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Written by Dorcas Adisa
Published on October 30, 2023
Reading time 16 minutes
Social media algorithms can be a powerful ally in growing one’s online audience. Think of it as a virtual matchmaker designed to match users with content that suits their interests. Just as matchmakers strive to make meaningful connections, algorithms analyze user behavior, interactions and interests to understand their content preferences and deliver personalized content.
As algorithms continuously evolve and become more complex, social media marketers must embrace change, adapt swiftly and navigate these algorithmic shifts. The best strategy is to stay updated on trends and optimize your social strategy to maximize engagement.
This guide covers everything about social media algorithms, including important factors to watch out for and how to adapt your social media marketing strategies accordingly.
An algorithm is a series of instructions designed to solve specific problems, perform tasks or make decisions. In computer programming, algorithms direct the computer’s actions, such as sorting elements, locating data or identifying objects.
In social media, algorithms are rules, signals and data that govern the platform’s operation. These algorithms determine how content is filtered, ranked, selected and recommended to users. In some ways, algorithms influence our choices and what we see on social media.
Every social media platform comprises a mix of users with different preferences. Without a filtering system, users must navigate through a flood of posts, which can be overwhelming.
This is where algorithms come into play. Social media platforms employ sophisticated algorithms as intelligent guides, carefully sorting and matching content to audiences with similar preferences. Understanding the ins and outs of algorithms and why they are important is essential for any social media marketing strategy:
When a new TikTok video or a Facebook post is published, it joins millions of other content pieces online. Algorithms function as librarians, sorting and connecting users with their preferences. This prevents overwhelming users with endless content and helps them find what they like faster. Algorithms enable users to uncover valuable posts, connect with like-minded individuals and explore their interests.
Social media platforms use sophisticated algorithms to prolong user engagement. These algorithms control content visibility, sequence and recommendations based on user data like actions, behaviors and interests. For instance, if you interact with gadget-related posts, you’ll see more of such content. This personalization improves user engagement and in turn, creates a positive user experience.
Today, users have greater control over their content experience. Algorithms leverage data to personalize content recommendations. On platforms like Instagram, you can customize your feed by hiding posts, filtering comments, or selecting “Not interested” to curate your content.
Understanding social media algorithms can boost your online social presence. As more users find your content, the algorithm becomes better at targeting users with similar interests. Creators and marketers can optimize their content for algorithms to leverage its distribution potential. When a post gains high engagement, the algorithm promotes it to a wider audience.
Understanding how social media algorithms work is like unraveling the intricate threads that govern the digital tapestry of user experiences. These algorithms, like invisible guides, determine the content on our feeds. Let’s explore how social media algorithms function and how social teams can take advantage of it.
Algorithmic-driven content curation systems such as the Facebook News Feed and Instagram Feed monitor user behavior, interests and actions to recommend relevant content. For instance, if you engage with basketball content, you’ll likely see more of it.
These algorithms aim to refine content suggestions by adapting and learning from user interactions, ensuring content remains relevant.
Algorithms collect user signals to match them with relevant content. Key signals include:
If you use any social media platforms, there’s a huge chance that you’ve come in contact with the algorithm in play. Here are some examples you might have missed.
Every social media platform has its unique algorithm for content curation and display. These platforms look for specific ranking signals to discern user preferences. Let’s explore some social media platforms and their platform-specific rank signals to keep in mind.
The Twitter algorithm is an AI-powered algorithm designed to curate content based on the user’s interests, preferences and past interactions rather than chronologically. According to Twitter, their algorithm looks through about 500 million daily Tweets to display only relevant ones on your timeline.
In 2023, the updated Twitter algorithm considers:
With over 2 billion active users, Facebook is the largest social media platform yet. To moderate content on the platform, Facebook employs several algorithms to determine what content users will find interesting. The updated algorithm considers:
Facebook’s algorithm combines these signals to give the post a relevancy score, which predicts how likely a user is to interact with a post.
Instagram’s algorithm is one of the most diverse social media platforms. According to Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri, Instagram is divided into 5 sections: Feed, Stories, Explore, Reels, Search. Each section uses algorithms, classifiers and processes to tailor content recommendations based on user behavior.
