August 15, 2018

Social Media Marketing: Is it just your brand’s performance, or has something changed in social media?


Social media platforms are changing — because of Russian election meddling, bot cleanups, newsfeed and algorithm changes, and people quitting social platforms — to name just a few.

But on the upside, there’s also audience growth, improved ad targeting and more engaging mobile experiences.

It’s enough to make an inbound marketer’s head spin. In our latest article, we take an in-depth look at these issues and provide advice from four experts.

Read on for a discussion about everything from Kylie Jenner to dead channels.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

When you look at your brand’s organic performance on social media, to what can you ascribe its changing performance? Is it your brand’s particular actions, or is it the social media macro-environment as a whole?

In other words, is social media getting small? And if so, how can your brand stay big?

To answer that question, let’s first look at how social media is trending.

Is social media in decline?

Some data shows reason to believe there is a decline in what brands can expect from organic performance on social media platforms:

“Across the board, brand's followers are decreasing at an alarming rate in 2018,” said Erin Gordon, co-founder,

“I think it’s definitely tougher to grow, and the pace has slowed because the platforms are reaching maturity. Thus there is always more competition and we are reaching a point of saturation,” said Justin Gaggino, COO, HiSmile. “The thing to overcome that? Content is the variable, simple as that.”

Or is social media still ascendant?

Of course, there are reasons to believe that talk of a decline is premature. After all, social media platforms are very successful in many ways:

“In general, follower counts increase year-on-year, with seasonal variation in months based on industry trends,” said Dr. Lakshmi Goel, Coggin Endowed Strategic Professor, University of North Florida, as she cited research data from TrackMaven.

Two opposing forces at work

Why the dueling narratives? Well, both are probably true on some levels.

Social media has declined in some ways for brands.

  • The Russian election meddling scandal has forced a cleanup. For example, @KatyPerry lost 2.6% of her followers and @Twitter lost 12.3% of followers to its own Twitter account in a mid-July bot removal, one of several Twitter account purges this year.
  • “Fake news” has driven changes. Facebook News Feed algorithm changes intended to show more posts from friends and family and less from organizations (including brands) has caused Facebook ad prices to more than double (cost of a thousand ad impressions up 122 percent year over year).
  • It’s cool to ditch social for certain groups. While the early adopters were once flocking to social, trends have moved in the other direction. And it’s become cool to decry the evils of Facebook while bragging about stepping back from the platform. While Twitter is perhaps best known as a social network for news junkies, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman recently wrote an op-ed in the newspaper about stepping away from Twitter. “It’s not really helping the discourse,” Haberman said.

Yet, it has seen increases as well.

  • Users tend to be growing on most platforms. Only about half of the world’s population even has internet access. As that number continues to grow, the number of social media users will grow as well.
  • The targeting abilities are powerful for paid social media. Throughout history, brands have tended to flock to eyeballs. And social media has them. And not just any eyeballs, social media does a very good job of knowing specific behavioral attributes that allow brands to laser focus relevant messages, even if the cost is increasing.
  • It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Social media was once an ascendant technology known for connecting and empowering. As mentioned above, the script has been flipped for some, who now consider social media a belittling, dividing and creepily data-hungry enterprise. But social media has wrought cultural changes in society that are very difficult to undo. People search is now quick and easy. Personal branding as well. New-world celebrities have emerged. And old-world celebrities have discovered a direct channel to their niche audiences.

Questions to ask about your brand on social media

It’s difficult to discuss social media these days without discussing the macro-situation. While it’s good to have an overall understanding of it, your biggest questions should really be about your brand. How heavily should you invest in social media? And how can your brand be successful in the storm? Ask yourself and your team:

What social media platforms is your ideal customer on (if any?)

The only people who should care if Facebook is rising or falling as a whole is its shareholders. Which (if any) social media platform is your unique audience on? Which platform(s) do they value? And do they want to interact with you there? “A survey by Sprout Social found that millennials and Gen Xers are twice as likely as baby boomers to follow a brand on social media,” Dr. Goel said.

