This essay originally was published on July 20, 2023 with the email subject line "CT No.176: How not to revive social media."

You’ve probably noticed social media hasn’t been her usual self lately. If you’ve been publishing content, monitoring your analytics, and living by the experts’ advice on how to please the algorithms (looking at you, Adam Mosseri, and your frequent Instagram update announcements), all while your social media engagement remains stagnant or, worse, plummets, you’re not alone. Have one conversation with a fellow social media manager, or fall down the rabbit hole of Facebook group comments for social content pros, and you’ll find that most of us are in the same boat.

With social media platforms employing evermore complex algorithms to filter content they deem valuable to the top of the timeline (nevermind what the user needs), the strategies and tactics that once offered formulaic but reliable results no longer work. Much has changed since social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were released in the early aughts — including those platforms’ functionality and the economies in which they operate. In sum, those changes have led to widespread distrust for social media, escalating resentment toward social platforms, and increasing awareness about the impact of screen time on our mental health.

That’s a lot of bad PR working against madam social media, and she’s rebelling, making our lives as social content creators a living hell in the process.

In all this uncertainty, there is good news. Social isn’t dead yet, but your social media accounts need some TLC. The negative experiences you, me, and our peers are having with social present a meaningful opportunity to explore how users feel about media platforms and the content that circulates on them. So, in the face of little to no growth on like and comment data, let alone an increase in the really good stuff like shares and link clicks, how can we save our social media accounts from extinction?

To answer that question, we need to understand the root of the declining engagement problem.

What’s causing the slow death of engagement?

Like with any problem, identifying the cause helps lead us to the solution, and when we’re talking about social media engagement, there are a few issues. However, the root issue is likely constantly changing algorithms paired with the compulsion to be in control of them at all times for any chance of successful performance to feel possible.

A prime example? Instagram’s identity crisis of 2022. When the photo-focused platform wanted so badly to be Cool Girl TikTok, it alienated users with its try-hard efforts to heavily push Reels as the go-to method for growth. After admitting its mistake earlier this year, Instagram said it was going to go back to prioritizing photos. But take one scroll through Instagram right now and you’ll find that for every self-proclaimed social media guru who says Reels are getting them all their growth, another will tell you they’ve reverted back to photos and are seeing meaningful results with carousel posts. And while we’re talking identity crises, let’s not even get started on Twitter since its acquisition and hot mess change in leadership.

Constant algorithm complaints give users a bad taste in their mouth. And if that wasn’t enough bad publicity for social media, mainstream media frenzy about data privacy concerns and TikTok bans is compounding the frustration, causing paranoia and mistrust.

The moral of the story is that, since we haven’t yet invented time travel, we can’t preemptively control changes to our favorite platforms. When social media managers begin openly and desperately searching for that surefire hack to boost engagement in mass, it’s a sign that desperation has set in. Desperation kills engagement and we certainly don’t want that.

Dead on arrival: the drawbacks of quick, easy, and cheap methods

Repeat after me: I will not let desperation dictate my engagement strategy. Even if you could form a diamond with all the pressure you’re getting from upper-level management, don’t let your frantic Google searches lead you down a rabbit hole of quick-engagement schemes. That kind of panicking isn’t going to get your engagement rates up by the end of the quarter.

A common default tactic I still see social media managers embrace out of fear is engagement pods. It’s not 2017 anymore, this collaborative “strategy” of forming a DM group with industry peers so you can like and comment on each other’s posts isn’t going to work the way you want it to. All you’re doing is getting your content in front of the same few people over and over and, much like a high school group project, someone’s always reaping the rewards without doing the work.

Instead, spend that time finding new, on-brand accounts to engage with every day. Discover them by searching relevant hashtags, identifying users who are in need of your services through keyword research and scanning the comment sections of your competitors’ content to see who’s engaging. Those are your people. Nurture them with social media attention.

Automation is not the answer

Worse than the engagement pod of yesteryear is the even cringier bot. Avoid these like the plague, because no actual good can come from them. There’s no denying the idea of a bot is incredibly attractive. After all, it can do all of the engagement you don’t want to do, from liking and commenting on posts to finding new accounts to follow to answering your DMs.

But it’s automated, giving off major robot vibes. And who wants to respond to a comment from a robot? No matter how well you train your bots, they’re guaranteed to make a mistake. I once had a client whose well-trained bot once posted in the comments of a very off-brand, X-rated Instagram account because their post had used one of our on-brand hashtags. Yikes!

In fact, if you want authentic engagement, skip robots of all kinds, including AI. When you’re looking for ways to automate the content creation process, at first glance it makes sense to turn to AI. ChatGPT or other popular AI tools can generate post inspiration, create content calendars, and even write all your captions and source all your hashtags.

