We spend a lot of time consulting with businesses about success in social media. Inevitably, the question of “engagement” comes up. They’re doing interesting things, created specifically for their target audience, yet their post engagement isn’t keeping pace with their growth. We could assume that the Big 3 social channels have jumped the shark, but let’s not jump to any rash conclusions just yet.

Social media is changing.

Or, more accurately, we are changing social media. Social platforms have always been about how their users, well, use them. Many of the best features of your go-to social channels were created not by the developers, but by someone who saw an opportunity, or lack thereof, in how to interact with their community. For instance, hashtags were essentially born on Twitter when one person suggested that the # symbol could be used to keep track of news and notes as it related to particular groups or events – something many on the platform were clamouring for. It caught fire, and Twitter took notice. They later officially embraced the convention, which then spread to Instagram and just about every other social and digital platform (with varying degrees of usefulness *cough* Facebook). The term “Tweet” didn’t even come from the people at Twitter (in fact, they initially fought against the term before likely realizing that riding the wave was a better way to serve their community. Instagram Direct was a product of people taking links or screenshots and sharing them outside of Instagram’s walls.

Enough history for now. The point is, social media is most effective when it’s most useful.

What we’re seeing today is a gradual increase in user numbers, but a relatively sharp decline in average engagement. But if more people are using the platforms, why is engagement falling off a cliff? The easy explanation is: The Algorithm. With more people creating more content, the algorithms do their best to display what we’re most likely to be interested in at any given time so we’re not overloaded with content. So, if we’re only seeing what we want to see, shouldn’t that mean that engagement should be hockey sticking its way up the charts? Maybe. But many people have also complained that the algorithms don’t work as well to surface relevant content as Zuck would have us believe. That’s why the easy explanation doesn’t tell us the whole story.

So, why do the users keep coming?

What the charts aren’t exactly showing us is the sharp increase in distribution. There are more digital platforms than ever, so we don’t have to spend our entire day glued to any one in particular, but that also means that not every one of our friends/colleagues/grandmas is in the same place. So we copy/paste, screenshot, text, FWD: FWD: FWD (looking at you, Granny), etc. It’s also partially the result of just about everything we do in Social being available for the world to see. When we tag a friend in an Instagram post, anyone can get a window into how subversive our sense of humour might be. When we DM the post instead, we can shield ourselves, at least in part, from judgment. In most cases, this “Dark Social” engagement doesn’t show up in monthly reports, but the fact is that great content is having a greater impact than ever before, it just happens to be more decentralized than we’ve become used to.

What do we do now?

First, divorce yourself from the idea that followers and engagement are the only indicators of success. Second, embrace the change. Powerful messages and creative are going to continue to rule the traditional social media platforms. But existing channels are also adapting, and new ones are popping up almost daily, with an aim to build an even stronger user/customer connection. Facebook split off Messenger into a standalone app, which is now also used by business Pages; WhatsApp is rolling out business profiles; Apple is introducing Business Chat that allows businesses to interact with customers via iMessage. These engagement stats are not necessarily going to show up publicly, and they’re not going to be ruled by algorithms. What they are going to be ruled by are users who are looking for answers, and our success, in many ways, will depend on whether we’re there to help. So consider adding some new metrics to your reports – ones that may be a little less convenient to uncover:

All of this, combined with your regularly scheduled reports (you do have those, right?) can help to build a better picture of your brand’s online presence, and the power of the content you’re creating. What I believe we’re seeing now is not the decline of social media, but an evolution that’s actually creating more pockets of social conversation, which begs the question: What platform might be coming that will take advantage of this shift in behaviour?