By Jonathan Crossfield published August 10, 2014

The Future of Social Media Content Strategy is Really Déjà Vu

hand-social media strategiesRemember all those articles a few years ago that predicted Google+ would overtake Facebook and revolutionize search? The +1 button was going to be the most important social media share button you could, you should, you MUST install on your blog.

Now there are articles predicting the slow dismantling or downgrading of Google+, potentially eroding the efforts of those who did commit to the network.

Articles that attempt to predict the future of social media make for great link bait. We’re all desperate to avoid some shiny new toy eroding our advantage or destroying all our hard work. That’s why most of these articles focus on the new technologies of the day, written in a tone that implies an impending threat if the reader doesn’t adapt quickly enough.

Facebook buys virtual reality company Oculus, so the future of social media must involve virtual reality (VR). Pinterest stuns everyone with its rapid rise, so the future of social media must have more pictures.

These aren’t predictions of the future. They’re merely reactions to whatever is happening at the time.

The Spanish philosopher, poet, and novelist George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To understand the future we have to stop looking at the present.

The consequences of our actions

For example, instead of speculating about Facebook’s new VR acquisition, the bigger clue to the future of Facebook — and potentially the rest of social media marketing — can be gleaned by dissecting the recent updates to its News Feed algorithm. Although these changes are happening now, they’re deeply rooted in the events of the past.

There is absolutely no doubt — ’cause they came right out and said it — that these algorithm changes were designed specifically to remove the loopholes exploited by marketers. Facebook wants an end to social media content that targets the algorithm instead of the actual interests and expectations of the person who initially “liked” the page.

That means all Facebook marketers now operate under more restrictions — and with a greater handicap than regular users. All posts from Pages will have a harder time reaching a Facebook audience without their owners investing in ad spend.

And it’s no use wailing about how unfair it all is. It’s our own fault.

Pay to play

I know some of you are going to say these algorithm changes aren’t about restricting bad behavior but rather about rewarding shareholders. Therefore, these changes are a cynical ploy to force us to pay for previously free services and benefits.

Of course they’re out to make money! Aren’t you? When were we led to believe that Facebook, Twitter, and the rest weren’t businesses looking to make a buck? The possible downgrading of Google+ and the changes to Facebook have led to a lot of recent commentary admonishing marketers for ever being so stupid as to “build on rented land.” But if we’re honest, we’ll admit we weren’t even paying rent.

Marketers were freeloading on someone else’s property, relying on the goodwill of our host. We were fully aware that someday the host would ask us to contribute to the bills if we wanted to continue sleeping on the sofa and helping ourselves to the fridge. And when those tiny voluntary ad spends weren’t enough to compensate for our often rowdy behavior, our host began placing further restrictions and demands on us to pay our way.

The new Facebook forces marketers to look closer at the quality, relevance, and strategic benefit of their social content, instead of throwing all kinds of rubbish on the page because it’s supposedly free.

We’ve seen it all before

A lot of the hoopla surrounding the recent Facebook updates certainly sounds eerily similar to the whining and protestations that, until recently, would happen after every Google update.

Go back to 2008 or thereabouts and marketing forums like Search Engine Land and Sphinn (now Marketing Land) would explode with a wounded sense of entitlement and outrage every time Google restricted a popular but manipulative tactic or penalized a notably spam-type activity.

Apparently, Google was being unfair in restricting the methods available to marketers. Apparently, Google didn’t want businesses to succeed in the organic results because it wanted to force us all to use AdWords. Apparently Google hated marketers. I heard them all.

But by the time Panda and Penguin came along, most smart marketers had given up trying to beat Google with tricks. Instead they focused on producing the best possible experience for their potential customers. Quality always wins.

Why didn’t we learn? Why did so many marketers resort to similar low quality, and sometimes extremely dubious, tactics when social media marketing came along?

History tells us that when we target the algorithm, chasing numbers instead of people, the platform always, ALWAYS bites back.

Keep calm and carry on

So what is the future of social media marketing?

It’s going to get harder. Some marketers may eventually look back on 2010-13 as the golden age of free, “anything-goes” social media. But that was never going to last.

There will always be some who will look for an unfair advantage, prompting further restrictions and harsher updates. Eventually, social media may have its own Panda moment, and we’ll learn to accept and cope in a new world where social media is part of a brand’s media spend. And as a result, most of us will produce better content and smarter strategies capable of achieving a reasonable return on that spend.