Purchasing shortcuts can hurt you long-term

In oversimplifying the content creation process, you’re robbing your brand’s social media of any human feel. Expecting actual humans to engage with your not-human-generated content seems pretty backwards. Lack of personal touch can basically guarantee you’re stripping away any chance of building an audience who genuinely connects with you. And that’s exactly the opposite of what we want for your engagement.

Also at the top of the big no-no list is buying followers. Don’t do it, ever. Instead, commit this engagement rule to memory, “If engagement costs money or is ‘guaranteed,’ it’s not for you.” Those unsolicited DMs you get offering to sell you followers are a scam. Plus, spikes in followers and overnight boosts in engagement are going to make your brand look inauthentic.

The self-sabotage doesn’t end there: purchased engagement will inflate your follower number with fake accounts that won’t authentically engage with your posts. When we remember that engagement rate is calculated as total engagement (think likes, comments, and saves) divided by your follower count, we see that a rapid increase to the vanity-follower metric will actually sink your engagement.

Keep your follows tidy

If you truly want a get-engagement-quick hack, go through your accounts’ follower lists and remove any very blatant bot followers because less followers can mathematically lead to higher engagement rates.

Cringing at the thought of your follower count declining (even if it’s done intentionally)? Ask yourself this: Would I rather reach two thousand eyeballs with absolutely no interest in what I have to offer or five new people in my target market who become brand loyal after building an authentic social media relationship with me?

The Band-Aid® solution won't heal the gaping wound

While any of these methods may temporarily make your analytics reports dazzle and get your manager off your back for the time being, quick hacks are just a temporary Band-Aid that’s going to fall off in the long run. By the end of the quarter, you’ll be right back to feeling stressed about dwindling engagement stats as your internal voice puts pressure on you to “do better.”

Instead, take the time to focus on developing authentic connections with your followers. Remember, the job of social media is brand awareness. Posting to the platform is not a direct tool to increase sales. It’s a touch point, and it should be one of many in your marketing strategy.

No one method of reaching your audience should be your only way to get in front of your people. Social media is just a singular touch point and won’t reach everyone with every post. Try not to stress about link clicks, and focus on earning the trust of your audience through valuable content.

Authenticity and trust are the cure

If you're falling into despair over not finding any magic quick fix to boost authentic engagement, take a breath and remind yourself you’re not in this sinking engagement boat alone. Prepare to implement some get-engagement-slow strategies. You’ll see much better results in the long run, and have peace of mind knowing you’re going about this the ethical way.

The key to building your relationships on social media and showing your audience they can trust you to show up for them is as simple as the golden rule you've been hearing since you were a kid: Treat others as you would like to be treated.

If you're spending your days scrolling through your business social accounts just lurking and consuming content but never liking, commenting, sharing, saving, or following, why are you expecting anyone else to engage with you? Take the time to interact with on-brand accounts and build a social relationship with them. The keyword here is on-brand. Liking cat memes and the latest viral video isn’t going to help your business account grow.

To help your audience build a relationship with your brand, you’ll want to audit your current posts to make sure the content you’re putting out is consumable and enjoyable. Creating standout content that’s on-brand shows you put in effort, and giving viewers something useful they can take away is key.

Your social content shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter version of the same Canva templates everyone else in your industry is using (sprinkling your brand colors into them isn’t enough to make them unique). The same goes for AI-generated captions. Followers can see through the generic verbiage that reads without feeling or passion for your brand.

Build trust with your audience by showing you view them to be worth the time and effort of making quality content that meets their needs.

Let your analytics reports lead data-driven decisions about what your followers are enjoying most. Keep giving them more of what they like — whether it's static posts, short video, longform video or a combination of the three.

And always make sure the content is consumable by adhering to ADA accessible guidelines, including alt-text and video closed captioning. Your followers are real people with needs and it’s your job to make sure they’re being met, otherwise they’ll find what they want somewhere else..

In our technology-driven world, emotions matter

When you treat people as you want to be treated, you’ll start to see them reciprocate. That means understanding the people on the other side of the screen, their needs, and how you can best serve them with your content. It can be really hard to keep doing the work without seeing immediate validation, but don’t let a lack of engagement deter you from continuing to focus on getting your brand in front of the right audience.

When you keep showing up, providing the information your audience is seeking, and delivering it in the manner in which they desire to consume it in order to help them learn, you’re showing them they’re valuable to you. And in a challenging world filled with an overabundance of low-quality, bot-generated content, making someone feel human is the best way to connect. That connection is the priority. The engagement that builds with it is the added bonus.

Emily Rochotte is a writer and social media manager who works with creative small business owners. Her focus is brand awareness, website traffic & social media presence, especially on TikTok and Instagram.