I’ve been seeing a lot written lately about growth hacks and people offering tips and tricks to quickly grow social media audiences. You’ve probably seen them too—posting a certain number of times a day, replying to your own Tweet or using a certain number of hashtags. I have to say, the headlines do grab my attention but upon further examination I’m always unimpressed. Growing an online community through social media is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. A marathon.

Consider all the miles runners put in training for a marathon, the diet considerations, how in-tune they are with their bodies. In my experience, it takes that same kind of endurance and dedication to create a sustainable social media strategy. It takes patience to stick with the program and listen and learn from your audience along the way.

This involves taking the time to do discovery work before you start a new social media account. What is the goal? Consider your content sources, your resources, the audiences you seek to attract. Is it sustainable? Opening a new account should be one of the last steps in your strategic plan, not the first.

And it’s important to stay the course, no matter what shiny new app comes along or how much a platform alters an algorithm.

Solve for engagement, not speed

There is one equation I know to be true for social media. More engagements will organically stretch your reach which = more followers. It’s that simple but it’s not easy.

When Facebook changed its algorithm (again) in January 2021, our reach numbers took a dive, like they have in the past. But we stayed the course, posting content we know our audience on that platform enjoys and values, not altering our strategy. Slowly, our organic reach numbers have been returning to where they were before the new algorithm and it’s taken us more than seven months to get back to where we were.

Right around the same time we saw our Instagram engagement dip, and it appeared to be another alteration with the algorithm.

 

We dug in, started to look at all of our posts at the minutia level and did what I call digital detective work. Why did one Instagram post have 10 more likes than another? We tried to find commonalities among the posts we felt performed well and then repeat it. For instance, we found that when it came to pictures of people, more “active” images where a person is shown with a project they’re working on, like these images below, tended to perform better than posed portrait photos.

 

Sometimes we were right, sometimes we were wrong. But by constantly tweaking and experimenting with our posts to stretch engagements, we were able to keep growing our audience. It was slow but steady.

Remember: Social is a people business, not a numbers game

Growing an audience takes time and constant listening and monitoring. That’s how you get to know your audience—what it likes, its triggers, its sense of humor. When you create a space that attracts people who connect with your culture, that’s when it becomes a community.

This past Valentine’s Day we gave our community a Valentine using their love language—numbers. And we definitely felt the love returned by the engagements and in the comments.

Growing something you care about takes patience and a lot of attention and for me that includes social media. After all these years, the lesson behind “The Tortoise and the Hare” still rings true.