Social media algorithms: The bane of every marketer
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If you want to stay competitive in the world of eCommerce, you need to understand how social media algorithms work, how they’re changing, and how this will affect the way you market your business on social media.
According to a 2021 survey by Statista, more than nine out of 10 businesses in North America reported moving more of their eCommerce efforts to social media. At the time of the survey, 73% of those businesses were already selling through social media.
How algorithms have historically driven traffic on social media
The purpose of any social media algorithm is to attract users and keep them on the respective social media app for as long as possible. Algorithms do this by sorting the posts a user sees and presenting the user with posts the app thinks they will be most interested in. Each app prioritizes different variables in their respective algorithms, but it basically looks like this:
Next, let’s take a deeper look at the algorithms of three of the more popular social media networks used for ecommerce marketing.
Instagram historically prioritized content from accounts with many followers. The higher the follower count, the more likely posts would appear first in users’ searches and feeds. Along with follower count, there are three components Instagram uses to determine where a post appears on a user’s feed:
- The relationship between the user and the poster: Do they follow each other? Did the user search for this account by name? Do they message each other? Do they leave comments on each other’s posts? Do they tag each other in posts?
- The relevance of the content: What other posts has the user lingered on and engaged with?
- When the poster shared their post: Newer posts take priority over older posts.
Facebook works to set itself apart by prioritizing the content from a user’s friends and family, hoping people would use the platform to stay connected to the people they care about—sharing pictures and videos of new babies, weddings, graduations, and more. Today, Facebook works to keep that focus while adding things like Facebook Stories.
Unlike Facebook and Instagram, TikTok focuses on trying to figure out what users want to see. This algorithm doesn’t lean on how many followers an account has, nor does it repeatedly regurgitate the same content at users. Instead, TikTok uses an A.I. recommendation system to learn what users like through their choices, then finds and delivers more of that content.
The future of social media algorithms
According to Nvidia CEO and co-founder Jensen Huang:
“Recommender systems are the most important A.I. system of our time; it’s the engine for search, ads, online shopping, music, books, movies, user-generated content, and news.”
Most social media platforms have recently begun a push to revamp their recommendation system algorithms and turn them into the driving force for acquiring and retaining the interest of their users.
The best recommendation systems use machine learning to keep making better recommendations. These systems are cyclical; the more people use them, the more accurate their recommendations become. Then the more accurate their recommendations become, the more people use them.
TikTok and its algorithm
TikTok boasts that its AI knows what users want before they do. The platform uses several variables to fine-tune its algorithm-generated recommendations for a user’s ‘For You’ page. These variables all fall under one of three categories:
1. How a user interacts with other users (primary focus)
- What accounts does this user follow
- What creators has this user hidden
- The comments this user has posted
- Videos this user has liked or shared
- Videos this user has added to their favorites
- Videos this user marked as ‘Not Interested’
- Videos this user reported as inappropriate
- Videos this user watched all the way to the end (video completion rate)
- The content this user has on their own account
- Interests this user has based on the content and ads they’ve interacted with
2. Video information on the videos that a user seeks out in the Discover tab
- The captions a video uses
- The sound effects or music a video uses
- The hashtags used on a video
- The filters or effects used by a video
- If there are any trending topics (like the release of a new movie or a news story)
3. Device and account settings (minor focus)
- Users’ language preference
- The country/location setting
- Type of mobile device
- Users’ interests entered during account setup
According to an internal TikTok memo, the app also takes into account things like the number of likes and comments a video has, how long the video is, and whether that video was played by a user. The memo even included a simplified equation that showed how videos are scored by TikTok using those factors.
Plike x Vlike + Pcomment x Vcomment + Eplaytime x Vplaytime + Pplay x Vplay
Why everyone’s copying TikTok’s algorithm
TikTok’s approach has been wildly successful.
In August 2021, TikTok reached 30% of the mobile population of the U.S. It’s been downloaded 3.6 billion times—that’s 20% more than Facebook and 21% more than Instagram. Furthermore, during the first three months of 2022, iPhone users spent an average of 78% more time on TikTok than on Facebook.
After Facebook (Meta) lost users for the first time, it’s changing how it does things to grab some of TikTok’s success. Tom Alison, the Meta Executive in charge of Facebook, said that Facebook will now be moving away from prioritizing posts from users you already know or follow. Instead, Facebook will be emulating TikTok and recommending posts regardless of who posts them. On top of that, Facebook will also reintegrate its Messenger app into Facebook to resemble TikTok.
Instagram has also changed things by adding extra features to mimic TikTok and is even playing with its layout. For example, in 2020, it added the Reels function to its repertoire. Reels make discovering new content easier without relying on how many followers a user has to determine the discoverability of a post. Instagram is also playing with how it formats video content, hoping it will set it apart from other social media apps.
What this means for brands and small businesses
This shift in how social media algorithms weigh content will affect both creators and businesses.
What type of content is going to get you seen?
In the early days of social media, photos were any social media marketer’s bread and butter. Now, what people want to see are short videos. Kathryn Shea Duncan, Director of Social Media for Lake Charles Tourism, has noticed that the first second of videos on Instagram and TikTok are heavily weighted. So she’s started condensing videos as short as possible while adding more extensive, descriptive captions. That way, viewers loop the video and replay it.
According to Akvile Defazio, president of AKvertise, Inc., ecommerce businesses are running more dynamic catalog ads and more video ads. To echo this, corporate and personal brand strategist Smirdhi Sharma tweeted that she uses reels and 15-second videos more than any other format for all her brand partners. And freelancer Morgan Overholt, says that she has switched to almost all reels on Instagram and created TikToks for her clients.
Along with the type of content you use, the platform you use makes a difference. With the surge in TikTok’s popularity, Dana Bowling, personal branding and video expert, explains that engagement on Instagram for her clients today is only about 1%. In contrast, engagement on her brands’ TikTok accounts tends to be much higher. So, she recommends that marketers create content for TikTok before repurposing that content on Instagram.
Entrepreneur @VancouverGuy also says that video content or not, the point is to have good content. While before, you could depend on making sure you had the right keywords or hashtags, now you have to create quality content to capture users’ interest.
Downsides of the new algorithm shift
According to NYC social media consultant Dhariana Lozano, Instagram (the app that started the image craze) no longer favors image-focused accounts. So in response, she gets her clients to ask themselves, “how can this message be turned into a short video?”
But creating videos takes more time than posting a simple well-lit picture—an added strain for single-person companies and small businesses without marketing teams. Where a simple picture of your product could once create buzz, now you have to shoot a video, edit it together, add music, and do all of that on top of running your business.
The algorithm changes also encourage “swipe culture,” making social media engagement more fleeting. Lozano worries that although a small business’ short videos may get seen, it doesn't necessarily mean more sales. That means all that time and extra strain may be wasted.
That’s why marketer and co-founder of Hatch, Jacqui Barhouch, says that ads are the only way a business can grow on social media platforms. The feed and profile are more there for people who want to learn more, but short video ads are the only way to convert leads.
Welcome to the new standard
Things are changing, but it’s not the end of the world. Shift your strategies to include:
- More short videos and use the new discoverability to your advantage.
- Captions to communicate more in-depth information.
- Content that can be repurposed for multiple social media networks.