What kind of response are you getting on different platforms when trying to reach your ideal customer? “We foresee LinkedIn to become a front-runner in 2019 as one of the most engaging platforms for B2B and influencers. LinkedIn is allowing reach that no other platform is allowing organically. My posts are reaching thousands versus hundreds on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter,” Gordon advised.

Also understand how platforms work together. “If I want to sell something, Instagram Stories is so important. If I get 50,000 views on a story, that’s way higher than someone who has a similar-size following on Instagram because I have a YouTube. YouTube is king,” said Dr. Stephanie Buttermore, a science/fitness/lifestyle influencer on YouTube and Instagram.

What do they want from you on that social media platform?

Why does your ideal customer follow or unfollow you on a specific social media platform? I was surprised when I came across research from Kansas State University that discovered followers of garden centers on Facebook wanted to receive coupons.

Citing the Sprout Social research, Dr. Goel said, “The numbers fluctuate as people unfollow brands on a regular basis too. Reasons vary — Millennials unfollow due to bad experiences or ‘annoying’ marketing; Gen Xers if the brand opposes their personal beliefs or offends them; and baby boomers choose to opt-out if they receive too much spam. Given these trends, it would help brands to take a closer look at the nature of their content and followers, rather than a generic metric of follower counts.”

Who on social media has been successful with your ideal customer type? And what can you learn from them? If you don’t want to alienate millennials, for example, learn from those on social media who are successful with that specific audience. “As Carlos Gil says, ‘Every brand needs to be more like the Kardashians. It's the story they post that people are engaged with. Followers hardly even notice they are being sold to. Every brand can do that!’” Gordon said.

Frequency matters as well. “For HiSmile this means being consistent with our posts on a daily basis. We put out a minimum of three posts per day on our Instagram account. All of our content is created in-house and inspired by our millions of customers around the world,” Gaggino said.

Beyond content, many social media followers expect interaction and also customer service. “Two-way communication is key; more and more followers expect a response from brands. Instead of brands being faceless corporate entities, they are expected to have personal interactions with their followers. Engagement with humor, a finger on the pulse of current events, and personalized response to queries is now expected,” Goel said.

Gaggino sees this firsthand, “HiSmile receives hundreds of direct messages, comments and general customer queries. We have one rule regarding our community management and that is ensuring every query is responded to in a timely manner from the detailed product specific questions right down to the emoji. We respond to everyone.”

And who do they want it from?

Some customers want to hear from your employees. Others want to be connected with their peers. And, of course, some customers want to hear from influencers.

“As my friend Ryan Pena of Be The Match said, ‘If your audience doesn't get face interaction, they do not care.’ Brands are turning to influencers to help share their ads,” Gordon said.

HiSmile leverages influencer marketing, working with Conor McGregor and Kylie Jenner for example.

When working with an influencer, it’s important to be transparent about the relationship. For example, you can see that Jenner uses #ad when posting about this product.

Kylie Jenner has 112 million followers on Instagram, and with a following that large, all of the comments won’t be positive. However, HiSmile has seen results from its influencer marketing efforts. Sales increased by 220% the week Jenner posted.

In addition, when a big-name celebrity such as Kylie Jenner or Conor McGregor posts, HiSmile’s average social media following increases by about 5,000 to 10,000 followers per day. The brand’s baseline is an average of 1,000 followers per day. HiSmile’s total Instagram following now is over 800,000.

So how do you find the right influencer for your brand? Here again, follower count alone can be a misleading data point.  Buttermore recommends brands use a tool like SocialBlade to get a more holistic view of an influencer you might want to partner with.

“You want to, as a business, look at the health of a channel. You can have a million subscribers and get only 5,000 views on a video. We call that, in YouTubeland, a ‘dead channel’. They may still be subscribed but they’re not active at all,” Buttermore said.

