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I’ll admit it. I’m on a crusade to save social media marketing.

Not that I think I can do that all by myself, but because it’s a subject that deserves all of our attention right now.

As I wrote here on Marketing Land back in March of this year, social media marketing is in near-crisis mode, and only the adoption of mature, time-proven, sustainable marketing methods can save it. And I do think it’s worth saving.

In this month’s column, I want to address one of the tactics I believe has been kept around far past its expiration date: mass production.

What do I mean by “mass production?” I’m including any method of publishing, sharing or engaging with social media content that occurs at a mass scale, including social media automation. For simplicity’s sake, when I refer to mass production in the rest of this post, I’m including automation.

The (bad) good old days

Once upon a time, mass production was touted as one of the chief advantages of social media. It became standard practice, especially as social platforms opened up APIs and various vendors created third-party tools using those APIs.

Mass production helped make social media the darling of digital marketing departments. Some even predicted that social media’s scalability, relatively low cost, vast reach and micro-targeting abilities would cause it to overtake or even replace other channels, such as search engine optimization (SEO).

I’d be a fool to deny that mass production techniques had benefits. Social media became the fastest way for businesses to build a huge audience, promote their content and products/services and enjoy lots of new metrics never before available (follower counts, engagements, reshares and so on).

The allure of automation and mass production is powerful, and indeed they are not evil in and of themselves. We wouldn’t have the array of abundant, low-cost food and consumer goods much of our world enjoys today without them.

But at a human scale, going “mass” often breaks down. In the world in general, we’re becoming aware that mass can have its costs, whether in the effects on our environment or on our bodies (Have another cheeseburger. They’re cheap!).

Hence the “bad” in the “good old days” heading of this section. With all the good that mass production did for social media, there were costs and consequences that few noticed or heeded.

The joy ride is over

Over the past eight months or so, the social media marketing world experienced a series of shocks and wake-up calls. I document them more thoroughly in my post titled Social media in 2018: Time to grow up or get out, so I won’t go into detail here, but here’s a quick review of some of the tremors:

  • Facebook radically altered its news feed algorithm to further limit brand content and also cracked down on news content veracity.
  • Twitter severely limited mass automation for posting, engaging and following and eliminated hundreds of thousands of fake and bot accounts.
  • BuzzSumo documented that social sharing overall has been in a long and steady decline.
  • Increasing numbers of users are turning to “dark social,” sharing only on private messaging apps or other means not visible to marketers.
  • Privacy concerns are causing both users and governments to limit or eliminate user tracking data.
  • Influencer scandals have made their use (at least at the celebrity influencer level) less attractive.
  • Ad blocker installation and use continue to grow.

All these trends and more added up to a clear message: The era of mass automated social media production is coming to a close.

Why we should be glad mass social media is on the way out

While I would stop short of recommending the complete abandonment of mass production and automation in social media marketing, it’s time to admit that they were always more of an addiction than a true best practice. As I’ll detail below, they provided a rush of big numbers and the illusion of massive reach while shortchanging what social media actually does best.

While most of the shock waves listed above only hit relatively recently, there were signs all along that mass scaling wasn’t returning all of its promised rewards.

Content fatigue
Once we marketers discover a good thing, we’re eager to do way too much of it. We’re like the 49ers of the California Gold Rush, with millions of us pouring everything into chasing after what proved to be a finite resource.

In our case, that resource wasn’t gold, but instead the attention of social media users. Each user can only give so much time to content in a given day. Thanks largely to automation, they were exposed to dozens and then hundreds (and in some cases even thousands) of pieces of content each day. It was inevitable that content inflation would lead to reduced audience attention, but in the heady days of free mass social media distribution, no one wanted to hear that.

It’s clear in hindsight that declining readership of brand content was not just the fault of social networks limiting organic reach. Even without those controls, it was just mathematically impossible to sustain the same level of attention for an ever-increasing volume of content. In fact, I believe that without the network controls, our situation would have been even worse.

Engagement decline
The abovementioned BuzzSumo study showed social sharing had gone down by half since 2015, but that shouldn’t have come as a surprise to any observant marketers. Aside from the occasional (and increasingly rare) viral post, most of us noticed that our posts on most social networks, Facebook chief among them, were rapidly declining in reach over the past few years.

Even if reach were higher, engagement per post would probably still be declining because of the simple law of supply and demand: more and more content chasing after the attention of a finite number of viewers equals less engagement per post.

We’re never going to return to those days of huge organic reach. Why not? Read on!

Carrot and stick incentives
As I stated in my March column, what’s happening in social media now is like “deja vu all over again” for any of us who also follow the SEO world. A number of years ago, Google realized it was losing a Cold War arms race against SEOs who found search rankings far too easy to manipulate.

So Google invested heavily in machine-learning-based algorithms that were able to detect such gaming at mass scale. Over time, professional SEOs who wanted to build long-term value in their sites realized it was better to join Google than fight it.

The wonderful unforeseen consequence of that development was that the Web got better. Why? Because what Google was pushing with its ranking-boost carrot and search-penalty stick actually aligned with what was better for users. That meant SEOs trying to comply with Google ended up creating higher quality content on more user-friendly sites.

I believe we are seeing something similar happening in social media. The major social media platforms came to realize that marketers were using them in ways that threatened their business goals. Shabby, click-bait content; constant pushing for engagement and mass following; deceptive practices and fake news; all of these were causing deep dissatisfaction among users.

People go to social media to be entertained and distracted, to catch up on relationships and sometimes to be informed. Commercial content on social media was degrading that experience, and actually leaving users depressed. Depressed, unhappy users will use the platform less, or even cease using it altogether.

So we shouldn’t be surprised the social networks are taking steps that resemble what Google did years ago, cracking down on the kind of content and practices that threaten their business goals of more people spending more time on their platforms.

Here’s to the good new days

What remains to be seen is whether social media marketers will take the cue and embrace the carrot rather than complain about the stick. It took SEOs a while to make that shift, but most professionals in that field will now admit, however much they might still occasionally pine for the old days when tricks and hacks were all you needed, that not only is the web better now but their jobs are more interesting and more rewarding.

The sooner social media marketers realize that future wins in social will come from working with the social networks instead of against them, the sooner they learn that the goals of higher-quality content and better user experience are in their own interest, the sooner social media marketing will have emerged into its mature stage. By the time this all occurs, I’m sure I’ll find something else to crusade about.