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Dark forces rising: what communicators need to know about a changing social media universe

A combination of algorithm changes, a dynamic competitive environment between the various social channels and evolving customer habits means that communicators need to keep an eye on the ever-changing social media landscape. Harvard’s digital engagement director Phil Szomszor believes that despite more people than ever using social media and it clearly having the power to reach and influence – it’s getting more challenging to make an impact on social. Here he describes some recent trends to keep you ahead of the game:

1. Changing social media habits
Social media marketers traditionally focus engagement across the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, but we’re actually missing a big chunk of action which is hidden from view. This is termed “dark social” (a name which dates back to 2012).

WhatsApp is an example of a dark social service where content is shared within private, restricted groups. According to Globalwebindex it is used more frequently than Facebook and increasing its share of “thumb time”. It’s also invading the social media space in other ways. In a familiar-looking update, WhatsApp now enables users to post status updates through photos and videos, which disappear in 24 hours. 

Then there’s the likes of Slack, fast becoming the business social network and collaboration tool of choice. If you want to get eyeballs on something at Harvard, your best bet is to share it on Slack, where we have a few dozen channels dedicated to clients, company updates and niche interests. Again, all this is effectively off the marketing grid.

We’re also seeing the rise of passive social networking. According to Globalwebindex, the top three reasons cited for using social networks are to stay in touch with friends, keep up to date with news and filling spare time – not sharing opinions, photos or videos. That makes it harder than before to link the number of views something gets to the ultimate action you’re trying to encourage.

There’s also evidence to suggest that users are more passive in their appreciation of content. Anecdotally, I’ve seen social media increase its contribution to goals, despite Likes or other forms of engagement staying flat or falling. 

Similarly, we need to question how branded channels are viewed. Brands need to be realistic about audience growth rates and how engaged customers are. According to research from Brandwatch, 96% of people who discuss brands online do not follow their profiles. A brand’s follower count is not their complete digital footprint, so social listening tools are important to get a fuller picture. 

I believe we’re seeing a rise in the importance of the people behind brands. This is especially the case in B2B, where the small number of CEOs who are active on social media have a dramatic impact, often even more than the brand profiles themselves. 

2. Evolving platforms changing the rules
The big change here is how the major social networks have moved towards a pay-to-play model. On Facebook it’s unlikely you’ll be reaching more than 5% of your audience if you rely solely on organic reach. And it’s a similar story across the other major platforms. 

That doesn’t mean to suggest they’ve simply become ad networks. Engagement matters too and algorithm changes across all the networks are impacting how content is being served up. 

If you simply push out sales messages that don’t resonate with users, your message is less likely to be surfaced in people’s feeds – whether it’s supported by paid or not. Furthermore, will your audience bother to engage, click, or even follow you if your content is overly pushing a sales message? Those vanity metrics we’ve been traditionally wedded to start to seem out of step nowadays. 

Perhaps the most important algorithmic trend is the social media bubble: we’re more likely to be served content that fits with our world view. We have to be wary of a self-fulfilling prophecy around reaching audiences that already agree with you. This is especially an issue for PROs, who want to either reach new audiences or change people’s opinions about a brand.   

By Phil Szomszor, digital engagement director at communications agency Harvard and the Chime Specialist Group @theredrocket

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