“If you’re a business and you want to connect with a content creator, you want to see if they’re growing or losing subscribers,” she continued. “A lot of people who have channels in the millions could be losing people on a daily basis because they did something bad. And you may not know that, as a business. Maybe a week ago a content creator on a different platform, say Twitter, said something controversial. And their YouTube subscriber numbers started dropping really fast. You want to know why. Or perhaps they started doing midroll ads or clickbait content or over-sensationalized content just to draw views. Or perhaps they just got a bad haircut. You never know why [follower] numbers drop exactly, but you do want to be aware of recent trends before sponsoring.”

What numbers really matter to your brand?

Social media platforms have done an impressive job with the casino-fication of analytics. Much like walking onto a casino floor provides a customer with the impression of action and winning with dinging sounds and flashing lights, social media platform analytics have impressions and reach and engagements and likes and notifications. You’ve already reached a lot of people, but you can reach even more people by boosting your post for just a small charge. So much is happening. IT’S ALL SO EXCITING!

It certainly is meant to make you feel like a lot is going on and your time and money is well spent on social media. But what matters and what doesn’t? And the same holds true for macro, platform-level follower trends.

“Definitely outside forces such as the ones you stated above contribute, [but] the worst thing to benchmark performance and growth by is follower counts — followers and potential followers are fickle. More important business metrics such as engagement rates, website clicks and discovery appearances are much more tangible and goal focused,” said Gaggino.

Keep in mind, that for many social platforms the information you’re posting is public, and people don’t need to follow your account to consume it. Take YouTube for example. “There’s some videos where a lot of nonsubscribers watch this video,” Buttermore said. “So how do you convert a lot of nonsubscribers who are watching videos all the time?”

Goel addressed the metrics issue at a strategic level, and said, “Long-term strategy has become more important than short-term wins. There is a need for a shift of mindset from clickbait to ROI.”

How much is worth investing?

If you have a good handle on what numbers really matter, you can understand how much you should invest and where.

Social media partly grew in popularity with brands because they saw it as a free way to reach potential customers. But social media never really was free. Even successful organic reach required investments of time from your team if nothing else.

Now social media has gotten more expensive, as it has gotten more difficult to succeed with organic reach alone. “This year we have seen a 75% decrease in audience engagement almost overnight without changing strategy. Even paying will not get brands the ROI they are looking for. Brands need to marry storytelling with strategic ad strategy. Ultimately, Facebook is taking a page from Google Ads. Those that follow the rules, set up correctly and have quality engagement will win top rankings. It's evident in how the manager platform is set up now. It's pretty similar in concept to Google AdWords,” Gordon said.

What other macro-changes have happened on the social media platform?

Number of followers is just one example of a macro-change on social networks that could affect your brand, but if you’re investing your brand heavily on social platforms, you should keep abreast of other changes as well.

For example, a search algorithm change. Buttermore has hypothesized that the recent YouTube algorithm changes favor longer videos — and has adapted. “My most recent video is 38 minutes. And in less than five days it has over 400,000 views,” she said.

Or a new feature, like Instagram Stories. “If I promote a sponsor on my permanent feed, it will have a marginal return compared to when I do a Story. People who watch my Stories will buy, but if they’re just sliding through your feed [looking at photos] they may not.”

Have you optimized for conversion?

“Ultimately, conversion is key. And the higher the percent of conversion, the more effective the social community,” Goel said.

Like any marketing medium, social media can be optimized for conversion. The words and images you use. How you tap into your customers’ motivations, communicate your value prop, or reduce anxiety.

For example, to help brands grow their followers, here’s Gordon’s approach: “We start with conversion optimized landing pages (which we learned from MECLABS a decade ago) and lay the framework for on-page optimization and rankings. Once the foundation is set, we design a social strategy to build off of Google Ads audiences and vice versa for Google Ads. The targeted remarketing campaigns allow us to keep the ad spend low while funneling prospects through a ‘whirlpool’ funnel.”

You might also like

Free conversion optimization reports and testing tools — from MECLABS Institute (parent research organization of MarketingSherpa)

Social Media Testing: How Simple Changes To Twitter Copy Led To A 119% Increase In Clickthrough

Value Proposition: How To Use Social Media To Help Discover Why Customers Buy From You

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