Understanding social media algorithms

Imagine you’re dating three very different people

Why do you see what you see on social media? How can your business achieve objectives in these feeds? How do the social media algorithms work?

Twitter

Twitter is the high-maintenance, sexy boyfriend or girlfriend you are always swearing off for good because they don’t have a real job. The red flags were always there. In June 2009, Time magazine began an article with “The one thing you can say for certain about Twitter is that it makes a terrible first impression.”

Facebook

Facebook is the boyfriend or girlfriend who is too popular to really be a partner with you. They are friends with everyone. Their calendar is too full. Even when you are together, you have to compete with others for their time and attention. It’s exhausting, and the cozy intimacy you crave seems to always be slipping away.

If we spend more time talking about social media internally than we do talking to our customers on social media, something’s wrong.

Facebook has always used an algorithm to determine what to show in the News Feed. Unlike Twitter, it never relied solely on a reverse-chronological (or most-recent) feed of posts. For this reason, there has always been great discussion (mostly complaining) about the content prioritized. I have been working on Facebook or writing about it since 2010. In my experience, there are three factors that people and brands do not understand that help to explain why Facebook shows you some posts and sinks others to the bottom of the News Feed.

Gary Larson’s “Far Side.”
  1. Facebook wants you to stay on Facebook. Almost all brands, and many people with a pet project or website, want to drive traffic. Too bad. Facebook is like a Vegas casino with no clock on the wall, or a massive mall that provides for all your needs. NPR demonstrated just how insular Facebook can be with a 2014 April Fool’s Facebook post of a story titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” The post generated 50,000 likes, shares, and comments — but very few people actually clicked on the link — which led to a page congratulating “genuine readers,” and disclosing that there was no actual article. So while it’s true that Facebook has recently surpassed Google in referral traffic, according to one study, it’s also important to realize that much of that traffic was to media outlets’ articles on lifestyle, entertainment, politics, and local news. Facebook has for years cut back on the reach of publishers. Brands fare even worse. So while most brands need to have the second digital storefront of a Facebook page, it’s just not realistic to expect it to drive traffic to the first digital storefront, the brand’s website.
  2. Facebook likes brands that act like people. Marketing blogs and advertising agencies bemoan the declining reach of organic posts on Facebook — and that is a legitimate beef backed up with lots of data and frank admissions by Facebook. But it’s important to keep in mind that marketers and advertising agencies benefit by propagating that news. They want you to think it’s hard to reach your customers, that you need professional guidance and insight, and that advertising is increasingly complex and expensive. The fact is: You don’t need to crack the code or be a Facebook guru or get rockstar metrics. In fact, if you find yourself or your company using terms like that, stop talking to each other and start talking to your customers on Facebook. I’ve tried to use a very simple formula in my decade working in social media. If we spend more time talking about social media internally than we do talking to our customers on social media, something’s wrong. If you get a genuine conversation going with your community, then it can be a good idea to promote posts on Facebook. But paying without making that genuine connection first is a mistake. Promoted posts might not work at all, and even if they do, what will happen when the money runs out?
Facebook’s referral traffic is high – but to established publishers’ top stories in certain categories.

LinkedIn

Now you are dating a workaholic. LinkedIn is all business all the time, and about as much fun as a PowerPoint presentation on Friday afternoon. And I am here to wholeheartedly endorse it. I want to fix you up with LinkedIn. It will look at its phone in bed and be late for dinners and always be a little stressed on vacation, and that, in the scheme of things, is not bad.

If your LinkedIn feed is boring, that’s on you.

So why is your feed on LinkedIn so dull? LinkedIn provides tutorials on configuring your feed, but first, there is one crucial concept to grasp: Connections are different from the people you follow. Or, you can be connected to people on LinkedIn, and not have to see what they post. Look, you probably work with some very nice, capable people who are boring. You would not want to sit around all day listening to them. Conversely, you probably enjoy listening to wild-ass visionaries you would not want to work closely with. Follow the wild-asses; unfollow the boring people; keep the connections. If your LinkedIn feed is boring, that’s on you. Fix it.

Buster Keaton finds himself romantically pursued in “Seven Chances.”

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist working in the blogosphere. Once sold books to Johnny Cash. My Medium post about that was praised by Paris Review.