How Far Do Social Posts Reach?

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For the past year, the threat of 1-2 percent Facebook Page reach was imminent (at least if you believe this article). Twitter has been in a bit of an existential crisis since going public and finding themselves unable to generate advertising revenue as effectively as their social counterpart.

Social networks obfuscate the effectiveness of their platforms with stratospheric user numbers (most recently Twitter is guilty of this, but all of the major platforms are), but reach and engagement are never seriously discussed.

What the social overlords bestow upon you one day, they take away the next. And this can be a very frustrating situation for PR practitioners whose scarce resources could be more or less effective on any given day.

In this piece I want to vet the current state of different social networks: specifically, how far can one post travel within your social fiefdom? You might be surprised to discover the extent of your social reach on any given network.

Social media statistics are an inexact “science”

“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” – Mark Twain

Before we get into these studies, you need to know that these statistics aren’t absolute truth and it’s not because of bad calculations. let’s discuss a few points about these statistics (or just statistics in general):

Sampling error – the error caused by observing a sample instead of the whole population

Nearly every study about social networks is clouded by some sort of sampling error, and it stems from the fact that we don’t accurately understand the demographics and scale of Internet usage. For example, Pew Internet and American Life Project, which is one of the most reputable statistics sources, defines social networks and Internet usage so broadly that it is of nominal value for most applications.

While some studies try in earnest to reconcile overall usage with their specific interest, others start from an overt population of their own customers and try to extrapolate those results to everyone. Conclusions like this may be calculated accurately, but in all likelihood aren’t accurate enough to pay attention to. Many infographics are composed entirely from amalgams of these types of “studies.”

Bias – A statistic that is calculated in such a way that it is systematically different from the population parameter of interest.

Have you heard the expression “don’t think of an elephant?” It’s meant to make you think of an elephant, and is a good example of how tiny survey errors can lead to inaccurate results. For example, if you’re doing a survey about social networks and ask specifically about Facebook the responses may skew towards Facebook because of the mention. Or responses about “social networks” may reflect a respondent’s feelings about Facebook only.

There are other types of bias involving everything from the sampling questions to interpretation, and it should be noted that most social media surveys are conducted on the cheap and are more susceptible to different biases than studies conducted by Pew and others.

Deceit – the action or practice of deceiving someone by concealing or misrepresenting the truth.

I know this is a PR blog and I should call this “spin,” but there is a lot of intentional “fudging the numbers” in some of these surveys, and it’s quite overt. To believe some “studies,” you really have to want to believe them. Of course, research that has been doctored or convoluted offers very little practical information as well.

The point of bringing this up is to say that the best way to determine social media effectiveness is to have metrics in place for your profiles that are frequently monitored and benchmarked against previous measures. Best practices are great for ideas, but statistical errors are everywhere. Beware.

How far does a Facebook post reach?

In March 2014, a leak revealed that Facebook intends to restrict Facebook Page post reach to between 1 and 2 percent, meaning that at best one out of every 50 Facebook fans would see a particular post. Facebook responded with a PR piece that all but confirmed the reach restriction.

So, what is Facebook Page reach today? The best data seems to be from March 2014, when Social@Oglivy ran a test to determine reach for 100 different Facebook Pages. What they found was that from October 2013 – February 2014, total reach fell 50 percent across-the-board. For Pages with less than 500,000 fans reach was at 6 percent, for Pages with greater than 500,000 fans reach was at 2 percent.

Facebook page reach March 2014

You may wonder what “promotional posts” are, and that is the million dollar question. Facebook does provide the following example:

facebook promotional post
calculator to determine a rough budget for continuing to engage your Facebook fans

(Note that I am using Forrester analyst Nate Elliott’s figures for post engagement for Facebook, Twitter and G+).

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Facebook brand reach in January 2015

  • <6 percent reach (Pages <500,000 Fans) – Less than 3 of every 50 fans see a post
  • <2 percent reach (Pages >500,000 Fans) – Less than 1 of every 50 fans see a post
  • .073 percent engagement

How far does a Tweet reach?

Twitter has been a publicly traded company from a little over a year, and in 2014 their stock lost 44 percent of its peak value. The big picture cause of this is lack of advertising revenue.

twitter stock value 2014
although it does have a filtering mechanism in its API

When it comes to Tweet performance, Twitter is somewhat transparent about the reach of your posts. Using Twitter Analytics, you can see impressions, engagement, and engagement rate. However, engagement rate is a measure of the percentage of engagements relative to the impressions and not total overall follower count. In this context, you can see how optimizing your Tweets for maximum impressions is helpful.

Danny Sullivan of Marketing Land wrote a piece discussing Twitter analytics and determined that his impression rate was less than 2 percent, and his engagement rate (relative to his overall follower count) was under 1 percent. He establishes the validity of these numbers by citing Twitter’s recommendation to tweet two to three per day to reach 30 percent of audience. You can see why Twitter really can’t ratchet down reach any further – it’s already abysmally low.

I’m going to extrapolate Sullivan’s findings for everyone, even though he has a lot more positive notoriety in his niche than most brands or people enjoy.

Twitter reach in January 2015

  • <2 percent reach per Tweet
  • .035 percent engagement per Tweet

How far does a Google+ post reach?

There is some good news and bad news about Google Plus. Engagement is favorable comparable to Facebook and Twitter (that’s the good-ish news), but its scale is lacking.

First off, Google Plus exists. It was de-emphasized somewhat in 2014, and there still is a disconnect between people who have worked on G+ and people who habitually use G+, but there are active, enthusiastic users and communities (I personally find the SEO and developer communities very helpful and engaging).

To my point about scale, Google has about 37 percent of Facebook’s active users and the average G+ session is still believed to be about seven minutes per month compared to 21 minutes per day per Facebook user.

You can see the problems with this disparity in the following graphic regarding post engagement:

google plus engagement

Same brands with social profile, but the scale of engagement is far lower with G+ than with the others. Since I couldn’t find any data on G+ reach per post, I’m going to scale down the FB numbers relative to G+ engagement. I also put in a metric if (as some G plussers argue) engagement is better on Google Plus. If that is the case, the problem of scale and reach is even worse.

Google+ reach in January 2015

  • Assuming the same engagement levels as Facebook: 5 percent reach
  • Assuming higher engagement levels per user than Facebook: <5 percent reach
  • .069 percent engagement per Tweet

Perspective and Conclusion

There are other ways to look at this data of course: Simply Measured released an interesting article theorizing how users from different referral sources behaved on-site (this was favorable for Google+, less so for Facebook). But the bottom line for PR practitioners is this:

  • The average social reach on social posts (agnostic of network) in 2015 will be less than 6 percent
  • The average engagement on social post (agnostic of network) in 2015 will be less than one-tenth of 1 percent

There may be advantages of these platforms relative to one another, but social posts are not a particularly effective way to communicate a message to the masses. And their effectiveness continues to decrease.

Tactics like promoted posts, email, traditional media placement, and software solutions like the Cision PR Suite are increasingly valuable to PR practitioners and to marketers who need amplification and reach that are unattainable by organic social alone. But this isn’t new: three years ago Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote about it on his blog:

“this over-complication via algorithm and not knowing why people use their site creates a financial problem for brands. By trying to be an incredibly efficient information delivery source, they confine our ability to organically reach most of our followers to using Sponsored Posts.”

Welcome to 2015: Meet the new social, same as the old social.

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Tags : social media

About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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