorithm used to determine who sees what and when has become frighteningly advanced.
In January, Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of Facebook’s content-serving reshuffle resonated with the marketing world – and struck fear into the hearts of countless social media executives, marketers, and business owners.
Cries of the ‘death of Facebook marketing’ were echoed among the community, and while this seems a little hyperbolic, things have certainly changed, and marketers need to make sure they’re clued in to how Facebook is going to ‘think’ from now on.
Here are a few key algorithm updates to the platform that you might not be aware of, and what this means for your Facebook strategy:
1. Facebook is prioritising content from family and friends (again)
This is less of a dramatic change, and more of a return to form. Unfortunately, from a user perspective Facebook has become less of a social platform, and something closer to an enormous digital advertising board.
Those of us who logged in to Facebook when it first launched all the way back in 2004 will remember that originally, the whole point was to connect us with other people, not brands or companies.
In fact, Facebook didn’t even have a newsfeed until 2006 – and the ‘like’ button didn’t get introduced until 2009. That’s right, content on the Facebook newsfeed was unlikeable for 3 years, and for the first 24 months of its existence, you couldn’t even see user content without specifically searching for your friends’ pages. *shudder*.
Over the years, the newsfeed has gone through many incarnations: from displaying posts in chronological order, to giving more sway to content that had the most engagement, and even a few weird iterations of the two.
The purpose has always been, according to Zuckerberg, to show people what they want to see. And no matter how well crafted your company or client’s content, chances are people would rather be reading about their friends’ recent drunken holiday stories than learning what your brand has to offer them.
On January the 11th, 2018, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was aligning itself with “a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being”, and admitted businesses are going to have to work harder than ever to gain customers’ attention.
How businesses should respond:
In essence, Zuckerberg has already answered this one for us. Bluntly put, businesses and marketers are just going to have to work harder, and take more care, in order to get their content in front of users.
This might seem a little trite or vague, but the key takeaway is that the algorithm has its crosshairs on content created by company pages. In other words, you shouldn’t be posting anything you wouldn’t want to see on your own personal newsfeed.
One useful tactic will be to focus on content that can generate interaction between individual users, not just between users and the company.
Posts that stimulate conversation or tap into people’s desire to share things with their network might (and we stress the word ‘might’) be able to break out of the digital reach jail cell that businesses on Facebook currently find themselves in.
This focus on engagement is a vital one, and one that brings us nicely onto the next point:
2. If people don’t engage with your content, it’s going in the Facebin.
Engagement has always been an important metric, but Facebook’s algorithm is now going to be even more scrutinous of posts from businesses when it comes to likes, comments, and shares.
If your content doesn’t receive a good amount of engagement (and what constitutes a ‘good amount’ is entirely at the behest of the algorithm), then Facebook’s bot is more likely than ever to decide it’s unworthy of appearing on your potential customers’ newsfeeds – and relegate it to the digital rubbish bin.
Worst still, it seems that if you’re on the receiving end of such virtual sin-binning, then the content you publish following your ill-received post will be deemed less worthy, and will in turn be shown to fewer users.
This implies that businesses failing to receive enough engagement on their posts could find themselves in a vicious circle, whereby a post’s poor engagement leads to the following post being shown to fewer people, which leads to even worse engagement metrics, etc. etc.
How businesses should respond:
The simple solution to this is, unfortunately, not that simple. The implication of these changes is that the best way to ensure your content reaches a consistent number of people is probably to opt for paid media, via promoted posts.
Facebook is still offering the same comprehensive advertising package, and promoting content is a surefire way to get it in front of a wide, targeted audience. Although it also means sticking budget towards your campaign, and it won’t have an impact on organic reach.
The other option is simply to take a lot more time in crafting your content. Study your insight data carefully to determine what works, and what doesn’t.
Create content that users simply can’t resist sharing or engaging with: be humorous, provocative (in a positive way), and original. Generate discussion – but whatever you do, don’t beg for engagement.
Which leads us nicely to:
3. If you beg for engagement, Facebook can tell – and punish you accordingly
No one wants to receive poor levels of interaction on social media, and businesses looking to rectify downward-curving engagement metrics might feel tempted to simply ask people to engage with them.
It’s annoyingly common to see pages begging users for engagement with phrases such as ‘Like this post if you think X, or Share this post if you prefer Y’, along with other tactics used to try and game the algorithm – but Facebook has clamped down on this too.
Asking users to Like, Share, or Comment on content has been dubbed ‘engagement bait’ by Facebook, and these tactics will also be feeling the wrath of the latest algorithm update. Since December 2017, Facebook has been penalising content that uses phrases such as these, with repeat offenders having all of their posts demoted.
How businesses should respond:
A fairly obvious point, but don’t ask people to engage with you. As mentioned previously, great content speaks for itself – ask questions, or create posts that inherently stimulate engagement, but resist the urge to ask people to hit the like button outright.
One thing you can (currently) point users in the direction of, is the ‘see first’ option. By visiting a business page, users can hover over the ‘liked’ or ‘followed’ icon, and click ‘see first’.
This acts like a vote in favour of your brand’s content, and means that when you post something, it’ll be a lot more likely to be shown to those who opted to ‘see first’.
This ability to tactfully point users in the direction of the setting could mean that even if your content starts to reach fewer people, those that actually do want to see your posts will still be able to do so.
Just be careful and respectful when giving your followers this advice – don’t demand or insist they do so, and try to highlight that this is simply a way for users who enjoy your posts to ensure they continue to see them.
This also comes with the caveat that you need to be creating content that users actively want to keep receiving in the first place. And remember that things change regularly in Facebook-Land; if this becomes another spammy tactic used by brands, then the algorithm may start to recognise it as ‘engagement bait’ too.
Instagram Algorithm Updates
Instagram used to be so quaint. Images of quinoa and other hipster meals were a common feature, along with more photos of animals than the entire National Geographic back catalogue. But while Instagram was a fun platform, it wasn’t always seen as a great marketing tool.
Boy, do times change. With over 800 million active users as of September 2017, Instagram has become the global epicentre of image-based marketing, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
As the key platform for many influencers, Instagram has quickly become a must-use tool for any brands with a visual or aesthetic aspect to their services and products, and there are thriving communities for almost every niche imaginable.
But with this popularity comes a catch.
In in the early days of the internet, SEOs and marketers quickly discovered how to game the search engines’ keyword ranking algorithms – but these strategies were identified, and stamped out. A similar thing has happened to Instagram.
When the platform was first identified by marketers and brands as a source of potential customer reach and lead generation, a few simple tactics could ensure your posts were seen by a huge number of people.
It was only a matter of time, then, before the platform became clogged with content that people didn’t really want to see. Lo and behold, the platform’s algorithm has now been changed to prevent marketers abusing Instagram.
Posts are getting far less exposure than they used to, with estimations that only around 10% of your following actually see your published photos. In 2016, Instagram abandoned its chronological timeline, favouring content that was more ‘interesting and engaging’. Sound familiar?
This (along with many other updates to the algorithm) has far-reaching implications for marketers and brands aiming to use the platform for business. Here are a few of the most important Instagram algorithm updates to be aware of in 2018:
1. Instagram wants us to tell stories
Launched in 2016, Instagram’s story feature falls in line with the rising demand for instant, ephemeral content first popularised by platforms like Vine and Snapchat.
Instagram stories have continued to soar in popularity, with over 300 million users actively engaging with the feature daily (almost double that of Snapchat).
This seems a logical pattern with a platform that’s constantly updating and changing the content displayed in its newsfeed. Many users are familiar with the sense of frustration that comes after a big update to a platform they know and love, so it makes sense that with Instagram shaking user feeds up so much, people are turning to Stories as a more reliable source of content from accounts they actually care about.
What’s particularly interesting is the fact that this is now having an impact on how well an account’s content performs in the standard feed. Instagram takes the engagement of stories (including the number of times they’re viewed) into account when deciding which posts to feature in users’ news feeds.
How businesses should respond:
The key thing is that businesses and marketers shouldn’t ignore the potential of Instagram stories, and should dedicate some time to finding ways to integrate it into their Insta strategy.
Put simply, create stories that generate decent engagement, and your standard posts will be shown to more people.
Spending some time to figure out how this could be used in relation to your own brand’s content could be the key to ensuring your posts are seen by a wider audience.
Stories offer a great opportunity to capitalise on timely content that doesn’t always need as much curating as a normal post. Short videos and behind-the-scenes snaps perform particularly well here, along with ‘exclusive’ previews of products, events, and other news pertinent to your brand.
Instagram even offers a few features that only integrate with stories, such as the increasingly popular ‘polling feature’ (allowing you to create a multiple choice poll on a story image, which inherently stimulates engagement).