Your Instagram feed is a mix of content from accounts you follow, similar profiles you’re likely to enjoy and personalized ads. In the feed, posts are ranked based on several signals:
Stories is an in-app feature that allows users to post photos or videos that disappear after 24 hours. Here’s what it looks like:
The ranking factors for stories are quite similar to those of the IG Feed. Stories use engagement signals such as:
Explore simplifies the discovery of new posts without needing active search. Here’s what it looks like on Instagram:
The grid comprises content recommendations from accounts you don’t follow but Instagram believes you might enjoy. Signals Instagram considers include:
Reels are designed for users to explore new content from accounts they don’t follow, similar to Explore. Key signals for Reels content include:
TikTok’s algorithm is a recommendation system designed to curate the For You Feed for each user considering the following signals:
YouTube’s algorithm considers many signals to rank videos on its homepage, including:
LinkedIn’s algorithm uses several ranking signals that contribute to the success of a post on the platform. Here are some to watch out for:
The Pinterest algorithm ranks content using key ranking signals such as:
Reddit’s algorithm is designed to rank content based on what’s Hot and Best, guided by key signals like:
If you use Tumblr for marketing, here are some signals to watch out for:
To stay ahead of the algorithm and leverage its potential for business growth, you must understand how it works and its governing rules. Through trial and error, we’ve learned several ever-green principles to help you stay ahead of the algorithm.
Social media algorithms favor highly engaging content with tons of comments, shares and likes. More engagement equals better chances of going viral. To encourage comments, ask questions that resonate with your audience. Ask their take on trending topics or go bold with thought-provoking inquiries to spark conversations.
While a question-based CTA is great for encouraging conversations, doing it right is what matters. Avoid controversial or offensive questions to foster positive discussion.
Tagging on social media involves mentioning someone by their username (or handle) in a post, comment or image, creating a clickable link to their profile. For example, a fashion curation account on Instagram may post several looks and tag the content creators or designers.
Tagging accounts in your posts boosts collaboration, brand exposure and visibility. On platforms like Instagram, tagging someone in a picture gets it featured in their “Photos of You” section, expanding your reach to their followers.
It’s good practice to reach out to accounts you tag and explain why before doing so. Ensure you have an established relationship with the account and, more importantly, that the post is relevant to the audience.
Hashtags categorize posts and boost post discoverability to a wider audience.
Use hashtags strategically; don’t go overboard. Stick to 3-5 hashtags to avoid overwhelming your audience and hurting visibility. Also, skip overly saturated hashtags and opt for focused ones. For example, rather than using hashtags like #InteriorDesign with 175M posts on Instagram, substitute for a smaller hashtag like #InteriorDesignTrends with 484,000 posts.
To find hashtags, use the autocomplete function on the social media platform you’re posting on. A better way is to use a social media management tool like Sprout Social. With Sprout, you can use social listening to monitor trending hashtags and select the best ones for your brand based on performance, sentiment and demographics.
When you post matters as much as what you post. Timing is a key ranking signal for many algorithms to rank a post. This means that a high-quality post, created for a defined audience, can underperform if posted at the wrong time.
The best posting times vary based on your audience, industry and platform, but generally, aim to post when your audience is online for maximum visibility and interaction. In our research, we found that the best time to post on social media generally is between 9 a.m. to noon.
Using Sprout’s ViralPost® takes out the guesswork about the best time to post for your industry. ViralPost analyzes your individual audience data and suggests optimal timing for each social platform you use.
There’s no universal answer to how often you should post on social media. It depends on several factors, but one thing is certain: Growing on social media requires consistency. Instagram’s algorithm, for example, prioritizes the recency of a post as a key signal for ranking content.
A personal philosophy is to post only when the content is relevant to avoid overwhelming your followers. Use a social media calendar to plan your content and schedule your posts to stay organized. Sprout Social gives you the flexibility of planning and streamlining your workflow without much hassle.
Video outperforms text-based content on social media platforms because it’s easier to understand, conveys messages quickly and adds a personal touch.
When creating a social media video marketing strategy, creativity is key. Share behind-the-footage of your product, create how-to videos or share an office tour with your audience—find your best mix of content. Make it exciting and engaging to watch, so your audience has a reason to stay.
Optimize schedule, and promote your video using a management tool like Sprout. For example, Sprout’s YouTube publishing options let you fine-tune categories, playlists, privacy settings and thumbnails. Manage and schedule your posts conveniently from your social media calendar for optimal timing.
One principle that stands the test of algorithmic changes is creating content that’s highly relevant to your audience. Social media platforms prioritize engaging, high-quality content that elicits positive reactions.
