Whether we are participating on social media on behalf of our institutions or ourselves, we probably have experienced composing the perfect post — funny, relevant, reflective — only to have it ignored in our feed, barely even noticed, as if we’d never posted at all. While we might blame the time of day or the algorithm or Mark Zuckerberg, it can be a special kind of rejection.
Or is it? Rachel Roman, the force behind Fordham University’s social media efforts for the past two years, explains that social media engagement varies wildly between channels and helping understand why can help us optimize posts, manage expectations and protect our fragile psyches.
The first step is in understanding audience. The Pew Research Center does a good job of unpacking age demographics on social platforms each year; we still see Facebook dominating with 69 percent of adults reporting use of the platform and 75 percent of users reporting daily use. Usage alone, however, does not ensure that our posts are seeing the light of day. Engagement, in the form of likes, comments and shares, signals that content is being consumed, and it increases that content’s visibility in the algorithm.
According to Roman, the Fordham University accounts illustrate that, broadly speaking, different generations are actively engaged more or less depending on platform. Our prospective and current students, the Generation Z crowd, spend their time with some of the upstarts like Snapchat and TikTok and are also avid likers on Instagram. Our young alumni, faculty and staff, the millennials, love Instagram and are starting to engage regularly on Twitter but stay rather silent on Facebook. Our Generation X alumni, faculty and staff can also be found on Instagram but are more likely to be liking and commenting on Facebook and Twitter along with their boomer counterparts.
These generational differences can account for why the same post can flourish on one platform and languish on another. Roman provides these three additional insights:
1. Facebook Is for Fans
You can feel the love on Facebook. Whether it’s alumni, parents, faculty or staff, Facebook is a place to show support, which makes it a great place for campus news, according to Roman. “These are people who will care about a new campus building, research by a favorite faculty member or a successful student.”
You can also count on them to be there even when it’s not good news. “Fordham’s audience on Facebook is like a family, and some of our greatest outpourings of support have been around controversial issues and campus tragedies.” That’s not to say there isn’t negative engagement on Facebook. “Fans tend to have an emotional connection that runs deep, but when they do disagree, they do it with good intentions.”
2. Twitter Is for Reach
While Facebook is all about fans, Twitter allows an institution to reach outside itself, exposing it to people completely outside its normal circle of influence. “Twitter is where you have the most potential for viralness,” says Roman. “You see tweets your followers like and can follow strangers down a rabbit hole of content.”
Which may explain why likes and comments are harder to come by. It’s a place where you can be retweeted by a celebrity, but also where you can read things you may not connect with enough to want to endorse. On the other hand, it’s also where you can have a little fun, says Roman. “Posts and comments don’t linger as long as they do on Facebook, and the immediacy allows for more experimentation.”
3. Instagram Rules Engagement, Good and Bad
How stingy users are with likes can also be cultural. Instagram is the king of engagement because it’s a place where engagement is cultivated on a different level. “Instagram is the home of the influencer who does nothing but think about how to get likes and comments, and I think there’s a spillover effect,” speculates Roman. “The noninfluencer user is conditioned to engage more there.”
And engage they do. Fordham sees its highest percentage of engagement on Instagram, but because Instagram houses the greatest number of current students, sometimes the engagement can be brutally honest. “It’s where we are most likely to see criticism of university policies,” admits Roman.
She also reveals, “Instagram users love to see themselves, so a good strategy is to ask permission to repost the students’ own pics.”
Customization Is Key
Many other factors beyond generational differences and a platform’s personality affect engagement. Peak usage times, frequency of posting and use of images and video are other important considerations, but Roman’s underlying message is about customization. Cross-platform posting is efficient and sometimes necessary, but it doesn’t allow you to employ what you know about an audience or a platform.
“All the algorithms share at least one thing in common — they try to show you more of what you like. Spend enough time with your users on each channel, and it becomes apparent that what they like is not the same between platforms,” she concludes.
It’s true that engagement is the holy grail of social media marketing and communications. It’s a reliable metric of whether our message is being received. But while compelling content is the start, keep in mind that it’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy.