Your guide to social media ad algorithms

  • May 27, 2020
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For some, social media algorithms are puzzles waiting to be solved. For others, they’re a big, bad machine preventing digital marketing content from getting views and engagements. In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about how social media algorithms work in 2020, especially when it comes to ad campaigns and getting your ads to show up in more people’s social media feeds.

What are social media algorithms?

When it comes to your ordinary organic content newsfeed, algorithms seem helpful. The algorithm sifts through endless content and ranks higher what it considers “relevant” or “interesting” to you, rather than simply displaying all posts in random or reverse chronological order.

By default, social media algorithms on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, TikTok, Pinterest and others want to show you what they think you’ll like best from your friends and family, and all the content creators and advertisers you’re following (and some you’re not).

How do social media algorithms work with advertising?

In advertising, the social media algorithm picks and chooses the ads it thinks users will be interested in seeing, based on ad quality, the way the ad has been set up by its advertiser (such as which demographics it should target), and the users’ previous interactions with a similar type of ad. 

Why is this? Well, the amount of content published on social media every minute is staggering. Algorithms, to calculate the “most meaningful” organic and paid content, are therefore used in an attempt to control the noise and only show users content and ads they will actually care about. Theoretically, the algorithm is good for your budget – the people seeing your ads should be your most likely to convert, click, view, and care about your product or service. 

Unfortunately, how the algorithm actually works can be something of a black box – a mystery – even to the experienced. But we do know several ranking factors that influence the algorithm, and social media marketing strategies should take these into account. 

How social media algorithms use your interests

We know social media platforms track what users are interested in. You can see what Facebook thinks you’re interested in, or what Twitter thinks you’re interested in, if you’re logged in to those platforms right now. This informs what ads users see, as well as other personalised factors like demographics, career and location.

If “Kickstarter” appears prominently on your interests lists, because you’ve interacted often with Kickstarter pages or ads in the past, then you will see more ads for various Kickstarters… especially ones that are tied to other interests of yours, like gaming, technology and gadgets, or crafts.

Keep in mind that Facebook users can now see why they’re seeing a certain ad, and if they hide the ad or hide all ads from an advertiser, that’s going to be a point against you in the auction system. We’ll talk about that next. 

How social media algorithms use an auction system

The algorithm is also influenced by the auction. If you as an advertiser target an audience of 1 million people, hundreds or thousands of other advertisers are potentially targeting people in the same audience. The most valuable ad wins the auction and is thus shown first, second, third, and so on. An ad’s value is determined by budget, content relevance and how well it plays by the platform’s rules. 

For example, on Facebook:

  • if your ad has too much text in the image, it becomes less valuable
  • if people mark your ad as irrelevant or hide it, it becomes less valuable
  • if the user clicks on your ad, then quickly bounces off the landing page or back-clicks because the page is irrelevant (or clickbait), the interlinking between the Facebook pixel on that page and the algorithm will result in your ad being marked as less valuable

All these things will result in your ad getting more expensive to run as the budget tries to compensate for the failings in other areas. Expensive ads are definitely not what you want.

How can you beat social media algorithms in advertising? 

Social media algorithms have become increasingly sophisticated. It’s hard to trick them into doing what you want them to do for paid campaigns. But it’s not impossible. Want insights on how to beat a certain social media platform’s algorithm in 2020? We’ve got you covered.