Creating engaging captions depends on your audience and the platform, which guides posting times and content choices. For example, while long-form captions work for LinkedIn’s professional audience, shorter captions work best on Instagram. It’s best to test and learn.
Start your post with a strong hook. Aim to educate, entertain, promote or interact with your audience. Be concise, provide value and avoid unnecessary jargon. Conclude with a call-to-action (CTA) encouraging reader interaction.
Test multiple content types—videos, text or images—to determine what resonates with your audience and track the social metrics (think: impressions, clicks and views) to identify top-performing posts.
If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that there is no absolute when it comes to what is successful on social media; it all depends on what works for your audience. Experiment with different types of content, like videos, photos or live streams, to see what resonates with your audience. In our recent Content Benchmark Report, we found that consumers found short-form videos the most engaging.
Run A/B tests on your content types at different times and track the analytics for engagement using Sprout analytic and reporting tools. Once you find the right combination, replicate its success. Stay creative and remain open to exploring other content types.
Don’t forget to monitor your content’s performance. Define clear goals and KPIs aligned with your business objectives. Ensure your goals are specific, measurable, achievable and relevant to your business’s objectives.
Track common metrics like reach, impressions, engagements, likes, shares and mentions. Use Sprout’s analytics feature to track metrics in real-time and generate reports.
Embrace newly released features to showcase your creativity and adaptability. Platforms reward creators who experiment with their new features. They want more people to use these new features, so early adopters are often rewarded with higher visibility.
The fact is, without AI, social media wouldn’t exist in the first place. AI has played a significant role in developing and curating algorithms to learn about users and make deliberate decisions based on the collected data.
Here are some ways AI plays a role in social media algorithms:
Social media platforms use AI to detect fake news and filter out offensive, harmful and disrespectful content. For instance, Twitter uses machine-learning models, AI-driven algorithms, user reporting and human moderation teams to identify and flag misinformation. The algorithm analyzes the tweet content and account history to fact-check the accuracy of the information shared.
It’s fair to say that social media can be unpleasant due to trolls who engage in offensive behavior, such as making hateful comments and, in worse situations, harassment.
To maintain quality discussions, platforms employ content moderation tools to identify suspicious posts and comments. For instance, Reddit uses machine learning models to spot suspicious comments, which are further reviewed by human moderators. Likewise, Facebook uses an AI tool to detect abuse and fraud in posts, images and videos, with human reviewers stepping in when needed.
AI-driven algorithms segment users based on explicit (follows and likes) and implicit (video-watching time) details to personalize content recommendations. Users can select preferred keywords, follow hashtags or hide inappropriate words in their Feeds and DMs.
User data, including feedback, actions and behavior informs content recommendations and suggests related posts with similar keywords.
AI algorithms have the capacity to collect, process and analyze data as soon as it is generated. Platforms like Facebook, which records billions of daily users, use generative AI for rapid predictions, understanding user relationships and addressing security issues in real time.
When users log into Facebook, the AI algorithm immediately tracks their in-app behavior, including user engagement, content performance and trending topics, to offer personalized recommendations.
The key to winning with algorithms is understanding how they work. Understand the best practices for satisfying the algorithm and you’ll be on your way to increasing your engagement and growing your audience base.
If you want to learn more about how businesses are harnessing social media for growth, read our report on The 2023 State of Social Media: AI & Data Take Center Stage.
Social Media Algorithm Frequently Asked Questions
What are the downsides to social media algorithms?
Social media algorithms often favor big accounts with huge followings. As a result, smaller accounts may experience reduced organic reach.
Social media algorithms often favor big accounts with huge followings. As a result, smaller accounts may experience reduced organic reach.
A social media algorithm is a set of rules, signals and data that governs how content is filtered, ranked and recommended to users on the platform.
Check official blogs, social channels and newsrooms of social channels. You should also follow industry experts and influencers for insights on new algorithm changes.
The most common signals are user engagement metrics, post frequency and timing, content quality, content relevance and other platform-specific criteria.
Social media algorithms undergo regular updates, ranging from minor tweaks to major overhauls, to enhance their effectiveness.
Dorcas Adisa is a freelance writer for B2B SaaS and tech brands. She loves three things to the extreme: reading, writing, and watching food videos. She covers topics on marketing, customer experience, product management, remote work, and more. Feel free to reach out on LinkedIn or say hello on Twitter.
Read all articles by Dorcas Adisa
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