Op Ed: The Increasingly Uneven Social Media Playing Field

This is an opinion post from Andy White, the Director of Social Business Strategy at Sprout Social.

Recently I spent several days at a social media conference where I took 20-minute sessions with individuals looking for help or advice with their businesses’ social. Before going in I didn’t know quite what to expect. We have a tendency to become removed from the realities of what SMBs deal with when we only hear of Taco Bell going dark or Arby’s winning the Grammys in the industry press and think pieces. Those big brands and their successes have a tendency to cloud the realities of the more complex world we market within.

Listening to those questions and concerns first hand was eye-opening, and almost every person I talked to was laser-focused on Facebook. Social promised the world to small and large businesses alike, and yet the realities of today’s social media landscape mean it’s increasingly difficult to deliver on that promise – particularly on Facebook. The individuals I met were stymied and frustrated, locked out of the communities they worked hard to build. They came for ideas and knowledge to help with that problem and left empty-handed.

I heard how a particular business, a company no different than any other American SMB, had taken years of time and money and invested it in its Facebook Page and its community. It had nurtured and built a following, a group of people who voluntarily said they wanted to keep informed of a business they liked. This business had invested money into buying followers because others had told them that is how it worked. Now, unlocking that audience was an impossibility without paid media, and yet they had no budgeted money to buy paid media of any significance. I listened and heard nothing less than exasperation.

Another brand, a much larger business with more than 1 million fans, was perplexed that its posts averaged no more than 50 Likes. A million ‘fans’ had voluntarily said to Facebook, “Yes, I want to hear what this business has to say,” yet they were all but inaccessible.

It’s quite easy to remove yourself from this situation when it’s not right in front of your face and say that this is Facebook the publicly traded company, that brands shouldn’t expect a free ride. But that doesn’t make the reality of the situation any easier for the world’s SMBs.

The delineation between paid, owned, and earned is blurred when describing the Facebook community and the brand to which it is attached. It was once all of the above, and now, increasingly, the owned and the earned fall away, when you find yourself locked out of all but a fraction of one percent. What I’m trying to say is that SMBs thought they had a degree of ownership over the audiences they had built. And the challenges of reaching and connecting with that audience are only going to get tougher.

The rules of the game for businesses on Facebook have changed dramatically in just the past few weeks, and none of those changes will make it any easier for any organization – big or small, but especially an SMB – to connect with its audience. Removing what Facebook is calling ‘overly promotional posts’ could well be the final nail in the coffin for SMBs to break through on that network without resorting to paid media.

Has the promise of social for businesses gone up in smoke, as far as Facebook is concerned? Maybe so for SMBs that had bet on a relatively easy ride on the wave of a combined paid/owned/earned audience; but not for SMBs that are willing to invest, not necessarily money, but definitely time and resources into their efforts.

Good content will always precede engagement, and having had a prior individual engagement is the only way to assure appearance in the News Feed organically. The days of cutting and pasting cookie-cutter updates across all networks or pushing overly sales-ridden posts and expecting a return are over. Never before have businesses needed a dedicated social media person who understands the realities of the industry so badly. Start seeing social for what it is – a platform for your business, one that is a testament to who you are and what you do – and not a silver bullet that’s going to reach out and hit thousands of unaware individuals.

There’s always been an uneven playing field in business. That isn’t new and nor is it going away any time soon. So maybe we should be looking at this more as an expectations reset. Virality and reach will always be something we chase, but engagement on an individual level will always be a core strength of social, regardless of platform or budget. So it’s a case of start with that and go from there.