Why are we obsessed with vanity metrics? Like Love Island, we know they’re bad for us, but we keep coming back for more. There’s a guilty pleasure in notching up followers, or clocking more likes on a post. But measurements that involve sheer numbers, such as follower counts and likes, don’t actually prove very much. They aren’t particularly good indicators of how well you’re really engaging your audience.

Love the ones you’re with

The social media platforms know this, which is why Twitter has been so keen to shut down growth-hacking tools (like TweetAdder and SocialQuant) and why this month we heard that Instagram has been experimenting with removing likes, citing them as an unnecessary distraction.

Instagram says it wants to focus on enabling expression and fostering connections. As users, this may sound great, but what does it actually mean? If likes and follower count don’t indicate engagement, then what does? Obviously, social media owners still want you to buy their advertising! But there are many ways to improve engagement organically, without spending a penny.

We are family

Research shows it’s much cheaper to retain existing customers than it is to acquire new ones. So it makes commercial sense to engage with people who are already following you. Here are five great ways to do this.

1. Create original, meaningful content that is unique to you – and useful and interesting to your audience. Examples include informative blog posts (industry tips, reviews, checklists), infographics, videos (interviews, how-to’s), surveys and competitions. Once you’ve created this content, share it across all your social media channels. Make it easy for people to find you by adding appropriate hashtags (slightly different for each platform, eg: YouTube or Pinterest).

2. Establish a specific tone of voice and use it throughout your content. Are you going to be formal or informal? Chatty or aloof? Politically-driven or neutral? Agree a style guide for your brand – and stick to it.

3. Facebook’s new focus on privacy means it’s now prioritising Groups. Consider setting up a Group that you can link to and promote from your existing Facebook Page. Choose an interest or cause that’s related to what you do, and build a community of people around that. Give members special offers, discounts and exclusive content to keep them interested.

4. Encourage engagement other than “likes” – if people “react” with a heart, applause or even a dislike, and especially if they comment, Facebook ranks this organic content higher in its algorithm.

5. Test and experiment. Try different types of content and change your tactics. Note what works and what doesn’t work. Keep on iterating. Be open – don’t be afraid to ask people what they’d like to see!

Don’t you love me, baby?

Facebook is still reeling from last year’s scandals (Cambridge Analytica/ Alt right extremism) and is having to dramatically tighten up the way it handles user data. With Facebook and the other tech giants coming under further scrutiny, the situation is only going to intensify.

This means it’s increasingly hard to reach users on both Facebook and Instagram unless they really want to be reached. It’s not surprising that marketers across the board are seeing a drop in engagement.

The flipside to this is that it’s really worth putting time and resources into boosting your organic reach, and into improving your relationships with existing customers. I hope the tips above will work for you. Let me know how you get on in the comments, or ping me on Twitter @JemimaG.

Thanks Mecca Ibrahim for help with this post.

And thanks Element5 Digital on Unsplash for the photo!