Let’s take a stroll down memory lane. Way back when Facebook, Twitter and other networks were getting started, they were billed as channels where businesses could connect — for free — directly with their customers. The formula for success was simple: share catchy updates, build an audience, cash in.
In 2017, however, that social media paradigm is looking increasingly quaint. For businesses, just having an audience on social media doesn’t mean you actually get to reach it. Instead, social ads — “promoted” updates that look a lot like the real thing — are fast becoming the surest way to reach a target audience.
In other words, you’ve got to pay to play.
I know. It’s a new social reality, and it takes some getting used to. That’s why I titled this piece “Social Media is Dead. Long Live Social Media.” (It’s also why we just unveiled a set of tools to make it easier for people to actually create ads on Facebook and Instagram.) Here’s a look at how we got here and ideas on how businesses can adapt and thrive in the paid-social era.
Understanding the “reachpocalyse”
Starting in 2012, Facebook began curtailing the percentage of a company’s followers who actually see the company's updates. At first, it was cut to around 16%. Later, it was reported that large brands who post via Facebook reach as few as 2% of their audience, meaning just one in every 50 of their own followers. After the latest tweaks this summer, average reach for some branded posts has been cut again by half.
No, this isn’t part of some grand conspiracy. More content than ever is being shared — photos, gifs, live videos and more — and the space in our news feeds is at a premium. So Facebook prioritizes, using its own algorithms to auto-select what we see. Content from friends and family members gets preference. Company updates, more often than not, don’t make the cut.
Nor is Facebook alone in elbowing companies to the social margins. Instagram users now have their feeds curated by algorithm, with the order optimized based on “relationship with the person posting.” Even Twitter, long celebrated as the place to see real-time, streaming updates in the raw, is increasingly algorithm-driven, with the “best Tweets” self-selected to appear at the top of the feed.
In short, the days of being able to engage with users for free on social media through so-called “organic posts” are numbered. This is hardly a secret or a news scoop. We’ve known it for years, in fact. It may be time, however, to come to grips with the hard truth: Social media as we know it is, if not dead, then surely dying. But this doesn’t mean businesses should give up the ghost. In fact, exactly the opposite is true.
Coming to grips with the social paradox
A curious thing has happened as companies’ ability to reach users organically on social media has been curbed: the power of social media to influence buying decisions has surged. In one of the most comprehensive studies to date, McKinsey recently surveyed 20,000 consumers and found that social recommendations are behind more than a quarter of all purchases made. This is well above the 10%-15% estimated in earlier research. And in the majority of cases, these social updates have a direct impact on buying decisions.
For companies, this presents a thorny challenge. Social media has never been more influential, but getting updates in front of users has never been more challenging. To shun Facebook and other networks altogether is to ignore the more than 2 billion users around the globe who rely on social media for news and updates; to embrace them requires jumping over ever higher hurdles in the hopes of connecting with customers.
But there are solutions. Progressive companies are taking a multi-pronged approach: blending paid social media ads with strategies that tap their own employees to spread content farther and more effectively than before.
Put your money where your post is
In a new report, industry analyst Gartner is unusually blunt. “Sustained success in social marketing now requires paid advertising." So let’s be equally clear on this point: Pay-to-play is increasingly the foundation of effective social strategies, with more than 80% of companies planning to deploy a social ad campaign in the next year.
All the major networks now have their own “native ads” — promoted posts and updates designed to resemble the real things, apart from tiny disclaimers. The good news is that once you get over the initial “sticker shock” of ponying up for Tweets and posts, paid social media actually presents some discrete advantages for businesses.
The incredibly rich “social graph” of data captured by networks enables zeroing in on precise demographics with a degree of accuracy that makes traditional advertising look primitive by comparison. Want to just reach twenty-somethings who drive hybrids and prefer Airbnbs to hotels? There’s a way to do that now.
While the work of creating and bidding on these ads has put off some users in the past, new technology is simplifying the process of deploying paid campaigns. (Close to home, our new tools allow for creating "variations" in Facebook and Instagram ads, testing different audiences, budgets and copy to maximize any dollars spent.) It’s one way for companies to stay ahead of the social curve, tapping the kind of tech once available only to big ad agencies.
Untap the social media army on your payroll
Paid ads offer a surefire way to reach a desired audience on social media … at a price. But there’s another critical — and generally overlooked — pathway to getting the message out that entails no extra cost: your own employees.
Employee advocacy, inviting coworkers to share brand messages on their own social media accounts, has a host of benefits. For starters, you expand your reach, often exponentially in the case of large companies. Plus, because messages are being shared from personal accounts (rather than the company one), they generally reach a higher percentage of followers. Not to mention, content shared by employees reportedly gets eight times more engagement than content shared by brand channels, and is reshared 25 times more frequently.
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to encourage employee sharing. It should never be obligatory, for starters. Employees have to actually want to share company news, and it needs to be relevant to their own followings. And the process of sharing has to be dead simple. Asking employees via email to post something on social media, for instance, is a clumsy workaround and rarely sees results. As an alternative, we developed a “one-click” option where companies can send pre-approved updates via mobile app to employees, who then just tap to send on their own networks.
The reachpocalypse is, in no uncertain terms, upon us. But for businesses, the decline of what’s known as organic social media reach doesn’t have to be a doomsday scenario — quite the contrary. From the ashes, a new social order promises companies the kind of precision, targeting and results long expected from channels like print and broadcast. In other words, social media isn’t really dead — it’s just all grown up.
Postscript: If you’re looking for some practical tips on how to get started with social ads, I’m offering a special webinar on Wednesday, Feb. 22. (You can register for a free spot here.)
Originally published on Linkedin Pulse.
About Ryan Holmes