“(During the Ferguson, Missouri riots) Millions of tweets were apparently sent during this day where people were concentrating on what’s going on, and I switched to Facebook in the middle of all of this. And on Facebook, this whole event that had consumed my Twitter feed didn’t exist.” – Professor Zeynep Tufekci, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, on the Freakonomics podcast entitled “Is the Internet Being Ruined?“
In the Freakonomics podcast referenced above (and embedded below), an interesting observation is made: the promise of the Internet was to democratize information, yet over time intermediaries (such as social media platforms and search engines) have become content gatekeepers.
This is a pretty profound observation for marketing and communication professionals: these platforms that we perceive as a low-cost or high-tech means to communicate with a broad, targeted audience have actually become gatekeepers to these audiences. The example of Ferguson-related posts on Facebook is a poignant example of how difficult it may be for people to see your content, even with strong search intent.
It can be even more challenging to proactively reach an intended audience. Facebook changed its algorithm recently, while Twitter and Instagram integrated algorithms into their platforms earlier this year. Google’s algorithm is constantly changing, fairly recently adding “semantic search.” What this means to communication and marketing professionals is that your ability to reach targeted audiences through these platforms is constantly in flux.
So what I want to do in this post is take a look at how effectively businesses can currently reach an audience on the most popular social platforms for free, through search and through advertising. Kind of like an abbreviated “state of social media” as of August 2016.
Facebook is the social network so far as audience and attention is concerned. According to Facebook’s latest statistics, they have 1.71 billion monthly users (1.13 billion daily) on Facebook and 1 billion monthly users for Messenger. Time per session is estimated at 20 minutes.
At this scale and with all of the time spent on the platform, any filtering action has large downstream ramifications. Facebook has one of the most filtered content streams of any social platform, and its juxtaposition between the ease of audience building and difficulty to reach accumulated audiences has made Facebook both profitable and the template that many social platforms aspire towards.
Ease to build an audience: High. The Facebook Like button is one of the most ubiquitous social media buttons on the Internet. Not only that, but implementation of the button is very straightforward via Facebook’s developer website. With a small amount of technical skill and strategy, it is very easy to build an audience for a business Facebook Page (or to build up subscribers to an individual Page).
Ease to reach your audience: Low. Facebook Page reach is likely smaller than 2 percent, meaning that less than 1 out of 50 fans will see content that a business posts (I say less than 2 percent organic reach as there have been six algorithm changes since that statistic was published — the latest happening last week, all presumably diminishing organic reach further). It’s worthwhile for PR professionals to understand that publishers also are suffering from a decline in social reach according to AdWeek.
Search discovery: Facebook is reportedly serving 2 billion search results per day (As context, Google does approximately 5.5 billion searches per day according to Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land). So search is a very under-the-radar aspect of Facebook’s utility, and one that presumably follows Google’s example to return geo-specific, pertinent business to the user with additional social context (connection to users, reviews).
According to TechCrunch, there is potential for future monetization but for now search results are algorithm-determined. So this might be an area where a large social audience and/or reviews can influence search referrals. Incidentally, hashtags on Facebook don’t seem to be as effective for search as they are on Twitter or Instagram.
Paid content: One of Facebook’s greatest strengths is leveraging its audience to generate advertising revenue. The Facebook ad network offers a variety of different advertising options, from post promotion to lead generation and (nearly) everything in between. The greatest strength of Facebook advertising is the capability to target by granular, interest-based criteria.
It’s easy to forget that Twitter has 313 million monthly users. And despite forays into live events and stylistic changes, Twitter’s utility as a live social platform is unmatched (where else could you go to get Leslie Jones’ exceptional Olympics coverage?).
Ease to build an audience: Medium/high. It’s easy to gain followers on Twitter (with various strategies and applications), but according to Pew Internet only 23 percent of all adults use Twitter. So, while the barrier-to-entry on Twitter is as low or lower than Facebook (Twitter has similar developer tools for their “follow” button), there is far less “audience” to gain. Like anything this is a matter of context, but all things being equal Twitter users represent a fraction of overall connected users.