The Facebook ad algorithm

  • Tailor your ads to promote positive engagement – likes, comments and shares, yes, with emphasis on real, even lengthy conversations in the comments. Facebook emphasises meaningful interactions with content people will enjoy, even on ads. Always reply to comments as soon as you can. 
  • But don’t take it too far. No engagement bait or clickbait. Full stop. Facebook’s algorithm will detect and penalise “like if you…” and “share if you…” posts and ads, and if people frequently bounce straight away from pages your ads link to, you’ll get marked as a potential clickbaiter. That can down-rank future posts and ads you make, since it’s a mark against your Page.
  • Video content often gets great engagement – including live video. When it comes to great video ads, make sure they’re original to your brand and shorter than 3 minutes. If you have a loyal audience of repeat viewers who watch your original videos past the 1-minute mark, that’s Facebook video gold. 
  • Keep tabs on your metrics and analytics. Use Facebook Insights and the Digivizer app (see paid metric comparison dashboards below) to track the performance of specific ads and try to figure out why something is even a bit more successful than something else. The tools are there – you should use them!
  • Credibility factors into your Facebook advertising. Make sure your details are filled out on your Page. Also, consistent organic posting helps with your credibility as well, especially if those organic posts are relevant, popular and keep people engaged on Facebook rather than clicking away off Facebook. 
  • Make sure to follow the rules and policies or you will be penalized. If your ads aren’t delivering, check in with Facebook’s Community Standards, their prohibited and restricted content, a rule about how much text can be in your ad images (also known as the 20% Rule), or take a look at your negative feedback and comments, or your spending caps, audience targeting or bidding strategy
  • Take a look at Facebook’s different ad formats. There’s a wide range of ad formats that can help you meet a wide range of goals. Take carousel ads, for example; you can advertise a showcase of products in a single ad with a carousel. 

Facebook’s long list of prohibited ad content

There are 30 forms of prohibited content and 13 forms of restricted content in Facebook ads, so it deserves its own shout out. Aside from the expected, like Facebook prohibiting misleading ads, ads that contain swearing or spyware, or discriminatory ads, Facebook also bans ads that sell drugs, tobacco or human body parts, ads that contain adult content, and ads that exploit crises or controversial political or social issues (such as COVID-19) for commercial purposes (like selling hand sanitizer). 

Prohibited content is strictly banned and will result in removal and potentially even negative repercussions for you and your Page. But there’s also restricted content, which include ads that require written permission or compliance with local laws in order to be run, ads that must be targeted at 18+ audiences, ads that include branded content and therefore must use the branded content tool, and ads about politics, elections or social issues, which have an additional authorization process. 

Every ad is subject to these rules, and sometimes there’s a lot of confusion about why your ad has been disapproved. If this happens to you, you can get in touch with Facebook to review your ads. 

Image via Hootsuite

The Instagram ad algorithm

  • Similar to Facebook, Instagram’s algorithm wants to keep people on Instagram. Instagram even offers Instagram shopping in an attempt to keep product-centric brands happy and selling while keeping users on Instagram. If you’re selling products, build your Instagram (and Facebook) Shopping catalogue – Instagram will love you for using it. 
  • Know your demographics. While Facebook is a social media advertising juggernaut because it can offer a wide range of demographics for advertisers to appeal to, Instagram’s demographic makeup skews young, female, urban, college-educated, with disposable income. If you want to advertise on Instagram, you should know who you want to target and how to target them.
  • Ad placements and formats matter. Advertisers have found that Facebook’s right-column ads are expensive, while Instagram news feed and Story ad placements are relatively cheap. But each ad placement offers different features and different settings, and will often achieve different goals. Take a look at our ad formats guide for more ideas on this. 
Image via SproutSocial

The Twitter ad algorithm

  • Twitter advertising is all about awareness. If you want impressions, Twitter is the place to be. They also offer conversion and engagement goals, but Twitter is great at awareness… within a limited time period. The life of a tweet is often even shorter than ads and posts on other platforms, so don’t be afraid to end a Twitter campaign early if it’s not delivering. 
  • Twitter ads, also called “promoted tweets”, should naturally integrate into Twitter users’ feeds. Twitter says 41% of users purchase a product within 30 days after exposure to an ad. Try creating Twitter ads that are interesting – something that will make people stop scrolling and watch or engage. That’s how the algorithm knows you’ve got something worth showing to others. 
  • Video ads are increasingly recommended by Twitter. Twitter conducts regular surveys of its users to check what they think of ads they’ve seen recently – take a look below to see what metrics Twitter video ads help businesses with. Also, Twitter users love a good .gif, and using .gifs takes the pressure off thinking about whether your audience has the sound on or off (hint: it’ll usually be off). 
  • Twitter offers some interesting ad choices. Promoted accounts can help you boost your follower count; 85% of Twitter users consider promoted accounts to be both relevant and helpful. Promoted trends can help you start a conversation around a particular branded event or promotion.
Image via SproutSocial

