Social media mar­ket­ing is in a near-cri­sis sit­u­a­tion. Here’s what mar­keters must do to sur­vive and thrive.

I’ll admit it. I’m on a cru­sade to save social media mar­ket­ing.

Not that I think I can do that all by myself, but because it’s a sub­ject that deserves all of our atten­tion right now.

As I wrote here on Mar­ket­ing Land back in March of this year, social media mar­ket­ing is in near-cri­sis mode, and only the adop­tion of mature, time-proven, sus­tain­able mar­ket­ing meth­ods can save it. And I do think it’s worth sav­ing.

In this month’s col­umn, I want to address one of the tac­tics I believe has been kept around far past its expi­ra­tion date: mass pro­duc­tion.

What do I mean by “mass pro­duc­tion?” I’m includ­ing any method of pub­lish­ing, shar­ing or engag­ing with social media con­tent that occurs at a mass scale, includ­ing social media automa­tion. For simplicity’s sake, when I refer to mass pro­duc­tion in the rest of this post, I’m includ­ing automa­tion.

The (bad) good old days

Once upon a time, mass pro­duc­tion was tout­ed as one of the chief advan­tages of social media. It became stan­dard prac­tice, espe­cial­ly as social plat­forms opened up APIs and var­i­ous ven­dors cre­at­ed third-par­ty tools using those APIs.

Mass pro­duc­tion helped make social media the dar­ling of dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing depart­ments. Some even pre­dict­ed that social media’s scal­a­bil­i­ty, rel­a­tive­ly low cost, vast reach and micro-tar­get­ing abil­i­ties would cause it to over­take or even replace oth­er chan­nels, such as search engine opti­miza­tion (SEO).

I’d be a fool to deny that mass pro­duc­tion tech­niques had ben­e­fits. Social media became the fastest way for busi­ness­es to build a huge audi­ence, pro­mote their con­tent and products/services and enjoy lots of new met­rics nev­er before avail­able (fol­low­er counts, engage­ments, reshares and so on).

The allure of automa­tion and mass pro­duc­tion is pow­er­ful, and indeed they are not evil in and of them­selves. We wouldn’t have the array of abun­dant, low-cost food and con­sumer goods much of our world enjoys today with­out them.

But at a human scale, going “mass” often breaks down. In the world in gen­er­al, we’re becom­ing aware that mass can have its costs, whether in the effects on our envi­ron­ment or on our bod­ies (Have anoth­er cheese­burg­er. They’re cheap!).

Hence the “bad” in the “good old days” head­ing of this sec­tion. With all the good that mass pro­duc­tion did for social media, there were costs and con­se­quences that few noticed or heed­ed.

The joy ride is over

Over the past eight months or so, the social media mar­ket­ing world expe­ri­enced a series of shocks and wake-up calls. I doc­u­ment them more thor­ough­ly in my post titled Social media in 2018: Time to grow up or get out, so I won’t go into detail here, but here’s a quick review of some of the tremors:

  • Face­book rad­i­cal­ly altered its news feed algo­rithm to fur­ther lim­it brand con­tent and also cracked down on news con­tent verac­i­ty.
  • Twit­ter severe­ly lim­it­ed mass automa­tion for post­ing, engag­ing and fol­low­ing and elim­i­nat­ed hun­dreds of thou­sands of fake and bot accounts.
  • Buz­zSumo doc­u­ment­ed that social shar­ing over­all has been in a long and steady decline.
  • Increas­ing num­bers of users are turn­ing to “dark social,” shar­ing only on pri­vate mes­sag­ing apps or oth­er means not vis­i­ble to mar­keters.
  • Pri­va­cy con­cerns are caus­ing both users and gov­ern­ments to lim­it or elim­i­nate user track­ing data.
  • Influ­encer scan­dals have made their use (at least at the celebri­ty influ­encer lev­el) less attrac­tive.
  • Ad block­er instal­la­tion and use con­tin­ue to grow.

All these trends and more added up to a clear mes­sage: The era of mass auto­mat­ed social media pro­duc­tion is com­ing to a close.

Why we should be glad mass social media is on the way out

While I would stop short of rec­om­mend­ing the com­plete aban­don­ment of mass pro­duc­tion and automa­tion in social media mar­ket­ing, it’s time to admit that they were always more of an addic­tion than a true best prac­tice. As I’ll detail below, they pro­vid­ed a rush of big num­bers and the illu­sion of mas­sive reach while short­chang­ing what social media actu­al­ly does best.

While most of the shock waves list­ed above only hit rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly, there were signs all along that mass scal­ing wasn’t return­ing all of its promised rewards.