Stories offer a great way to show a more personal side to your brand too, and make users feel like they’re ‘getting to know you’. (Nawww.)
2. Instagram feels the need – the need for speed (and time spent viewing posts)
Another relatively new update to the way Instagram rates engagement is an increased emphasis on speed. Yep, it’s no longer just about how many likes and comments you can get; it’s also about how quickly you can get them. On top of this, the algorithm also now takes into account how much time users spend looking at your content.
The logic behind this seems fairly straightforward – if a post gets published and then immediately gets a lot of likes and shares, it’s probably a good post. Similarly, a picture that people look at for longer is probably worth looking at.
How businesses should respond:
It might be tempting to organise a Mission Impossible-esque synchronisation of likes among everyone you know with an Instagram account, but in reality, the best way to ensure you get that all-important early engagement is to be crafty with your timing.
Instagram provides a useful analytics tool for business accounts, that lets you know the times of day when your followers are most active. You should be using this as a guideline every time you post, as these peak activity times usually vary on different days of the week.
Try to coincide your publishing with these times to get a surge of likes and engagement as soon as your post goes live, which should show Instagram that you’re the best darn brand around.
When it comes to time spent viewing your content, things are a little trickier. You need to try and find ways to stop users in their tracks when they see your content, instead of scrolling past without giving it a second thought.
They key to success here lies both in the quality of images you post, and the captions you write. Try to only upload good photos, and take a bit of pride in making your images aesthetically pleasing. If you need to, spend a day or two taking an abundance of Insta-worthy snaps, that you can draw upon for a few weeks or months to come.
Similarly, when it comes to captions, quality is vital. Instagram doesn’t display an entire caption to a user until they click the ‘see more’ option, so your first two lines are crucial. Ask a question, add some intrigue, make people laugh, and try to find things to say that users will want to continue reading.
In our most recent blog post, we looked into things your brand should be doing with instagram hashtags, and one that really stands out in 2018 is the introduction of banned tags. Sadly, the world is full of people who – intentionally or not – end up ruining things for everyone else. This is exactly what’s happened to Instagram hashtags.
By posting content that violates Instagram’s community guidelines to specific hashtags, spammy accounts have managed to get these tags banned. Nice one, dicks. This is why we can’t have nice things.
If an account uses a banned hashtag, the content associated with the tag won’t appear in the feeds of those it may otherwise have reached. Accounts regularly using banned tags can even have their entire accounts ‘shadowbanned’: a penalty imposed by the algorithm that prevents any future posts (and sometimes all past content) from being seen by anyone but existing followers, or even anyone at all. *quakes in fear of our mighty robot overlords*
How businesses should respond:
The most important thing is to be careful whenever you’re using hashtags on Instagram, and avoid using any banned tags at all. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to find out if your chosen #s are greenlit or not, so, annoyingly, you’ll need to do things manually.
In Instagram, if you search for a phrase and the relevant term doesn’t appear as a viewable hashtag, it’s been banned. Some tags are still searchable however, so even if it appears in the dropdown list, don’t stop there.
Click on the tag, and see if you can scroll down through the images using it; after a few historic ‘top posts’, banned tags will prevent you from scrolling, and will display a message saying something like this:
‘recent posts from #example are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines’
If you see that message, don’t use that hashtag.
What’s particularly surprising is just how seemingly harmless some of these banned tags are – you might assume that none of the hashtags you’d want to use could be associated with anything seedy, but this isn’t always true.
Case in point: #books and #desks – banned. (We know, ridiculous.)
It might seem like an agonising and time consuming process to check every tag you use, but it’s important not to leave this to chance. Make a list of the tags you’ve used and that you know are all clear. And if you come up with a hashtag that you’d like to use, only to discover it’s been banned, add it to the naughty list and avoid.
The ever-changing algorithms used by Facebook and Instagram might be a source of endless frustration, but ultimately, they’re simply trying to ensure that the end user experience is a positive one.
These updates are just steps along the way to ensuring that the content we get to see is the kind of content we want to see, not the content that’s been shoved in front of us against our will.
As we move into 2018 and beyond, these updates are a sign of a simple premise that should be at the heart of social media marketing for businesses – create content for the user, not for yourself. Craft posts people genuinely want to see, and that stimulate engagement, and you algorithms will continue to show it to them.