Over the past few years, social media marketing has shifted a great deal, and we’ve almost reached a point where what works to drive engagement and clicks on a social network one day, may not the next.
This fast paced movement and rapid change isn’t an accident. It’s an essential part of any social network’s progression.
If you look closely at the evolution of the biggest social networks out there, a trend emerges and two clear periods of opportunity stand out for marketers.
We call it the law of the double-peak, and it’s a transition every social network goes through:
The two peaks of opportunity on any social network
The organic peak
When a social network is emerging and growing towards mainstream popularity, the key opportunity for brands tends to be organic reach (Facebook circa 2009, Instagram in 2015, Snapchat in 2016).
At this stage, individuals and brands who want to build an audience are usually focused on figuring out the platform (what do users want to see? which metrics matter?) and creating engaging, unique content that carries their brand message.
During the organic growth phase business KPIs often focus on building an audience, engagement, and amplification (shares, RTs, for example).
The paid peak
As a social network matures, organic reach and engagement will start to plateau and eventually begin to drop. The tactics that helped you build an audience will become increasingly less efficient and what you have now is a system that works a lot more like Google Adwords, or any other more established form of advertising, where reach is paid for.
The transition from organic to paid is an emotional one for marketers, and it takes some adjustment. Not everybody gets to find you organically anymore, and the tactics you’ve honed to increase organic reach are no longer as successful. But when you take a step back, there’s also an enormous opportunity to drive even greater value for your business through paid channels.
As networks transition towards the paid peak, business KPIs tend to become far more focused on driving clicks, conversions, downloads, and sales.
The law of the double-peak in action
From around 2009 to 2012, Facebook was the place to build an audience organically. With an understanding of what content people were craving and engaging with on Facebook; some creative ideas and brilliant execution you could build a substantial audience without directly paying for it.
That’s not to say it was easy to build an audience organically between 2009 to 2012, but it was certainly doable, and a large number of brands had a ton of success with brilliant, creative content (and tiny advertising budgets).
Between 2011 and 2012, Facebook hit the organic peak. And starting around April 2012, Facebook’s organic reach begun to plateau at around 16 percent as the social network began to edge brands into sponsoring posts to increase reach.
From 2012 to 2014, as Facebook matured as a business, organic reach plummeted so much so that in 2014 organic reach had dropped to around six percent for all pages and for large pages with more than 500,000 likes, the number was just two percent.
The below graph from [email protected]’s “Facebook Zero: Considering Life After the Demise of Organic Reach,” highlights this demise:
When reach hit as low as two percent in February 2014, Facebook had all but become a pay-to-play advertising platform and the below chart from Business Insider shows the rise of Facebook’s desktop and mobile advertising revenue:
Now, in 2016, there are still tremendous opportunity to market your business on Facebook, but it’s shifted from organic to paid, and those who have been maximizing the value of Facebook dark posts and the social network’s other advertising products over the past year-or-so have seen significant results.
Based on a survey, 78 percent of social marketers told Forrester they’re very satisfied with the value Facebook ads provide.
As with any advertising platform, Facebook will gradually become more and more saturated (there are already over three million advertisers on Facebook) and the late adopters probably won’t see the same disproportionate success as current advertisers. But it’ll still be one of the most powerful advertising platforms we’ve ever seen.
The three stages of social network growth (and the tactics you need at each stage)
When any new social network launches, it’s first and most important challenge is to find product / market fit and at this stage, many of the users will be techies, marketers and the early adopters who jump on all the latest products and trends to test the water.
From a brand and business perspective, it’s worth paying attention to, understanding the user behavior and experimenting with platforms at the early adopter stage ready for
when if it hits the mainstream. But the vast majority of time and dollars should be focused on mainstream and mature networks where you can reach a larger number of your audience.
When a network is at the early adopters stage it’ll usually go one of two ways: it’ll disappear, or continue growth towards mainstream popularity. And it’s only when platforms begin to march towards the mainstream that they’re worth fully investing in (for example, how Snapchat has grown in the past 12 months).
Products at this stage:
Key takeaway: When a promising new social network emerges, start testing the water to figure out how your business could use the platform if it continues to grow
When a product first hits the mainstream, there tend to be huge opportunities to grow an audience organically – great content still standsout, and organic clicks and views are high. Eventually, though, as the platform becomes more crowded, organic reach will plateau and gradually drop.
This happens for a couple of reasons:
- Content overload: As networks grow our feeds become increasingly cluttered, making it hard for us to find the content that matters to us most. If advertisers want their content to appear next to important updates from those closest to us, then they’ll need to pay (and make their advert relevant).
- The business is maturing: As startups grow, they need to start bringing in revenue, and most times, their most valuable resource is user eyeballs.
As organic reach starts to drop, a good strategy is to transition from ad spend focused on growing your following and concentrate more on clicks and conversions.
Products at this stage:
- Snapchat (climbing towards the organic peak)
- Instagram (beginning to transition to an algorithmic feed and building its Facebook-integrated ad platform)
- Twitter (still figuring out what it is)
Key takeaway: If you start to see encouraging results from a social network as it moves towards the mainstream, go all in and try to drive as much ROI as possible as it progresses towards the organic peak
When a network becomes mature organic reach is next to zero, and for brands and businesses, this means to reach anyone aside from your biggest fans you’ll need to pay.
If you’ve built up a good following during the early adopter and mainstream periods of growth, you can still test and optimize organic reach on a mature platform. But the vast majority of clicks and traffic will come from paid marketing.
Products at this stage:
Key takeaway: Put effort into maintaining the community you’ve built on a mature platform, but switch to a paid marketing mindset when it comes to key business goals. Think about how campaigns can drive sales, downloads or whichever key metric is most important to you