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It’s harder to go viral.

According to recent data from research and monitoring tool BuzzSumo, engagement with Facebook pages has fallen by 20% since 2017. Listicles—a low-hanging but effective strategy for improved audience engagement—were falling flat, too. Not even clickbait headlines were working, a sign that audiences had begun to ignore these SEO hacks. 

Still, audiences weren’t rejecting content altogether. Data from PathFactory, a personalized content platform, shows that while session times on B2B marketing content have decreased, overall consumption has actually increased during the pandemic.

So yes, it might be harder to go viral, but there’s still an eager, engaged audience out there. For the 80% of social media marketers who said that their number one priority this year is to increase engagement with their content across all channels, you can’t just rely on marketing tactics from 2011 (or even 2020) to succeed in 2021. There’s still no magic pill to achieve audience engagement, but understanding a few simple rules can help you get there.

Quality Above All

In its early stages of growth, the team behind the Morning Brew newsletter prioritized quality over quantity—not a decision many would make in the same situation. Readers of the daily business newsletter were only counted as “engaged” if they opened six or more of their first 12 newsletters.

That’s a pretty lofty bar, but this figure helped the Brew team to determine how many readers had been hooked. These readers could be relied upon to return over a long period of time—that was more important to the Brew than overall views in the short term. While their stricter definition of engagement qualified fewer readers as “engaged”, they’d already begun building a lasting, loyal relationship with its audience. At present, Morning Brew has an astonishing 42% unique open rate and over 2.5 million subscribers—so in the end, the team got its quantity, too.  

There’s no gimmick out there that can make people engage with lazy or unremarkable content. The Morning Brew succeeded because the insights readers found in each newsletter were valuable or interesting enough to keep them coming back. Quality, not quantity, is the primary driver of engagement. Of course you need to set, and more importantly meet expectations with a regular cadence, but quantity without quality is meaningless.

Each post should be exceptional. Otherwise, it’s better to say nothing at all.

Ads Ain’t What They Used to Be

Apple announced a change in its latest software update that puts privacy front and center. With the change, a pop-up window would appear in each app, alerting the user that the app wants to track their data for advertising purposes, and giving the user the ability to block the app from doing so. Previously, data tracking was the default, and if users didn’t want to be tracked in that fashion, they had to opt out—in a way that was much more difficult than it will be soon.

So what does that mean for marketers? It won’t be as easy to target your desired audience with Instagram ads. Part of that means getting a little old-school with it—relying upon strong relationships with your audience, and securing referrals from your biggest fans. Author David Meerman Scott coined the term “fanocracy” to describe brands that have the truly devoted followings previously reserved for sports teams, music groups, or other celebrities. There’s no more effective way for marketers to get their brand out there than positive word-of-mouth buzz from fervent supporters.   

Platforms Reward Risk Takers… 

Prior to 2015, algorithms—sets of rules that social media companies use to curate a user’s experience by prioritizing content they think the user will like most—weren’t even in the picture. Now, the social algorithms are all some marketers think about.

In order to increase adoption of new features, some social platforms will tweak their algorithms to prioritize accounts that take advantage of those features. Facebook, for example, recently told blogger and marketer Rachel Reichenbach that the easiest tweak to improve engagement would be to post a Reel. 

Reels are Facebook’s response to TikTok, essentially—short-form videos that can be spruced with various editing tools. If you’ve never heard of Reels, you now understand precisely why Facebook’s algorithm is prioritizing posts that include them. Facebook will reward you if you adopt the new feature and help then get the world out. Similarly, LinkedIn boosted accounts that made use of LinkedIn Live, its live video streaming feature.

So if you can create Reels or live videos that get the algorithm’s attention, your audience engagement is likely to skyrocket. Easy, right?

… But You Can’t Count on Gaming the Algorithms

Well, not quite. Firstly, Reels haven’t gotten very popular yet. But more importantly, it’s hard to game the system, because the system is constantly changing. Google is known to make frequent changes to its algorithm to ensure no one gets close to discovering how it works. Just last month, Google announced that people who posted Web Stories, the search giant’s new Instagram-esque feature, may see an increase in website traffic.

Sometimes, those algorithm changes are dramatic and long-lasting. In 2019, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to display more posts from family and friends, rather than content from brands or media outlets that users follow. That change had an especially large effect on marketers, who couldn’t get in front of people in the same way as before. But marketers aren’t totally out of the picture—meaningful content always seems to find a way though. 

So indeed, instead of trying to work the algorithms, marketers have moved away from ephemeral moments and towards high-quality, long-form experiences that hold the audience’s attention for more than just a few seconds. Because quality—as we established earlier—will always be most important.  

Share Content You and Your Audience Care About

Buffer recently ran an experiment to determine if sharing third-party content could impact its audience engagement. After posting popular articles from sites like Techcrunch and Quartz on its Facebook page, Buffer grew its audience from 79,000 likes to 100,000—all without creating any original content. It worked because the content resonated with its audience, regardless of the author. Buffer’s audience now associated Buffer with these other brands they already enjoyed. 

Sharing the work of others alongside your own work helps to establish your brand within a given community. It shows your audience the other creators that are important to you—and ultimately, it can lead to some good karma. If you see something you like that someone else made, don’t be afraid to shout it out.

Seth King is a writer and editor based in Boston.

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