How to create engagement in an environment of social media overload

Last Modified: 19-2-2019 17:56

Social Media

I don't know about you, but I'm busy. I took a three month break from Facebook recently and yet my time was still fully accounted for. It's not that I don't find social media interesting or useful, but rather that it can become a huge time waster. In part, this can be due to the nature of social media itself and its addictive pull, but often it can be as a result of shoddy marketing filling up social feeds with low quality content. Google has had to contend with this issue for years with low quality content in search results, so it's nothing new, however the difference with social media compared to search is the sheer volume of content viewers are bombarded with. In this article, I'm going to use myself as an example and explore what content I engage with, what turns me off, and what to learn from it.

Use the right social media platform for the right kind of posts

I'm an avid photographer, and I paint sometimes as well, so it was fairly natural that I'd be drawn to Instagram. I love discovering beautiful images. I run a regional website, and use Instagram to post images of interesting scenery, architecture and events from around the region, and I follow various photographers and the likes of National Geographic for inspiring stories from around the world. So far so good!

Where I've found things start to get a bit silly exploring local hashtags, I'll find places like local wineries posting endless photos of bottles of wine. Look, I enjoy the occasional glass of wine, but by the time I've seen a dozen wine bottles, they all look the same, and rather boring. No engagement there! Instagram is a visual platform, so if you don't have something visually interesting, you're not going to create much genuine engagement, and you're better to avoid the platform, or rethink your strategy. Could the winery example be fixed to create genuine engagement? I actually think yes. Think of a Hollywood blockbuster with your favourite stars, and then think of product placement. An engaging story just happens to prominently expose a product in strategic locations. Fortunately you don't need to have a blockbuster budget to achieve this with social media, but you do need to think up a strategy (or have someone do it for you) of how you're going to create a compelling story. Even if I knew ultimately someone was trying to sell me wine, if I saw that wine bottle in lots of stunning locations, or maybe with a funny story with regular new instalments - I might just be induced to like or follow. If you can't come up with something visually interesting, you probably shouldn't be on Instagram.

I've mentioned Instagram, as it's a social media platform that I've frequently seen used poorly because people have been convinced they have to be there without considering how to use it effectively, but the same principle of using social media appropriately for marketing applies to all media. I've also seen Facebook pages that are either neglected, or filled with 'filler' posts obviously provided by some marketing agency, that clearly don't have much to do with the business concerned, and there's little real engagement. There's this tension where conventional wisdom is that you've got to be posting on a regular basis to maintain engagement, so some people post content of little value just to keep the content mill going. The other extreme is people who have genuinely interesting content, but just publish so much of it that it swamps everything else. Much as I love National Geographic, I sometimes get frustrated having to scroll through what seems like dozens of their posts to see anything from anyone else.

Here's a list of some of the main social platforms I have experience with and what they're best for in my opinion.

  • Facebook - General customer engagement, feedback and conversation.
  • Twitter - Updates, alerts and announcements such as when you're running a promotion, have new product, or have a new blog post.
  • Instagram - Create visually compelling stories around your brand. (Works particulalry well for photographers, artists)
  • Linked In - Professional updates relating to your industry
  • Flickr/500px/Google Photos - If you've got a lot of images to showcase consider one of these rather than Instagram. Bulk uploading to Instagram can get you temporarily banned, and it floods people's feeds with your photos which is likely to annoy people. Sometimes you want to post an entire album at once, and dedicated photo sharing sites are best for this. Flikr used to be the go-to site for photos, but it certainly isn't as active as it used to be which is why I've included alternatives, but it still is quite a bit platform.

Finally, don't forget that regardless of social media, your website is still important too. It's where you have the most control, and you should ensure that people can connect with you through your website. Quite a few sites now have live chat software so that if a visitor wants to ask questions they can get an immediate response. This can be effective, but don't be too aggressive. It's handy to be able to engage with a real person if I want to, but I don't want to be pestered if I'm just browsing. Imagine wandering into a store and having a shop assistant following you around everywhere after you've told them you're just browsing.

Instead of relying on a Facebook Page or group, consider installing forum software so that you can keep the discussion on your own site, if your business offers products or services that generate a lot of discussion. This keeps people on your site, and exposes post topics to search engines so that people get directed to your site rather than a social media platform. Forums can take some management, but they can provide much better control over organisation of posts, so if someone posted something months ago that remains relevant to other people, you can make it easy to find, whereas with Facebook or Twitter, this may not be so much the case.

Be Authentic

"Fake News" is probably one of the most used terms regarding the internet in recent times. It's not actually a particularly new phenomenon, but people are becoming more aware that all is not always what it seems. The whole 'influencer' model seems to be built around trying to use supposedly 'ordinary' people to promote brands, but that in itself has been exposed as being very fake with highly curated public lives that often hide personal misery. There are ethical issues around using this kind of influencer marketing, but even if it doesn't bother you, it may still have negative consequences if people start associating your brand with being fake.

Of course advertising has always used actors and models to create alternative realities to sell stuff, but in the past there's tended to be a better defined line between fictional scenarios and 'real' people. If you want to dream up a fictional character or characters to promote your brand and clearly disclose that, then it might actually be more authentic than using 'influencers' and pretending that what they represent is real life. Fun, clever stuff can be worth engaging with even if it's not real.

Under appropriate use of social media platforms, I've already alluded to 'filler' posts. What I mean by filler posts is social media posts that bear no relation to the business in question, such as slogans or memes and bits of trivia. OK, if you're a vet, cat memes and kitten videos might be somewhat relevant,  but for anyone else, you're just wasting my time. These tend to scream out to me low quality time waster.

The other kind of filler posts are ones that look carefully curated by a marketing agency. Sometimes they can be somewhat relevant, although often they're not, which indicates an agency that doesn't really know their client. My other big problem with obvious agency posts is that I know if I reply, I'm probably not actually going to get somone from your business, but just someone contracted to run your social media. I want to know that I can contact a real person in your business if I need to, and if I know your social media is outsourced, I can't be sure I can get through to someone who actually has any capacity to do anything other than make social media posts. By all means hire a social media marketing agency to provide advice on how to create quality posts and maybe help you prepare and post them, but if you're not prepared to spend time monitoring your own social media, you may be wasting your time and money, as an outside agency won't know your business like you do to respond to queries. This may depend on the platform to some extent. On Instagram and Twitter where brand awareness and announcements are the likely purpose respectively, replies may not be necessary, however on Facebook there's probably a high expectation of interaction, so you need to be prepared.

A part of authenticity is who you engage with. With social media, there's strong motivation to build up a following. In the early days of the web, the popular scheme was link exchange, where you'd link to someone else's website and they'd do the same in return. A lot of dodgy low quality links often resulted until Google cracked down and penalised sites with irrelevant links. Google still values relevant links, but relevancy is critical. Something similar has been happening on social media, with schemes to like or follow people for likes or follows in return. There have been various scandals involving celebrities purchasing huge followings that are basically fake. Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram are already going same way as Google cracking down on dubious relationships, and they have the added advantage that all the content is in-house potentially making it easier to analyse a number of metrics to establish relevancy. At the end of the day, if you have thousands of followers, you can't possibly engage personally with them all, however if you have a smaller, but loyal following and get to know them and earn their trust, you may well achieve more than those who boast huge numbers.


I hope you've found something useful here. To date I've not worked as a social media marketer, although I do use social media actively for my own projects. Rather, I'm a data analyst and developer, however social media is simply a massive data platform. One of the things I've learnt from database development is that it doesn't matter how much data you have or how elegant your database designs are. The only thing that matters is how useful and accessible the data is to end users. Social media is no different.