A Brief Explanation of Content and Algorithms on Social Media

By Moe Nasrul

November 2021 FEATURE
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YOU ARE SITTING at your computer reading about an 8-year-old earning millions on YouTube, while another 20-something-year-old just became the next international sensation on TikTok. “How does it all work?", you wonder.

Social Media is NOT the Internet

To understand how content goes viral, it is important to realise that social media is NOT the internet. It is essentially still a website that needs to maintain an online presence, or what is known as “Domain Authority” or Page Rank; this is also the name of the algorithm Google uses in its search engine.

The number of backlinks or links directing to a website from other sources is calculated with Domain Authority. To illustrate, every share of an article found on Facebook to other social media platforms adds to Facebook's Domain Authority, which in turn enlarges its prominence on the greater world wide web.

The more people the content is shared to results in more backlinks to the platforms, and the content creator is rewarded with an even wider exposure on them. This stops only when a particular group does not react favourably to the content. Some Digital Marketers describe this the “batch ranking method” the algorithm uses in spreading content organically.

The new features on Facebook take the idea of Stories from Snapchat and Instagram Reels, which of themselves are a direct copy of TikTok’s function. However, these operate on different algorithms with the sole purpose of keeping the user on them for as long as possible, to create content that would eventually backlink to the platforms.

Clickbait Works Way Too Well, for Now

But algorithms cannot fully control human interactions, and so, “clickbait” is used. Ten years ago, Likes and Subscriber counts mattered on websites like YouTube. But it was discovered that watching content that users were subscribed to did not make them stay on the platform for longer. One soon saw fewer clicks and less “watch time”; in short, users were less engaged.

That algorithm was then tweaked to expose users to newer, unsubscribed content to measure engagement levels and more importantly, to understand the content type(s) that would get the best reaction from users.

On one end of the spectrum, there is clickbait with catchy sensationalised headlines and interesting thumbnails of articles or content that provide little to no value; while on the other end, the content is genuine and truthful, but struggle to get new attention since the headlines tend to be direct in their presentation.

The middle ground on this spectrum could potentially combine the visual storytelling element of thumbnails and use headlines reworded to elicit specific emotions. This is in fact a paradigm shift in how brands today operate; they seek out talents with art and design backgrounds or are gifted in the written word, but above all, who must also be sensitive to the psychological reaction that colours, shapes and sentiments evoke.

It is even better if the talents are trained as theatre actors or are drama majors, in order to achieve a convincing character portrayal of the brands they represent while engaging with users online. After all, creating a two-way conversation is more effective than shouting out an announcement. These skills, once thought to be secondary, are providing more value today to an organic or paid advertising campaign online.

Why Has the Golden Age of Organic Reach Ended?

Photo 1.

Social media operates on a pay-to-play model for brands. Depending on how it is viewed, this can be taken either as a positive or a negative. Social media websites have learned from past experience that users would leave a platform when it becomes too saturated with brands competing to sell their products and services. Also, if a brand is legitimately looking to establish itself on the platform, its algorithm may complicate the process.

Agencies like Ogilvy have noted the decline of organic reach for brands. In 2012, 16% of people who Liked a brand’s fan page were able to see its content through organic reach. At the start of 2021, this percentage had come down to less than 5.2%; and in August the same year, Facebook did away with Likes on fan pages, changing the interface to something similar to a personal profile feed. This means the brand’s organic reach is no longer based on how many Likes or Followers its page has, rather it is determined by how many people engage with a post based on the batch ranking method. The reasoning behind this change is to curb fake information online, perpetrated by those who know how to game the algorithm with tags and keywords.

Instead, brands must now use advertisements (Ads) to connect with social media users, helped in part by the platforms’ controversial collection of users’ data to provide paying brands with better insights for targeting customers. But 2021 has also introduced new privacy policies from governments worldwide to limit data collection, decreasing the effective use of Ads and requiring more to be spent to achieve the same result (see Photo 1).

Is There a Need to Spend on Ads?

Photo 2.

The internet may be free and borderless, but everything from Google to Facebook is a service one has to pay for. The concept is similar to purchasing a newspaper Ad for your new business, or talking to friends about it in hopes that it will be captivating enough to be retold to the next person they see. Again, social media does not change human interactions, but it helps to spread the word faster. Like in the real world, Ads online need to be well designed and targeted to the right audience. This can be achieved through the process of deduction. If audience demography and interest are not known, the best practice is to run test Ads with the knowledge that you may get it wrong the first few times before you get it right.

Ads management services offer the feature, A/B Testing, to compare two Ad sets to determine which one is able to perform better. Roughly 20-30% of a brand’s Ad budget should go into testing, and to negate this cost in future budgets, the same Ads that provide the best result can be reused to produce similar results. The concept is not new; advertising agencies have been doing this for decades. The only difference is that there is no longer a need to have a budget of millions for focus groups to get accurate answers.

When to Use Ads

Photo 3.

Once the brand has identified the platform on which it wants to trend or make a mark, a strategy must be created to give the platform more of what it wants: Backlinks. Photo 2 is an illustrative example of this. Using Facebook Ads to drive around 2,000 clicks off the platform to YouTube to get more views has resulted in the video being rewarded with an additional 6,000 views organically. Ads, in general, flip the script of the user-platform relationship; from an asset to bring in more backlinks, a user becomes a paying client.

Digital Marketers often use terms like “Funnels” or “User Journey” to explain the concept, but what often gets left out of the equation is the question “Why should you have a funnel in the first place?” Most times, it is to appease the gatekeepers and have one’s content rank better and organically spread after the initial traffic from the Ads.

Know the Difference between Organic and Paid Reach

Most SEO Tools provide the two metrics, SEO Difficulty and Paid Difficulty (see Photo 3). SEO Difficulty identifies the hurdles for one’s content to trend organically within a keyword, while Paid Difficulty looks at the number of people bidding for the same space to advertise, i.e. how much money is willingly spent to be placed at a “specific spot”. This area is determined by keywords and sometimes tags, or even the online location and demography of a particular group of users.

So, for a brand’s marketing strategy to be effective online, it should be balanced with good content, and thumbnails with headlines that draw in clicks. Together, these must be supported with a reasonable Ad budget. How “reasonable” this is, however, depends on how big a presence the brand wants to be on social media. The alternative is to have a large enough following, much like a celebrity’s fan base.

Moe Nasrul

was a former Marketing & Artiste Manager for artistes such as De Fam, Kyoto Protocol, and Dato' Siti Nurhaliza. He is currently the Digital Marketing Specialist for Digital Penang.