Organic Matters: The Slow Death of Organic

November 24th, 2015 | Jen Evans, Marketing Futurist

Jen Evans
Jen Evans

Organic social content engagement numbers are sinking.

We started noticing the trend at SqueezeCMM in February and it’s been accelerating ever since. While there’s no real typical standard for organic-to-paid performance (it depends on factors such as the budget for paid, the target audience, and the size of the organic community), some numbers were shockingly low, under 5%.

But when we saw a post by Buffer about how their traffic has dropped, we realized the issue went beyond our (primarily enterprise B2B) customer base. Organic engagement on social platforms is just drying up, to a significant extent. So what is going on?

There are a few contributing factors at play:

  • Algorithm Changes: social networks are now restricting access to audiences; Facebook organic reach is down to less than 2% due to a gradual change to the social network’s organic algorithm that has significantly reduced visibility of unpaid brand content.
  • Bots and fake/automated traffic: Both fake profiles and fake traffic mean that organic and paid results are tough to parse through and understand. The latest estimate is that 22% of Twitter accounts are fake.
  • Platform Niche-ification: new platforms are launching every day with more tightly-focused offerings for specific audiences or demographics, many of which are intent on walled-gardens for their traffic. (For example, Instagram significantly restricts linking out). Audiences still spend the vast majority of attention on the Big Six, where niche-ification is also happening, with tighter followings of fewer accounts and brands.
  • Audience Exhaustion/Content Shock: competition for attention and gluts of bad content further draining that attention are real issues.

The decline of organic is a bad thing for a few reasons, but for marketers and advertisers, it’s bad because paid is a treadmill if there’s no permissioning involved. In other words, trying to grab momentary attention from the masses via advertising only makes sense if you’re trying to engage those visitors as subscribers to your content. Digital has made keeping attention, once you have it, very customizable, by allowing different content to be delivered on demand to different segments. With advertising positioned at the top of the funnel, its role changes from completing a transaction (sale), which we know now is an extraordinarily rare event, to acquiring a subscription (stay in touch for the long term sale). Marketers and advertisers can now identify very specific target audience(s) and where they are active, communicate with them, get permission to keep communicating in the medium of the consumer’s choice, and take that conversation “offline,” continuing the discussion through other media like email, which is far more transactional, later.

But permission communications is still an underfunded grey area in digital and in marketing overall. One of the key reasons why is the still-awkward transition, for many companies, to a digital comms model. Traditionally, the customer relationship was easily defined: there was only a customer, a repeat customer, or a non-customer. There are now infinite variations on the customer relationship. How do you effectively categorize and communicate simultaneously with the email subscriber or social follower who isn’t yet a customer and the one who is? Or the customer who engages regularly on Facebook but won’t lease a new car for two more years?

The niche-ification of “customer communications” means that the old model of acquisition and retention no longer fits. We’re all in mini-acquisition, retention and streamlining cycles all the time. With the slow death of organic, we’re squandering the opportunity to start that relationship in a meaningful way, instead relying on the brute force of high-volume advertising, which is not only a weak customer strategy, it’s massively expensive. The optimum strategy is not either/or but both, and the opportunity to strengthen relationships is less directly costly but more work. In other words, advertising is an easy but generally ineffective blunt instrument that requires an already-systematized process, where relationships that evolve and cross platforms are much more complex to manage but more lucrative in the long run.

Restructuring organic access is a brilliant business model (for Facebook); Facebook basically said help us get your audiences engaged here, then restricted accessing those audiences except through advertising. But that model imposes a barrier to understanding true customer engagement and interest. Paid is basically a lever; more money equals more results. But organic is where the human insights lie.

The solution? Think of paid and organic as different stages of the same continuum of communications: paid’s job is to generate the subscriptions en masse where necessary, and organic is to build the relationship.

In our next column, we’ll look at the pros, cons and costs of building an organic, permissioned social community infrastructure vs ongoing ad campaigns.

Jen Evans is a digital strategist and content marketer, the creator and co-founder of squeezeCMM, Digital Fieldwork, B2B News Network, The Bot Registry and Sequentia Group, past chair of the Information Technology Association of Canada, a former tech columnist for the Globe and Mail who made Canada’s Profit Hot 50 two years in a row, and a curious marketing technologist.