Ease to reach your audience: Low. Because people are on Twitter far less frequently than other social platforms and because tweets are time-sensitive, timing matters. Pre-algorithm, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land estimated Twitter impressions in the low single digits (1.85 percent). When Twitter implemented their algorithm earlier this year the mean impression percentage likely didn’t change, but Twitter’s algorithm gives “viral” tweets precedence over real-time tweets which likely diminishes the impression for a typical tweet.
Search discovery: Medium/Low. Contextual hashtags are synonymous with Twitter, but rely on user intent for search. It’s incumbent for a Twitter user to search explicitly for your hashtag OR for you to co-opt an existing hashtag. Probably not the ideal case for finding people with conversion or purchase intent, but (like Instagram) the contextual hashtag is a known convention and can be creatively used for discovery.
Paid content: Twitter has a variety of advertising products organized around pre-determined objectives. They also have Twitter Cards specifically designed for paid lead generation. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of planning for paid Twitter campaigns is the disparate audience (as opposed to the weak-ties audience seen on Facebook) and less interest-based targeting options.
The big news with LinkedIn is its recent acquisition by Microsoft. Currently, LinkedIn has 106 unique monthly users and 450 unique users: meaning only 23 percent of its users are active on any given month. Because of LinkedIn’s “professional” niche, it’s likely that the degree that a monthly-active-user uses LinkedIn is far less than another social network.
Ease to build an audience: Low. LinkedIn is a closed network similar to Facebook, but with much more emphasis on the individual connections rather than connections to brands or Pages. LinkedIn does have a “follow company” button that allows users to subscribe to business updates, but it is much less ubiquitous than other social buttons that people usually see.
Ease to reach your audience: Low. Network engagement doesn’t appear to be as high on LinkedIn as it is on other networks, and social sharing on the network consistently lags behind other networks to drive traffic to third-party sites.
Search discovery: Intent is likely where LinkedIn search is less important for discovery than other social networks: the intent for a corporate search on LinkedIn is likely to be to learn more about a company for a specific purpose rather than to discover a product or service.
Paid content: LinkedIn sells ads as promoted posts or explicit advertisements. Because people share less on LinkedIn than other places the contextual targeting options are limited (but this is probably the most reliable place to post by profession). Of course, advertising isn’t the sole source of revenue for LinkedIn: at a small scale, LinkedIn sells targeted “InMail” connections to (nearly) anyone on the network with Premium accounts.
According to Facebook’s most recent statistics, Instagram has 500 million users monthly. And it has the highest per-post engagement according to multiple reports (even though it may be declining somewhat according to another). It also recently adopted one of Snapchat’s signature features (temporary content) in its “Stories” function. And some social media experts believe that Instagram could be a formidable brand alternative to Snapchat because of its greater accessibility to advertisers. Speaking to Business Insider, Nick Cicero, CEO of Delmondo said the following about the opportunity for Instagram as an alternative to Snapchat:
“Instagram has a much more defined ad tool, audience data, analytics, and API….”
Ease to build an audience: Medium to high. Instagram has a similar ease of use to its parent company (Facebook), but doesn’t have a Follow button (there is a third-party follow button available here, but not an organic one). They do have easily embedded posts, and there are many third-party tools (like Audisense) that use the Instagram API to cultivate a social audience. Building a following on Instagram is not as easy as Facebook, though it’s close.
Ease to reach your audience : Medium now, soon likely low. Split the difference here: Instagram has the highest engagement of any social platform, but also integrated an algorithm that places content out of chronological order (The Stories product reportedly takes into account both Instagram and Facebook activity). AND it is now asking businesses to convert to a “business profile” and requires a Facebook Page to advertise on the platform, either probably identifying posts as promotional within the algorithm. There’s very little data on Instagram reach, but Ryan Sweeney of Ignite estimates reach between 6 and 10 percent currently, which is better than or equal to many other social platforms.
Search discovery: High. Instagram isn’t going to be a place that people go (at least for the foreseeable future) for initial discovery. However, the contextual hashtags on Instagram are used far more often on Instagram than on Twitter (as a rule). It’s plausible and acceptable to have multiple hashtags on any given Instagram image, which offers more opportunity for contextual discovery than most social platforms.