The LinkedIn ad algorithm

  • The LinkedIn organic algorithm is dedicated to networking – to helping professionals build their professional networks by making connections and providing relevant, interesting information and news. It’s a lot more serious and business-oriented than other social media platforms, with users who are in a business mindset, and your ads should reflect that. 
  • LinkedIn isn’t for every business, but it can be great for lead generation, from finding new clients to finding job applicants. If you have brand awareness goals like sharing education and information within an industry, or showing off your business  to C-suite professionals, you’re in the right place.Remember: the algorithm will favour relevant content. 
  • Use analytics to optimize your campaigns. This is really important as LinkedIn advertising campaigns tend to run on the expensive side. LinkedIn’s Campaign Manager, the Sales Navigator tool if you’re running a social to sales programs, and the Digivizer app will come in handy for LinkedIn advertisers looking to get smart with  their budgets.
  • Like Facebook, LinkedIn offers a conversion tracking pixel and a retargeting “Insight Tag”, as well as the “matched audience” option. “Matched audience” allows you to upload lists of customer names or emails to add to your target audience, and make use of your tracking pixels and Insight Tags. This makes it easier to create automatic or targeted campaigns based on behaviours and known factors, and not leave your audience up to chance or the algorithm.
  • Marketers like to say that LinkedIn is about 15 years behind the other social media platforms in terms of technology evolution. But as you can see from LinkedIn’s graphic below, they’ve exploded their ad options in the last couple of years, and they’re demo-ing and experimenting with new ad options all the time. If something didn’t work for you five years ago on LinkedIn, it might be time for another try. 
Image via LinkedIn

The Snapchat ad algorithm

If you want to succeed with Snapchat’s ad algorithm, the best advice is go short and often, go behind-the-scenes and exclusive, and go lively and personal. Connect with users to build excitement and tell stories – after all, Snapchat did Stories first.

Brands on Snapchat currently advertise on the “Discover” tab, which is apparently slated to become the “Community” tab. That gives you an idea of what Snap is hoping for from its advertisers.

Snap has all kinds of ad formats like “Snap to Store” (to drive brick-and-mortar traffic) and “Max Reach”, which can act like a country-wide takeover, ensuring every single user who logs in within a certain location (like the U.S.) will see your ad on a given day. Snap also started offering dynamic ads in 2019 to allow e-commerce brands to optimize their shoppable offerings.

Image via MarketingLand

The Pinterest ad algorithm

A quick shout out to Pinterest, too! Their ‘guided search’ algorithm is heavily interest-based. If a user on Pinterest searched ‘wedding hairstyles’ yesterday, next time they log into Pinterest, there will still be a lot of wedding hairstyles on their initial homepage. If they then search ‘weekend getaways’ today, then tomorrow their homepage will have both kinds of content and ads for both, but weighted towards the more recent search.

When it comes to Pinterest’s ad algorithm, that means you need to make sure that your ads are hitting interest categories spot-on. Figure out exactly what people are searching for and advertise that, using beautiful pictures and videos. (Also: keep it vertical!)

Image via UpperDog

Why are social media algorithms so controversial?

You might be wondering ‘why do people hate social media algorithms?’ Or you might have heard people railing against the algorithm, confused as to why their content and ads aren’t performing as well as hoped. 

As people grow more educated about social media algorithms, some have started to wonder if social media users are living in an echo chamber, a bubble, only exposed to types of posts and types of ads that they and their friends already like. The algorithm curates their – our – entire online existence. It controls which family and friends’ updates you see, which news you see, and clearly it controls which ads you see. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable. 

Image via NBC News

But for advertisers, the main concern about the algorithm is that social media platforms often fail to be transparent. When you’re spending money on ads, you want them to work. The algorithm affects ads’ effectiveness in hidden ways, so advertisers are left wondering what went wrong and if they wasted all that money… and if they’ll waste it again next time due to some other hidden factor. 

But social media platforms are becoming more transparent, prioritising open and honest communication with their users, admitting mistakes and publicly outlining steps to rectify those mistakes, and providing users access to data that was previously hidden and unknown. That’s how we’re able to put together a guide like this.

The best thing you can do to beat the social media algorithm is stay informed. Know your goals, know your analytics, know the platform changes, and adjust and optimize your ads according to your best knowledge. 

We hope you found this article useful. Bookmark it for later or share with your colleagues for an easy reference to the intricacies of advertising to harness the social media algorithm to boost performance of your paid campaigns.