Understanding How Social Networks Optimise For Engagement

By Christina

May 05, 2021

If you want to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram to promote your messages and content, you are going to need to understand how their algorithms work, then you will be able to optimise for engagement.

Ultimately all of the social media platforms have to make money.  They don't want to charge their users a subscription fee, so the option they have gone with is to let companies advertise to their users, the more engaged their users are the more customers they have for companies to advertise too.

How it works:

  • More users on the platform leads to more advertisers bidding against each other for the users attention, which leads to more revenue for the platform
  • The more active users there are, the higher the platforms stock price (the more the company is worth)
  • To succeed at scale, social platforms need hundreds of millions of heavily addicted users spending more time on their sites/apps, inviting more users to use it, and creating content (free of charge) that hooks their friends into coming back
  • To create addictions, the users feed needs to have highly engaging content, that continuously draws them back

Because of the above, social algorithms are intentionally designed to reward highly-engaging accounts with greater future visibility.

Users have been trained (seeing likes, comments and reach at the bottom of their post) to understand that earning engagement is how they get their content seen.  If you want to use social media to promote your business this knowledge is crucial to your work.


What social media engagement algorithms also do:

  • reward engagement streaks
  • punish attempts to serve multiple audiences

What's an Engagement Streak?

  • You post a photo on Instagram and it gets a high number of comments and likes.
  • You think about why that photo worked so well and try something similar again.  You receive lots more views, likes, and comments
  • You try again with a similar post, and it really takes off, getting you loads of engagement.
  • You think you've mastered Social Media so you take a short break and come back a week later, you don't consider what worked last time and post something unrelated, it initially shows promise, but ends up with very little engagement.

That's an engagement streak.  Instagram spotted your post did better than usual, so it bolstered the reach of your next post.  When that also performed well, Instagram gave you even more reach.

As the fourth post was unrelated to the first three posts Instagram will initially extend its reach.  But when a low percent of viewers interact with it, the algorithm pushed the post back into lower visibility territory.  To start flying high again, you'll need to restart another string of high-performing content.

Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others have been following this model with their algorithms for at least the past 3-4 years.  However, the impact is greater now because:

  • There's more competition
  • The machine learning systems are vastly more sophisticated
  • The learning models have trillions more input data to work with
  • Both software and UX design techniques have become better at addiction generation

What you need to take from this to have a chance of promoting your content on social platforms:

  • Optimise your social posts to discover high resonance, high-engagement-earning content
  • Once you've found a system that works, stick with that strategy until you notice engagement fading, at which point, more experimentation may be worthwhile.
  • When you've got a streak going, don't lose it by posting something that could throw the algorithm off from promoting you
  • If you need to drive traffic to your website, you'll need to design a feed that builds up algorithmic equity through engagement, then spend that equity on traffic-driving posts with links (3rd party links are pushed down feeds to keep users engaged on the social media platform)

This might not be the way you want to do things, but Social Media platforms want users to stay with them, and not to go off to your website.

Why can't you serve multiple audiences?

If you post about different things that interest you, instead of being focused on one thing, your content's potential reach will get hurt.

The reality is that social networks, as sophisticated as they are, don't try to optimise who to show your different content pieces to.  The algorithms assume that either an account's content is consistently engaging for someone or it's not.  They're designed, or at leased optimised for single-focus accounts.

This is great for celebrities.  People follow them because they are interested in everything they do, the celebrity is the focus.  Those accounts flawlessly match the algorithms' design.

There is no right answer on how to promote your content in social media, optimising to these algorithms may be wrong, but if you need people to find you it's exactly what you have to do.

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