Social media has changed. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram have traditionally focused on who users followed, but now, as feeds try to compete with TikTok, it is more about seeing engaging, entertaining, noteworthy content, whoever shares it.
The TikTokisation of social media algorithms
TikTok’s most important innovation was the endless feed based on observed interests and popular content, rather than follows. Users’ feeds are different, but this is largely driven by the algorithm, rather than who they have consciously decided to follow.
Services like Instagram also rely on algorithms, but until recently algorithms picked the content users would see from accounts they follow, rather than broadening the pool to include all content on the platform. This is how users could see important life events like births and weddings at the top of their feeds even if they had not opened the app for a few days. Twitter initially showed a chronological feed, taking all the content from every account followed, but switched to the algorithm model in 2016.
These days if you use these platforms it can seem like half the content is from accounts you do not actually follow, shown with explanations like “Based on your likes” or “Accounts you follow also follow.”
In one recent example of how social media has changed, the account @BrunswickPkTRA (Brunswick Park Residents' Association - 3,400 followers) tweeted during the June 2022 UK heatwave a picture to show how the presence of trees could reduce the temperature of a street. The tweet went viral and has now had more than a million likes, but the account has not picked up many new followers.
Shareability push from social media platforms
What this shows is that social media has now become much more about the content shared than the fame or the number of followers the user has. It is now much more possible for content from anywhere to go viral, and for new users’ content to be seen, if it is judged to be good by the algorithms, based on likes, shares, video views, and more.
Instagram is reportedly currently testing a feature to allow users to share other accounts’ posts within their feed (as opposed to in their stories) - a sort of Retweet function for Instagram. If introduced, this will increase the amount of content users see from accounts they do not follow, and give Instagram another data signal for their algorithm, on the basis that a share is an even stronger than a like as an indication that the content is good.
Could TikTok replace Google?
We are also hearing anecdotal reports that younger people are searching less on traditional platforms like Google. Could it be that daily exposure to feeds on apps like TikTok and Instagram is organically bringing content to people so that they do not think of search in the same way as older generations? Or is it that they are searching on these apps instead?
One writer spent a few days testing similar searches on TikTok and Google, and claims that while Google is better for closed questions with a definitive answer (How many ounces in a cup?), TikTok returns surprisingly useful and entertaining answers for more open queries like (Restaurants in… and even What to watch?). If users have good experiences, they are likely to use search more, even if that is not in the original design of the service.
How can brands adapt to social media algorithm changes?
- Test new creative-based strategies to capitalise on the changes in social media.
- Work with partners to ensure that content is engaging, relevant and timely, including testing memes.
- Develop short form video answers to popular search queries, to capture searches on the newer platforms.
For more information, download our recent Thought Leadership piece: Media Trends 2023.