Content fatigue

Once we mar­keters dis­cov­er a good thing, we’re eager to do way too much of it. We’re like the 49ers of the Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush, with mil­lions of us pour­ing every­thing into chas­ing after what proved to be a finite resource.

In our case, that resource wasn’t gold, but instead the atten­tion of social media users. Each user can only give so much time to con­tent in a giv­en day. Thanks large­ly to automa­tion, they were exposed to dozens and then hun­dreds (and in some cas­es even thou­sands) of pieces of con­tent each day. It was inevitable that con­tent infla­tion would lead to reduced audi­ence atten­tion, but in the heady days of free mass social media dis­tri­b­u­tion, no one want­ed to hear that.

It’s clear in hind­sight that declin­ing read­er­ship of brand con­tent was not just the fault of social net­works lim­it­ing organ­ic reach. Even with­out those con­trols, it was just math­e­mat­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble to sus­tain the same lev­el of atten­tion for an ever-increas­ing vol­ume of con­tent. In fact, I believe that with­out the net­work con­trols, our sit­u­a­tion would have been even worse.

Engagement decline

The above­men­tioned Buz­zSumo study showed social shar­ing had gone down by half since 2015, but that shouldn’t have come as a sur­prise to any obser­vant mar­keters. Aside from the occa­sion­al (and increas­ing­ly rare) viral post, most of us noticed that our posts on most social net­works, Face­book chief among them, were rapid­ly declin­ing in reach over the past few years.

Even if reach were high­er, engage­ment per post would prob­a­bly still be declin­ing because of the sim­ple law of sup­ply and demand: more and more con­tent chas­ing after the atten­tion of a finite num­ber of view­ers equals less engage­ment per post.

We’re nev­er going to return to those days of huge organ­ic reach. Why not? Read on!

Carrot and stick incentives

As I stat­ed in my March col­umn, what’s hap­pen­ing in social media now is like “deja vu all over again” for any of us who also fol­low the SEO world. A num­ber of years ago, Google real­ized it was los­ing a Cold War arms race against SEOs who found search rank­ings far too easy to manip­u­late.

So Google invest­ed heav­i­ly in machine-learn­ing-based algo­rithms that were able to detect such gam­ing at mass scale. Over time, pro­fes­sion­al SEOs who want­ed to build long-term val­ue in their sites real­ized it was bet­ter to join Google than fight it.

The won­der­ful unfore­seen con­se­quence of that devel­op­ment was that the Web got bet­ter. Why? Because what Google was push­ing with its rank­ing-boost car­rot and search-penal­ty stick actu­al­ly aligned with what was bet­ter for users. That meant SEOs try­ing to com­ply with Google end­ed up cre­at­ing high­er qual­i­ty con­tent on more user-friend­ly sites.

I believe we are see­ing some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pen­ing in social media. The major social media plat­forms came to real­ize that mar­keters were using them in ways that threat­ened their busi­ness goals. Shab­by, click-bait con­tent; con­stant push­ing for engage­ment and mass fol­low­ing; decep­tive prac­tices and fake news; all of these were caus­ing deep dis­sat­is­fac­tion among users.

Peo­ple go to social media to be enter­tained and dis­tract­ed, to catch up on rela­tion­ships and some­times to be informed. Com­mer­cial con­tent on social media was degrad­ing that expe­ri­ence, and actu­al­ly leav­ing users depressed. Depressed, unhap­py users will use the plat­form less, or even cease using it alto­geth­er.

So we shouldn’t be sur­prised the social net­works are tak­ing steps that resem­ble what Google did years ago, crack­ing down on the kind of con­tent and prac­tices that threat­en their busi­ness goals of more peo­ple spend­ing more time on their plat­forms.

Here’s to the good new days

What remains to be seen is whether social media mar­keters will take the cue and embrace the car­rot rather than com­plain about the stick. It took SEOs a while to make that shift, but most pro­fes­sion­als in that field will now admit, how­ev­er much they might still occa­sion­al­ly pine for the old days when tricks and hacks were all you need­ed, that not only is the web bet­ter now but their jobs are more inter­est­ing and more reward­ing.

The soon­er social media mar­keters real­ize that future wins in social will come from work­ing with the social net­works instead of against them, the soon­er they learn that the goals of high­er-qual­i­ty con­tent and bet­ter user expe­ri­ence are in their own inter­est, the soon­er social media mar­ket­ing will have emerged into its mature stage. By the time this all occurs, I’m sure I’ll find some­thing else to cru­sade about.

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