What’s the difference between “traditional” social media (I literally can’t say that without the irony quotes around it…) and TikTok?
It’s all about the algorithm, baby.
OK, here’s the deal:
The OG social networks, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, run on a social graph. At their base, these apps are networks, in that (in theory at least) you follow someone in order to see their content. They’ve started adding suggested posts from people you don’t follow, but at its most basic, these are networks of people you choose to follow.
TikTok is different.
Their algorithm is based on the quality of content. (I almost put irony quotes around “quality,” but I resisted.) You can follow people, but the addictive quality of TikTok is the “for you” feed, because it’s gotten really good at showing us quality videos — for some value of the word quality — that each of us individually will enjoy based on how we interact with the app.
(Sidebar: each of my social media apps assumes different things about me — TikTok thinks I’m gay, Twitter thinks I might be interested in cryptocurrency and Indian cricket for some reason, and Facebook knows I’m a sucker for videos about rescued pets.)
Facebook and Instagram are trying to move toward that sort of feed as well, and we’re all big mad about it. We all joined these networks originally to keep up with friends, brands we like, and other business owners — but that’s not what the apps are showing us any more. You have to jump through hoops to actually see the people you chose to follow.
And, very interestingly, brands that did well with the OG social networks are especially mad at this change because their reach is diminishing (which implies that their content isn’t high quality enough to be recommended content). Kylie Jenner infamously posted about her displeasure.
It’s really no wonder. For brands that have monetized the size and reach of their following on social media, a change to recommended content will mean those audience numbers are worth considerably less.
What this means for marketing your business on social:
For the last however many years, the game has been about getting people to follow us on social media so that they would see our posts. It was an extension of relationship marketing; the act of following being tacit permission to market to them.
As Tara McMullin pointed out in her essay last week, these OG social media companies were effectively subsidizing our audience growth in the early years by providing organic reach. As we all know, organic reach has dropped and dropped over the last few years, and it’s gotten harder and harder for even the people who have opted in to follow us to see our content without the business paying to show it to them.
So, many of us have switched up our tactics multiple times: we started groups on Facebook, we moved to using our personal profiles for business stuff just so that somebody (ANYBODY) would see it, we started dancing around and pointing at invisible words to make reels. And every time someone found an effective hack, the algorithm would punish it again.
Why? Because Facebook and Instagram don’t make money off providing us organic reach to communicate with our audiences. It’s a business. They make money by asking us to pay for placement and audience exposure.
Businesses and creators who have managed to build up a big audience on social media are now having to bend over backwards to try to engage that audience — which would in turn, we pray, get the algorithm to feed that content to more people. That’s why we see people doing reels and TikTok dances who definitely shouldn’t be.
“But what about viral content?” I hear someone in the back of the peanut gallery of my mind shouting. Viral content is great, and it absolutely can help build you an audience — especially if you’re good enough to catch that lightning in a bottle more than once. But the trick is, can you go viral for something related to your business so that the people you attract are actually potential customers?
That, my friends, is the real trick and, unfortunately, it’s wildly improbable. I figured this out recently when my most viral reel on IG was one of me making fun of a Brigerton meme. Did it get me 20,000+ views? Yes! Were literally any of those people potential customers? Probably not.
(I wrote about this a LONG time ago in this blog post about writing for the second click.)
The best (and maybe only?) way to reliably build and reach an audience on social media in 2022 is to use advertising. Period. Because things don’t work the way they did ten years ago. The people who built huge internet audiences without ever buying an ad could not replicate that success today.
So don’t feel bad if you can’t, either!
But it’s also potentially unnecessary. Most of us don’t actually need millions of people in our audience — or even tens of thousands. You might only need 1,000 true fans. Depends what you’re selling, of course, but it’s worth questioning the belief that we need more and more and more people.
Getting back to relationship marketing
If we as business owners really want to go back to relationship marketing, where we asked people’s permission to market to them (instead of interrupting them with our message which — surprise! — is what “recommended” content is doing), then there’s still really only one platform we can turn to.
The original relationship marketing platform is still the best when it comes to delivering content to an audience that has opted in to see that content.
Are there problems with delivery sometimes or spam filters, etc. Yes. Sure. But the percentage of your audience that will have the opportunity to see and read your emails is WAY higher than the percentage that even gets the opportunity to see your content on social.
Just as an example: In the last 28 days, Meta reports that my business Facebook page reached just 24% of my followers overall. Of that, my very best performing post from the last month reached just 7% of the people in my audience — and it only got that big because I shared it with my personal profile. Remember, these are people who opted in, who followed me and said they want to see my content. But Facebook thinks it knows better…
Compare that to my emails. I’ve got an average 41% open rate over the last month. That’s a BIG difference between my best-performing Facebook post and an average email.
In my opinion, business owners would do well to stop chasing the trends on social media — which are, in turn, chasing the success of TikTok — and go back to working on building relationships with your audience through permission marketing, namely, email.
Do we need to use social to build that email list? Maybe. I’m not saying to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But I do believe, as always, that you don’t want to build your platform on “rented land” so to speak, because the landlords are notorious for changing the rules.