Organic reach's heyday is over. Companies that publish content on Facebook are increasingly seeing their ability to reach users shrink unless they pay for exposure. As Facebook's user count grows, the social network has been modifying its algorithms to decrease the organic or free exposure of brands' posts in users' News Feeds. Other social media platforms are also experimenting with paid media products.
At the same time, brands can't afford to ignore social media users. With more than 1.4 billion monthly users on Facebook and 288 million monthly users on Twitter, brands that do not have a social presence are missing an opportunity to communicate with a huge audience. As the social media landscape matures, here's what marketers need to know about the latest tactics for extending their brands' reach.
The New Reality
"Facebook has been very smart about monetizing its channel," notes Gartner Research Vice President Jake Sorofman. "You can no longer build a business around earned media on Facebook. Earned media is necessary, but it's insufficient without paid media."
The average organic reach for posts from Facebook pages in March was 2.6 percent of a brand's audience, as measured by the number of page likes, according to social analytics and reporting firmLocowise, which analyzed 5,000 Facebook pages. This percentage dropped to 2.3 percent for pages with more than 1 million likes.
Interestingly, the size of a page's reach was inversely proportional to the page's number of likes. For example, pages that had between 500,000 and 1 million likes achieved a 7.47 percent reach. Pages between 50,000 and 100,000 had a 9.62 percent reach. For pages with less than 1,000 likes, the reach was 22.80 percent.
Facebook announced more changes to its News Feed algorithm last week. Photos, videos, status updates, or links from friends will now appear higher up in the News Feed. Also, stories that friends have liked or commented on will appear lower in the News Feed. Both changes could potentially mean content from brand Pages will see even less reach.
And unsurprisingly, Facebook dominates the paid social advertising landscape. eMarketer estimates the company will make $15.50 billion in ad revenues, or 65.5 percent of all social network ad spending worldwide in 2015. That percentage is up from 2014, when Facebook owned 64.5 percentage of the social ad market.
Twitter in comparison offers a friendlier approach to organic reach. Last year, Twitter unveiled new measurement tools for brands that include organic tweet analytics. The company also said that marketers can reach about 30 percent of its audience in a week via a free tweeting strategy.
"On Twitter, nothing comes between your tweets and your followers," the company claimed in a blog post. It would be na? of marketers to assume though that Twitter will remain friendly to organic marketing tactics. Given that Twitter's user base is much smaller than Facebook, the company is under a lot of pressure to drive up user counts and activity.
Twitter Hearts Organic Content (For Now)
Earlier this year, Twitter announced a deal with Google to allow the search giant to index its firehose of tweets. The deal lets Google enhance its search results with Twitter's real-time content and Twitter gets to expose its tweets to a much bigger audience. If Twitter's audience grows, it is not difficult to imagine a replay of what happened to organic reach on Facebook.
From a user's perspective, decreasing the organic reach of branded content can be a good thing, maintains Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insights at Local Search Association. "People don't want a lot of content from brands on Facebook, they're there to communicate with their friends," he says. "Brands have to work harder at building their audiences."
And despite the diminished reach, there's still value in maintaining a Facebook Page as the company ramps up its search capabilities. While Facebook's search features are not nearly as powerful as Google's, "more and more people are searching for things on Facebook and so brands need to have a well-developed presence there," Sterling adds.
Indeed, search engine optimization is "as critical as ever" when it comes to social media, says Lon Safko, author of The Fusion Marketing Bible. "After consumers search for you on Google and verify that you have a website, they want to know who's had experience working with you," he notes. "So they'll ask their friends on Facebook and look for peer reviews, so it's important for brands to have a social presence."
But maintaining an active social presence is getting more difficult, Safko adds, as the space becomes more fragmented. "To stand out, you have to produce content that's tailored for each platform but social media has become so fractured that building critical mass is difficult and unfortunately the content is increasingly ineffectual unless it's backed by paid ads."
For companies that have limited budgets, using paid ads selectively can help boost content that is likely to resonate with consumers, observes Gartner's Sorofman. "If you have great content that you want to amplify, paid or sponsored posts can push it forward and your customers will share it from there," he says.
Kate Endres, senior social media marketing specialist at Blue Fountain Media, agrees that quality over quantity is important. "I tell this to my clients quite frequently: I would rather they create a few pieces of strong media and promote them through paid advertising than to have a massive amount of content (owned media) with very little engagement or reach," she says.
And even companies with deep pockets can't rely on paid ads to engage social media users. Relying on paid media or "click bait" tactics will quickly become ineffective. Ultimately, producing compelling messaging is critical for brands to extend their reach. Additionally, brands can make their content even more shareable by following a few guidelines.
Provide Unique and Relevant Content
Adding a quote, graphic, or fact to your posts that is consistent with your brand can help make your content more interesting. "You can do a mix between branded content and pre-existing content to manufacture a post that will reflect whatever subject you are trying to pique interest in," Endres says. "Branded content gives you consistency with your brand presence while also giving you the opportunity to have your posts be unique, but still effective. It's a subtle way to remind users where the material they see is coming from."
And while using cute images of animals and other popular media is a tempting way to grab attention, it's pointless unless it has a relevant tie-in to your brand. "It's easy to create content that your audience will enjoy seeing," Endres adds. "But finding the connection to tie it back to your brand is what will help determine its success."
Finding a Happy Medium: Images and Text
It's important to find the right balance between text and photos. Facebook has a rule that no more than 20 percent of a post can consist of text. In general, the less text you have in your image the better, as they generally perform better than text-based posts, Endres notes. "An image can speak for itself if it's appropriately aligned with the message you are trying to convey, however, this isn't to say that all posts should be solely image-based," she notes. "An image post should still have the right amount of text so that it can be understood by users even after it is initially introduced, helping it to perform better long term and also in the moment."
Be a Story Teller
Sometimes, infographics tell engaging and creative stories more effectively than a text-based post or photo. An infographic can provide your audience with as much information as an all-text post can, but is much more digestible. "Something that is easy to read and understand, provides value, and is additionally appealing on the eyes is far more likely to reach a wider audience," Endres says. "Infographics are also an excellent way to connect back to your brand's larger campaign and be a strong component to your long-term message."
Maintain Your Identity
Delivering content that meets the needs of your target audience is critical. Focus on maintaining your brand identity while also crafting a hybrid of visual assets that are both informative and enjoyable. By creating posts that are consistent across all of your channels, you can build credibility which will help foster your overall growth.
Engaging consumers on social media grows more challenging as the space gets more crowded and brands must overcome more obstacles to reach their targeted audiences. Maintaining an active social presence and providing a steady stream of fresh content will give brands an edge, however. And while publishers must jump through more hoops to reach social media users, those who produce engaging and relevant content are most likely to prevail.