Rhodri Marsden: Why social-media marketing is about to get really sneaky

The inexorable expansion of social media presents the Facebooks and Twitters of this world with a problem: how to prevent us from waking up one morning and thinking, 'Sod this, I quit'

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The Independent Tech

When we’ve eaten too much cake, our bodies tell us that we’ve over-indulged and should probably stop.

We don’t always listen, but the information is provided nonetheless. There are also clear indicators when we should stop drinking – treading in dog bowls, singing “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” – and friends will ultimately advise us to put down the bottle if we continue to lurch about.

Social media, however, is a trickier beast. Signs that we might be suffering through having made too many connections tend to be diluted by fun stuff, interesting stuff, and so we continue to friend and follow on the assumption that it’ll ultimately bring more good things our way. And we don’t just reach out to other people; we connect with brands, too, on the promise of sweeteners or freebies, creating a multifarious digital soup.

This inexorable expansion of social media presents the Facebooks and Twitters of this world with a problem: how to prevent us from waking up one morning, looking at our timelines or news feeds and thinking, “Sod this, I’ve got no idea who these people are or what they’re on about. I quit.”

Their goal is to find out what we like, push that stuff at us and allow everything else to fade into the background. To that end, Facebook recently did a survey asking what we don’t like; unsurprisingly we said, well, we’re not fond of brands promoting themselves. (Because that’s easier than saying, “My mate Steve posts conspiracy theory nonsense but I can’t unfriend him because he borrowed my lawnmower and I need it back.”)

As a consequence, Facebook has decided that from January, brands posting promotional messages “with no real context” will be actively suppressed on the news feeds of all Facebook members. All those page “likes” that businesses and organisations have spent years building up will effectively become worthless. If they want to reach people, well, they’re going to have to pay for advertising, just like in the good old days.

It’s part of a longer-term back-pedalling strategy for Facebook. Businesses that run “pages” wail openly online about how posts that once reached tens of thousands of people now only reach a few hundred. It’s no coincidence that Facebook’s ad sales are booming as businesses seek to match their social-media achievements of yesteryear by splurging hard cash.

But while those of us with vaguely anti-corporate leanings punch the air at this example of “sticking it to the man”, pages are also run by local theatre groups, or bands, or charities, or cupcake emporiums that bear no similarity to Microsoft or Mercedes-Benz. They found that Facebook was a good way of reaching people, but are now finding their pitches actively suppressed from the timelines of people who indicated interest by pressing the “like” button.

Facebook will find it impossible to please everyone, of course, and if it’s going to make some people cross, it may as well make some money in the process. But the new challenge for page owners is to sidestep this potential suppression of their posts by coming up with engaging content that has precious little to do with the business they’re seeking to promote.

Social-media marketing, as a result, is becoming all about sneaking under the radar by not going on about yourself too much. We individuals, by contrast, will be reassured to hear that we’re allowed to keep banging on about ourselves and our meagre achievements without any fear of reprisal. Jump to it.