I want to believe the future of social media would follow the words of Santayana. Unfortunately, I think the late, great Kurt Vonnegut is closer to the truth. “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

Sadly, I think that’s what it is to be a social media marketer, too.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Author: Jonathan Crossfield

If it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash; from copy writing to screenwriting, blogging to journalism. He has won awards for his articles on digital marketing and his over-opinionated blog, Atomik Soapbox. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.

Other posts by Jonathan Crossfield

  • Daniel Young

    You seem to be looking at social media through the lens of the established social networks. I agree that great content and smart strategy are fundamentals but the landscape could yet change in ways that materially alter brand marketing strategy in a ‘social’ context. You need to retain a focus on user behaviour – its dangerous to assume that social media is mature.

    • Kimota

      (To misquote Mark Twain: I didn’t have time to write a short reply, so I wrote a long one instead. I’ve had too much caffeine already today…)

      I’m the first to insist that social marketing is about user behaviour and not the platforms. It’s what my columns for the magazine usually bang on about like a broken record. Don’t get too comfortable with any one platform because it will always change. Focus on the audience instead and how they behave. It’s my number one soapbox.

      However, we still need to understand and work with the tools we have. Unfortunately, in many ways, our own behaviour as marketers has had a far greater influence on the evolution of social marketing than the people we want to influence. And therefore, the platforms will continue to adapt to restrict or penalise the excesses of our behaviour.

      Social media and social media marketing are so *not* mature yet. The landscape will continue to evolve, just as you suggest. But if history has taught us anything it is that there will always be those marketers that look to exploit loopholes in any new development to extract a competitive advantage, hammering it until saturation removes the advantage, or something breaks, or the platform pushes back.

      And this column is my reaction to that.

      Forget focussing on trying to find the next loophole or bandwagon to gain a competitive advantage (as so many ‘future of social media’ articles imply). That road leads to short term gain and long term pain for the entire industry, as loopholes get slammed shut and we are once more placed under increasing restrictions to financially recompense the platforms we leech upon.

      Hence why I use the Google example to show it has always been thus — and probably will be again if we only look at social media through the lens of how platforms work today, for our benefit and not the benefit of users or the platform.

      We need to stop leeching and strive for symbiosis. But the traditional old-skool marketing focus on short campaign gain doesn’t motivate long term symbiotic, mutual benefit. Instead it rewards a wham-bam-thankyou-Mam approach, to get as much out of social to justify this month’s client paycheck, while producing some nice numbers for an award submission. Who cares about a year from now when there are clients with campaigns that will be over and done and distant memories by then? (Note: my column in the next issue of CCO is rather critical of agency culture. I don’t expect to be very popular in certain circles afterwards…)

      Social is experiencing exactly the same growing pains now as SEO did a few years ago. This column is my warning that it may happen again and again if we don’t start learning from the past and stop relying on exploiting the ever-changing platforms of today.

  • globalcopywrite

    Hi Jonathon,

    I love your observation that, historically, social media marketers are really just squatters on the channels they frequent. I agree with that but also support the notion that marketers should be building their content on their own property. I still see too many marketing efforts focused on social when they’d be better off investing in original content.

    Maybe the other part to your story is one of the everlasting motives of human nature – we’re always looking for a quick fix, a silver bullet, a crash diet. Clearly, the organisations that take a thoughtful, long-term approach to content will enjoy long-lasting benefits, too – something we haven’t yet realised with social media marketing.

    • Kimota

      Can only agree with that.

    • James Miller

      I really do agree with you. Nothing comes so quick and easy.
      creating a good strategies and focusing on contents really affects a lot.

      • Divya Mishra

        That’s very true @disqus_fOtzOtjPDI:disqus
        Good contents really matters to drive consistent traffic,

  • Vaidhegi Patel

    Hi, Jonathan, your vision for future media is very impressive. I want to share some tips here;

    Recognize your competitors
    Find the successful content shared across social profiles
    Evaluate the viewer’s engagement
    Find the most shared blog content
    Examine opponent tactic

  • Lynn Abate-Johnson

    Great post, Jonathan. This explains why, when a platform updates/changes/morphs, and i hear my crowd belly-aching, i shrug my shoulders and say basically the same you are saying – Focus on the PEOPLE and great content. In essence, i love the way you put it here:

    “History tells us that when we target the algorithm, chasing numbers instead of people, the platform always, ALWAYS bites back.”

    As I continue to focus on the only resource that really matters (people), others will flail and complain. Are there ways to improve even the free services? Sure! Are there methods to use the paid medium to gain a wider, more authentic audience? Of course! Thanks for this reality check. Good stuff. Bravo.

  • Alex Ivanovs

    This is one of those pieces of content that make me realize how grateful I am for doing things that I am truly passionate about.