Where Has All the Social Engagement Gone?

Is social networking dying as a way to engage the public, drive traffic and build brand? I’m hearing a lot of complaints about this. But is this true? Clearly, the world of social has changed radically in the past six months. And it’s harder than ever to rise above the noise, be heard and promote one’s brand (either professional or personal).

What’s going on?

I asked my own followers on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram if they thought each of those sites were “losing steam,” by which I clarified by asking: “Is engagement by other users less than what it used to be?”

You’ll note that I did not poll users on Periscope, Tumblr, Medium, YouTube, Pinterest, Linkedin, Vine or Snapchat.

Do I really have to post on 12 social networks to reach the public?

The tragic answer is that even if I did post on these 12 social networks, I’d barely reach a fraction of the public.

First, only a tiny minority is following any one user or brand. Second, algorithmic filtering will deliver my posts to only a tiny percentage of the accounts that follow me. Third, a majority of the people who do follow me won’t even check their accounts during the next few days. And fourth, if the post doesn’t involve a celebrity, a bikini, a cat, a political rant or a Pokemon reference, even those who see my post will give it less than a second of thought before moving on.

It’s clear that follower count numbers are growing ever less meaningful about the impact of a post.

In any event, the results of my crowdsourcing were mixed 24 hours after I posted my question, and I was able to tease some wisdom out of the crowds, which augmented my developing understanding of the strange new world of social.

Here’s what’s going on.

The Old Advice Is Obsolete

Millions of social media professionals, marketers, gurus, would-be influencers and others are walking around with beliefs about best practices for social that have recently become false beliefs.

In olden days (pre 2016), the idea was that all the eyeballs out there are on social media. So to gain the public’s attention, or at least a target audience’s attention, one has to 1) build a followership on one or several of the major social networks; 2) create viral content; and 3) engage meaningfully with followers.

But what followers of that advice will have noticed by now is that none of this works the way it used to. Clicks are down. Likes are down. Comments are down. And it’s becoming harder to create brand-building viral content.

There are three new reasons for this flagging engagement across all social media. Call it the “Three Es”: entropy, experience and evolutionary distraction.

1. Entropy

I’m borrowing a concept from physics, but the general idea behind the second law of thermodynamics is that the entropy or disorder of a system always increases and never decreases over time. In the social sphere, as new social sites, apps and tools emerge, some people migrate to them and other people don’t, resulting in fewer people paying less attention on any given site or in any given app. The eyeballs are scattered all over the place, and this phenomenon will continue until (theoretically, at least, according to physics) the number of social networks equals the number of users and each user is the only person on their chosen social network.

Some people take on additional social nets — whereas when in the past they may have spent 100% of their social time on two or three, they now spend the same amount of time on five or six, thereby devoting less attention to each. So if one of your followers is engaging half as much as before on one social network, the reality is probably that they’re engaging the same amount on twice the networks.

2. Experience

The best way to understand where the eyeballs are going is to understand the biggest transition taking place on the internet. We’re moving from an information internet to an experience internet. It’s a long road ahead, but active social media engagers are ahead of the curve.

More specifically, eyeballs are moving away from Twitter and Facebook status updates and moving to Snapchat and Facebook Live. Why? Because the new social media enable people to feel they’ve experienced something, rather than learned something.

Instead of posting a picture of the stage at a concert accompanied by typed information about what an awesome experience it was, people are now recording or streaming video so their followers can experience the concert for themselves.

The eyeballs are moving from information-based to experience-based social networking.

3. Evolutionary distraction

One of the constant challenges for all media that seeks limited human attention is an evolutionary process where some media become ever more distracting over time. In the attention economy, every attention grabbing thing competes with every other attention grabbing thing for the attention of everyone.

It’s Darwinian survival of the fittest, where “fittest” is defined as “most distracting.”

As an individual or company trying to get the attention of the public on social media, you’re not only competing with every other person and organization on every other social media, but also with bots, games, podcasts, TV shows and Pokemon Go.

Yeah, I said it: You’re competing with Pokemon Go. The app has been downloaded more than 75 million times now, and some players are spending hours less on social in order to spend hours more playing the game.

Even those who share links tend not to read them anymore. A study by Columbia University and the French National Institute found that 59 percent of links shared on Twitter were not clicked on by the people sharing. That’s nearly 60 percent who share without even clicking. Of those who do click, most probably don’t read much. Everything is tl;dr (too long; didn’t read).

The social sphere itself is being transformed by unexpected evolutionary forces. Trolls, for example. We hear a lot about trolls, and how they spew hate and bigotry and badger celebrities off Twitter. But less attention is paid to the fact that trolls are evolving to gobble up every more attention for themselves. They’re learning how to harass and annoy without getting kicked off. In fact, the whole purpose of a troll by definition is to distract attention away from substantive, ernest and constructive conversation and put that attention on themselves.

Bots do the same thing. And in our political season, the AIC (attention-industrial complex) is learning how to automate the grabbing of attention using software.

Trolls and bots are rising phenomena on social sites whose sole mission is to take attention off of what you’re posting and put it onto themselves.

The bottom line is that everybody is maxed out with things that grab attention. And the social media exhaustion drives new behavior — specifically an inability or unwillingness to engage in anything but puppy GIFs, visual memes or other fluff. Or, to engage with easy-to-watch video (see the “Experience” segment above).

So How Do You Break Through?

The social scene in late 2016 is all about the three Es: Entropy, Experience and Evolutionary distraction. So the only way to succeed in this weird new social world is to embrace them all.

1. Entropy: If the eyeballs are dispersing to all corners of the social and messaging internet, then you need to be there, too. (Yes, it’s a lot more work.)

2. Experience: Stop explaining your message and start letting people experience it. Favor video, Snapchat Stories, Facebook Live, streaming and other experiential media — including the realities (mixed, augmented and virtual).

3. Evolutionary distraction: In order to compete in a world filled with evolutionary distraction, you yourself have to evolve to become more distracting yourself. Create addictive bots. Gamify your content. And embrace the most distracting thing of all: authenticity. Get real, and stop “performing” or posting canned content.

The new world of social is weird. But it’s still where the eyeballs are. Just don’t use yesterday’s good advice. Because it’s now obsolete.

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