Social media marketing
Marketing Social Media

Does Social Media Marketing Have an Unavoidable Future in Paid Posts?

Google probably thinks I’m a strange person.

After years of marketing gigs for a variety of brands, my search interests have ranged across the board from the minutia of homeowner’s insurance (for a home I don’t own) to gluten free snacks (for allergies I don’t have) to the latest developments in AI (okay, that one is actually relevant) and a thousand other disparate topics. As a result, it’s not uncommon that I find myself typing in a query, only to be met with an auto-correction that makes me pause and think, “How did I get here?”

Social media marketing, in many respects, has been affected by similar behavior. On the user side, a few curious clicks to see what became of your high school crush or to finally add your parents as mother and father on Facebook can quickly result in a News Feed populated with unengaging content. Throw in a couple of friends who apparently share every video they find online, and it’s no wonder why many users skip Facebook’s News Feed entirely. At the same time, marketers have to find ways to first appear in the News Feeds of audiences that matter, and beyond that, actually engage with them in meaningful ways.

The Instagram Incident

With 2016 more than a quarter over, social media providers have begun to examine and experiment with how their material is offered. Recently, Instagram has rolled out a test of new, interest-determined News Feeds that spurn the platform’s previous chronological offering. As it was explained on its blog, Instagram feels that an interest-determined News Feed will help users access the “70 percent” of content that they never see, toting the slogan “See the Moment You Care about First.”

But the response from Instagram’s community has been less than favorable. From social media tirades to petitions and everything in between, a vocal portion of the Instagram community has demanded that the chronological organization be kept, citing that a shift would make the platform less organized and could harm small businesses’ ability to remain visible.

Instagram is aware of this. However, it’s the exact intention of the change.

The interest-based feed brings Instagram yet one step closer to the model used by its parent company, Facebook. On paper, it seems like an excellent idea—determine interests based on user interaction, and then automate a personalized curation process for every user. In practice, it’s a system that tends to be heavily geared toward learning user preferences for the purpose of improving ad and sponsored content targeting.

So what does this mean for marketers? Is there an unavoidable future in paid posts, or is there a way for social media marketers to keep their audiences engaged and growing without relying entirely on ads?


The Psychology of Curation

For users, it’s natural to resist updates. You’ve spent months getting used to the interface, establishing browsing routines, maybe crafting your own posting schedule, only to be thrown out of balance. But at the core of this change—and perhaps the reason for the particular vitriol that this change has been met with— is that Instagram is pulling the power to curate content out of the hands of users and placing it within the platform. In this, a layer of doubt is introduced to the user: What might I be missing if the platform doesn’t precisely know my interests?

For marketers, this same doubt is turned inward: What if no one sees my content?

Many users and brands have taken this fear and made an instinctual error by asking users directly for “follows.” These images have begun flooding feeds along with the common “Follow me, I Follow Back” images that telegraph to users one thing—my brand is in this for the numbers, not for you. In doing so, some brands are stripping away their own authenticity while doubt in the platform clouds users. It’s a lose-lose situation that won’t help maintain visibility.

The Nostalgia Play

Follows mean notifications, and notifications mean your brand remains visible with users regardless of changes to the interest algorithm. The issue is that gaining those follows isn’t going to happen effectively if brands employ tactics that distance users from what the page is all about. Alternatively, here are a few ways to stay ahead of the Instagram update (or any social News Feed that uses interests, like Facebook or the updated LinkedIn):

  • Appeal to Popular Content: Just asking for a follow doesn’t offer a viewer anything or tell them anything about your brand’s story. Instead, consider going back through your posts, finding your most popular content, and then repost or repurpose that material with some sort of comment about bringing people along into the future. Here, you’re not just asking for an action from your audieince—you’re inviting them into the experience of an ongoing story.
  • Create Serialized Content: In the 1800s, Mark Twain was a wildly popular, best-selling author. While much of his popularity was due to content that his audience loved, his ability to continually rope in readers was because he published serial novels—a larger story, bought chapter by chapter as it’s released. Social media affords brands a similar opportunity. Come up with a series of posts that each uphold a longer narrative. Users will be more likely to follow your page if they are worried they might miss out on a growing project.
  • If All Else Fails, Retreat: If you’re having trouble getting your audience to convert on Instagram, then consider using Instagram as a tool for pushing users toward a different space where your brand has full curation control. A website is the most obvious, but Tumblr is also a similarly positioned social media platform that has far less advertising influence than Instagram that can serve a similar purpose.

Overall, it appears that social media is largely going the way of the advertiser. While it may immediately seem easier to give in and use paid posts to do the work for your brand, understand that as platforms change so do audience attitudes toward the content. Instagram is the perfect example of a space where change is leaving a huge opportunity for brands to solidify trust with their audience and possibly win long-term loyalty that lasts beyond a single post.

And it is in this loyal space that your brand is given room to fully share its story.

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