Paid content: Advertising is fairly mature on Instagram, as all advertising is planned through the Facebook ad planner. Content ads are placed based upon similar planning criteria to Facebook ads.
Snapchat is a popular app. The Verge reports that 150 million people use Snapchat each day calculating that it is more popular than Twitter. Whether that’s true or not, Instagram has been hugely influential in the advertising space, originating some of the short-form video news and content features (and photo filters) that Instagram and Facebook (among others) have adopted. Still, as popular and groundbreaking as Snapchat has been The Verge’s Nick Slatt points out that its lack of social media conventions (such as Likes, Follows, interactions) limit it somewhat. This extends to brands as well.
Ease to build an audience: Low. There isn’t a follow button, and as social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk says this limits the amount of attention that you can reach without some notoriety. There are some third-party apps that you can use, and there is the “Snapcode” that you can use to expedite a follow. But it requires some commitment to grow a Snapchat audience.
Ease to reach your audience: High. Although Snapchat is reportedly considering an algorithm, you get access to message anyone that is following you. Overcome the barrier to entry and you’re in a favorable position…. for now.
Search discovery: N/A – there isn’t a search function within Snapchat as of now.
Paid content: Advertising on Snapchat is for BIG advertisers (to the tune of $100K according to Digiday). The one opportunity for smaller businesses to leverage Snapchat right now are custom geofilters: a business (at least where I priced them out) can claim a small swath of area for $5 per day (and the cost increases as the area increases). For businesses that have a large teenage or college population, this might be a cost-effective way to do a niche promotion.
When I say Google, I don’t mean Google Plus (which is an awesome yet niche social platform at this point). I wanted to vet a little bit of comparative data to show Google search and advertising as an alternative to social advertising. I mentioned earlier that Google handles (approximately) 5.5 billion searches per day, most likely with more deliberate intention than Facebook (assuming that stalking ex-girlfriends and boyfriends counts as a search). Not to discount Bing either, which between Bing and Yahoo power half of the U.S. searches that Google does according to ComScore.
Ease to build an audience / Ease to reach your audience: N/A
Search discovery: Depends. Search algorithms are geo-dependent, may present differently because of semantics or link authority, and will probably show reviews for a business or service if they’re available. In an either/or scenario, it may make sense to divert some of your social budget to content for the sake of discovery.
Paid content: This is an area where Google and “search” excels (as demonstrated by the revenue chart embedded at the outset). When we think about search intent on Facebook, a lot of searches are happening within the context of the utility (I want to find a friend, or remember an event, etc.). Google searches are explicit – by this logic a contextual ad on Google may be more effective than an ad on Twitter. Perhaps. And because many people are tied into the Google ecosystem in some capacity, there are segmentation opportunities that are more robust than any other network besides Facebook.
Lastly I wanted to talk about email. Email is boring, antiquated and has open rates between 3.1 percent and 41.1 percent and unsubscribe rates of about .1 percent across industries according to Dave Chaffey of Smart Insights (these are the extremes; the mean across industries was somewhere in between). Email outperforms social media in terms of open rate, conversion rate and cost in nearly every comparison study. And it’s important to note that transitioning social fans to email subscribers is a very effective way to communicate more frequently with your customers and prospects.
Ease to build an audience: Low. Collecting email addresses is not as simple as hitting a “Like” button, and most people are reticent to share their personal information with a business. So, there does need to be some incentive to sharing.
Ease to reach your audience: High. Like Snapchat, once you have an email address you have access. Spam filters will sometimes keep email from getting to the recipient, but tools like Cision’s PR software ensure that your email content is CAN/SPAM compliant and won’t be filtered.
Search discovery / Paid content: N/A
Communications and marketing on social media is a difficult prospect. When I wrote in the preface that the purpose of the Internet was to democratize information, I’m sure you immediately understood that information is hardly democratized. And the difficulty with having so many gatekeepers is that the rules of access are constantly changing.
Hopefully this gives you some idea of what the state of social media access is today, and also how consistently search and email perform over time as communications media. Social media isn’t an island unto itself but a tool that can be used with other communication tools to reach people as effectively as possible.
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