Shifts in Social Sharing Require Nimble Strategies

Social media strategists know they need to be nimble to keep up with evolution in the various platforms we rely on for engagement. Now’s the time to prepare for less engagement on Facebook and Twitter as audience information seeking and sharing changes.

March 15, 2018

Social media strategists know they need to be nimble to keep up with evolution in the various platforms we rely on for engagement.  Many of them, especially Facebook, make changes without communicating with users or managers about what they’re planning to do.

Social strategists have an added challenge: they must take into account the impact of changes in behavior on social media. What people do on Facebook and Twitter has changed over time. And it appears this change is accelerating now for a number of reasons, two of which are particularly important.

1. Politics
People are changing the way they use social channels, particularity Facebook and Twitter, in our hyper-political environment. For example, I’ve heard from Facebook users who are pulling back from sharing and posting. Why? They’re tired of reading posts from family and friends advocating for radically different political candidates, policies, or positions.

Twitter has become a forum for sharing opinions and a hangout for newsmakers of all political stripes. For example, the Parkland High School students have adopted Twitter as a key channel for advocacy in their #NeverAgain campaign. But many people are tired of the shouting on Twitter, which has overtaken sharing.  I’ve also heard about people stepping away from Twitter because there’s so much trolling on the platform.

2. More Choices
It’s also a fact that there are now many different options for people who want to share interests and news. There are clusters of people sharing and tracking mutual interests on Instagram. Messaging apps and social channels like WhatsApp, SnapChat, and Slack allow for more private sharing between individuals and groups.

Social media is fragmenting and will likely be even more fragmented as the downsides of Facebook and Twitter become even more apparent.

Impact for Higher Ed Marketing and Communications

Its important to be aware of this shifting landscape because most institutions rely primarily on Facebook and Twitter for engagement with stakeholders and there’s no doubt that engagement and sharing on both platforms is declining.

This week, I’m digesting a report from Buzzsumo that explores the changes in how content is being shared on various social channels. [Here’s a great summary and the full report.]

Key findings include:

  • “Content engagement, such as shares, likes, and comments on social networks, has halved since 2015.”
  • “Brands and publishers are gaining less organic referral traffic from Facebook and less engagement with their Facebook posts.”
  • A look at posts across multiple social channels confirms that fewer people are sharing links on these channels.
  • Fewer posts are going viral — almost entirely a result of less sharing on Facebook.

In general, these changes affect commercial publishers and brands more than they do higher ed. I happen to believe that colleges and universities in general are different in that the challenge for most institutions is to nurture enthusiasm that already exists, rather than create it, as commercial brands often have to do.

But higher ed is most certainly affected by other trends, such as the rise of “dark social” sharing. “Dark social” channels are those where links to content are shared privately — through secure messaging apps like WhatsApp, Slack channels — and through email. It’s not only that dark social sharing is significant —Buzzsumo estimates that it accounts for 65 percent of content sharing — but that it’s growing at a time when virality and other sharing appears to be declining. And while you can track engagement on a Facebook post, dark social links are difficult to track. Finally, when people become used to sharing links to news articles and other content through these channels, they won’t switch to Facebook to share something about their university.

What does all this mean for higher ed? Here are some of my observations based on findings and recommendations from the report.

  • As I observed in my last post, Facebook isn’t going away soon and neither is Google. People still use them to find content they’re interested in. The Buzzsumo report, using data from Hubspot, indicates that 52 percent of people find content through search on Google and other search engines and 48 percent use Facebook. This means that investing in SEO (search engine optimization) is important to make sure that people can find your content on Google. And so is Facebook engagement.
  • Promotion is more important than ever. Your promotion strategy should include Facebook ads, custom audiences, etc., and exploring how content can be shared on other social channels. Email remains an important way in which people discover content: according to Hubspot data, 27 percent of people discovered relevant content through email newsletters.
  • One really positive trend from the report is that shares of high-quality content from authoritative sources like The New York Times and Harvard Business Review are increasing. That’s an indication that people really are seeking quality among the flood of content in their social feeds, news readers, and email. It’s more important than ever to focus producing high-quality news, stories, images, and videos — as the Buzzsumo report notes, great quality and fewer posts are better.
  • Interestingly enough, sharing on LinkedIn appears to be growing. So if your institution doesn’t have a LinkedIn strategy, now’s the time to explore getting started.

If you manage social media in #HigherEd, what changes in sharing have you noticed? If you've seen a decline in sharing, what are you doing to compensate? Are you investing seriously in any other social channels?

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