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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.