How Do Algorithms Affect Social Media Advertising?
In social media it pays to promote your content.
When social media platforms first hit the mainstream in the early Noughties, they were relatively simple. New content appeared at the top, and older posts, tweets or status updates were steadily pushed down each page. The chronology was instantly obvious, and finding the latest content was simplicity itself.
Over the last decade, a surge in social media popularity has saturated everyone’s timelines with far too much information. A weekly visit to Facebook or Twitter will only show a fraction of the total activity among an average user’s followers and friends, meaning much of the content generated in that period will effectively be lost to them. From an advertiser’s perspective, that represents a waste of potential revenue. And so the concept of algorithmic timelines was born, where social media platforms attempt to organize posts in order of priority – with adverts front and center – rather than just chronologically.
For users, this can be very annoying. Instagram followers begged the platform not to introduce an algorithmic timeline, while logging onto Twitter on a smartphone will typically reveal at least one sponsored tweet, with every other status update off-screen and a swipe away. This has been fashioned to give advertisers the best possible chance of promoting themselves to the widest potential audience, at an ever-increasing price.
As the first platform to adopt this approach, Facebook is widely viewed as the trailblazer for algorithmic timelines. Its ever-evolving algorithm is calculated using factors including a page or post’s previous engagement levels, levels of user interaction and frequency of the post being hidden. Facebook claim they only show users content that will be relevant to them, though many users would disagree, just as Google’s predictive results may vary in accuracy.
Facebook owns Instagram, and the $1 billion takeover of a free-to-use photography app has begun to make more economic sense now Instagram is also reordering posts to improve brand engagement. It’s a far cry from the early advertising model of 2013, a year after Facebook’s takeover, when every paid post was personally vetted by Instagram’s CEO. Computers now govern Instagram’s advertising model, which is far less overt than its parent company’s in an attempt to placate users disgruntled at the loss of chronology and organic advertising.
The other social media giant with an algorithmic timeline is Twitter, which has also faced a backlash from its user base over this issue. Unless account holders opt out of its new algorithm, the second tweet on a typical timeline will be sponsored. The third will be a ‘While you were away…’ section, offering people the opportunity to view key tweets uploaded between their current and most recent visits, or to dismiss it and view newer content instead. Although this can make Twitter timelines look disjointed, it does mean brands can place themselves in view irrespective of how frequently – or when – users come online. After all, paying money for a blink-and-you-miss-it slot would represent poor value if people had to be online within minutes of a tweet going live to stand a chance of seeing it.
These algorithms should perhaps be viewed as the social media equivalent of curated search engine results. If Google and Bing simply listed millions of websites in alphabetical order, regardless of their importance or value, it would be difficult to find relevant results. Instead, they filter and refine search engine results to make those listings as relevant to each consumer as possible. Social algorithms differ in that their focus is on pleasing advertisers, rather than individual consumers, but the principles and execution are remarkably similar.