GUEST POST: How I carried out research to play social media algorithms at their own game

Social media has been around for more than a decade and a lot of the tactics and strategies are getting a bit tired and dusty. Sheffield City Council digital channels lead Louise Gibson explains how she took a fresh look to improve what they do.

Social media is usually a key element in any communications plan. Getting the content right, in front of the right audiences and having the influence and impact you want isn’t necessarily simple.

I’ve worked on social media channels since their infancy. I love the instant connection with people that social can give you. The direct feedback from their engagement with content and the insight data which sits behind it all. You can see almost instantly if something is working or not and – crucially – can use your measurement and evaluation of that to change your future approach.

The trouble with social media

As social media becomes ever more complex, audiences more fragmented and algorithms determine who sees what and when, how do we navigate the increasingly choppy waters to get to smooth sailing (spot the fisherman’s granddaughter with sailing references!).

Add to the above that many of the non-comms people we all work with, including those in leadership roles, use social media and will generally have a view of the content you create and channels you should use.

It’s never been more important to use evidence-based practice when managing social media. You might not be able to make every post go viral (how many times have you been asked to do this) but you can make some practical and creative changes which will see improvements to social particularly in you keep up with the algorithms.


Social algorithms are essentially a set of rules and formulas which sort out which posts users see in their feed based upon relevance and popularity. The algorithms deliver content to users which are based on their interactions, likes and preferences.

Algorithms may also prioritise distribution based on the content type, for example, video trumping photos or posts with external links being deprioritised (the social platforms want you to stay on their site not go elsewhere!)

Knowing your way around algorithms is essential to get the most out of your social.

Small changes, big differences

At the end of 2021 I sat down with our Head of Communications and talked about how we could make improvements to our social media content. I’m not talking full-on strategies here, but quick wins; practical, simple changes we could quickly make to improve our content’s reach, impressions, positive engagement.

In short, and in basic terms, creating content that is good for audiences and works with social media algorithms so it’s shared more widely to the right people.

There were a number of objectives:

  • To generate less content – yes that’s right! Rather than place content on every core channel we would produce more focused content for channels and their audiences
  • To improve accessibility.
  • To work with the algorithms to gain better reach/impressions with target audiences.
  • Increase engagement and positive comments.
  • Improve the call to action take-up.

The approach

Step one – benchmarking

I lead on digital channel development for the organisation and I’m a self-confessed geek especially around analytics, insights and business intelligence data.

So, that’s where I headed first. Start with looking at how your content is working for you now. Establish a baseline to work from in your future evaluation around engagement, reach, impressions and sentiment.

Understand where your current best practice lies and what doesn’t work so well.

I reviewed our core social channels looking at what our audiences were (and were not) responding to taking into account channel context and in particular the following:

  • Content type
  • Time/date of posting
  • Frequency of posting
  • Language used
  • Accessibility
  • Length of post text
  • Hashtags
  • Type of content – topic
  • Audience for each channel

Step two – external research

Research social media best practice.

Okay, I know, this is huge but there are some great resources out there. The key here is to have a starting point, mine was algorithms. Social media distribution is determined by highly sophisticated algorithms. Channels rarely give detailed insight into the priorities of those but it’s always worth subscribing to updates from senior members of those organisations for when they do.

Organisations heavily involved in social media do a great deal of research into algorithms and provide useful information, take a look at people like Hootsuite, HubSpot, Brandwatch as an easy place to start.

I’d looked through a lot of research data and then was fortunate to attend Dan Slee’s Essential Comms Skills training which also covers the importance of algorithms and algo friendly content. I had a lot of evidence around algorithm friendly content to apply.

Step three – collating the evidence

Using the business intelligence and qualitative data and the external research I was able to plot out some general good practice points around what would work for us. Sometimes our data didn’t match the external, for example around most effective times to post, so I selected the most effective for our organisation with a view to ongoing evaluation.

Step four – a one page of guidance

I put together a really simple one page guidance sheet for each channel that included:

  • Each channel’s audience (age, gender, average time spent on channel, % of our city population using)
  • Types of messages to use each channel for, e.g. Twitter; news, crisis comms, alerts, campaigns which use story telling via video or threads
  • Most engaged with content types on the channel
  • Text – optimum character length
  • Video – when to use, optimum video length, optimum format, direct uploads
  • Accessibility – emojis, hashtags, plain language, alt text etc
  • Type of images to use
  • Optimum times to post

Step five – implementation

I’ve led an informal, peer social media group which we created in January with representatives from the two teams posting to our channels. The group uses the guidance sheets as the baseline for quality assurance of all social content.

This can include working with teams to be more focused in channel choice, tweak content, suggest completely new creatives, look at jumping on relevant trending topics and much more.

The service work with algorithm-friendly, audience focused content at top-of-mind when developing social content in a more structured way than before. Having guidance and a structure has enabled a more creative approach to content planning and production.


Since the new process began in January we’ve seen some interesting results, some of which we hadn’t expected, some we’d aimed for:


We’ve vastly improved accessible content. On a personal note, I’m deaf and a huge advocate for accessible content, particularly as I experience barriers to that daily on social media. I’ve done a lot of CPD around accessibility in my own time and this was invaluable in supporting the service around these improvements.

Improving accessibility is a whole series of blog posts in itself but I’d recommend some quick reading at Planning, creating and publishing accessible social media campaigns – GCS ( and Accessible Social to get you started or to brush up your knowledge.

Team members have commented that they have learned a lot and, importantly, we’ve had feedback from disability groups about our content being more accessible. As social platforms improve accessibility features expect good accessibility to be a core consideration for algorithm distribution as well.

Engagement and volume of posts

We’ve seen a steady increase in engagement rates across all core channels whilst reducing the overall volume of posts. There has been increased positive interaction, including comments and higher click-through where a link is provided.

Impressions and reach

Ok I know this is a bit of a vanity metric but it’s been helpful in showing us that our content has been seen more and – since January – significantly more than it was before. We’re reaching more accounts than we did before making the changes.


We’ve seen a marked month on month increase of follower numbers across all accounts.


There are always improvements to be made and continuous monitoring, measuring and evaluation will inform that. Networks shift algorithm priorities quickly (think about Meta, who, relatively recently, changed algorithm priority from Stories to Reels on Instagram in response to TikTok), so keeping informed of those updates is crucial.

This might all sound like a lot of work (and it was) but it was pulled together really quickly and the positive results following implementation were very quickly realised. It’s time well-invested and saves resources later.

However your social media content is managed it’s always worth looking at the evidence and research you hold, internally and externally, and think about how you can tweak your approach to get better results.

Louise Gibson is the digital channels lead at Sheffield City Council. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: