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Dealing with social media algorithms

While the mathematical aspects of a social media algorithm might be complex, the basic function isn’t. Algorithms simply do their best to figure out what users want by trying to predict their behaviours. While the actual algorithmic formula is complex, the basic social signals are easy to understand for anyone — it’s all about engagement (what your potential audience does on the platform) and authority (your track record on the platform).

For social media naturals, this understanding comes naturally.

But at the same time, we find ourselves in a situation where it’s commonplace for thousands and thousands of influencer wannabes to buy ghost followers to boost their numbers. Most people understand that these followers won’t engage with their content, but the real situation is actually worse than that. Much worse.

Ghost followers will destroy you by doing nothing

On a social platform, you’re first and foremost competing with your own pre-determined engagement score.

Imagine pulling all your social media followers into a spreadsheet with three columns; one for engagement, one for authority, and one for the total. In each column for each follower, you then calculate a rank number between 1 (low) to 10 (high). The top 10% most engaged followers would be given a score of 10, the second most engaged 10% would get a score of 9, and so on. And then you would do the same for each 10% of your followers in terms of authority. Each follower would then get a total score between 2 and 20. In this new ranking of your followers, the top 10% will be freakishly valuable to your reach. The bottom 10%… well, not so much. Instead, they might well be dragging you down with them.

When deciding what content to show to its users, the algorithm will compare your percentiles with percentiles from other competing content publishers. If you have 100,000 followers with 90% “ghost followers”, your percentiles will not win very often.

Great content will only generate micro-adjustments

Great content alone will rarely make up for having a large portion of followers with low scores on engagement and authority. A huge following of ghosts could therefore be mathematical poison to your attempts to negotiate the algorithm.

Yes, the algorithm will collect performance data on everything you publish, but contrary to popular belief, this data is mainly used to error-correct the algorithm’s accuracy, not to determine your authority. This is because the social media algorithm has made most of its predictions before you publish your content.

Posting great content (meaning: content that performs better than “your” algorithm’s initial prediction) will micro-adjust in your favour, but only ever so slightly. Such micro-adjustments can almost never make up for having 90% ghosts, for instance.

What does this mean?

How to deal with having many ghost followers

If you end up with a high ratio of ghost followers, what can you do? There’s no easy solution, unfortunately. There’s the hardcore approach, of course. You could go trough your list of followers and block the ghost follower accounts. This will get rid of ghost followers quickly, but it comes at a cost:

Frequent blocking will tell the algorithm that you’re not interested in engaging with those who have chosen to follow you. Short- to mid-term, this is likely to impact your own engagement score negatively.

The softer approach won’t strike back at you as hard. You simply make sure that you’re at least not following ghost followers back and then you hope that they will unfollow you, too, over time. Both strategies take time. There are two additional alternatives as well, but these aren’t viable options for most people. Either you close your account and start fresh or you attract so many real followers that their numbers will dwarf your existing number of ghost followers.

Guidelines for staying clear of ghost followers

A few years ago, I destroyed one of my very own Twitter accounts this way. I systematically followed people with high follow-back ratios to get them to follow back — as opposed to following people I genuinely wanted to follow. That account now has 18K+ followers, but negotiating algorithm is basically impossible at this point. If not from the mistakes of others, you learn from your own.

Here are a few rules-of-thumb for keeping clear of ghost followers:

  • Grow organically from the start. Having a small, but highly engaged, community is better than attracting huge bulks of ghost followers — especially if you share your authority with them by engaging with them back1.
  • Stay consistent in one niche. Attracting a homogenous audience (in terms of what exact content they typically will engage with) is key for long-term success in social media. For more insight, read The Follower Contract.
  • Use your authority score wisely. Who you engage with (follow, like, comment, share) will send important signals to the algorithm. Make sure to engage consistently with the very specific type of audience you want to attract.
Why having inactive followers will cause long-term damage to your brand’s online reach.

Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash.

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  1. Just make sure to push past the point of critical mass.