Carl Barenbrug

Product design, creative direction

The Losing Battle Against Social Media

I write without the intention of this being just another rant about social media algorithms. I mean, I will rant, but I will also explore solutions. So bear with me.

I think for the past couple of years I have been feeling increasingly disillusioned with some social media platforms, particularly Instagram. Since I started posting over six years ago, Minimalissimo's IG account has organically amassed a substantial following. The account's growth was something I felt genuinely quite proud of and over a short period of time, things were picking up good momentum. It felt like a great marketing tool and when I eventually tied in the online shop, we were even seeing a nice impact on sales numbers. Our follower numbers also seemed to command a lot of respect in the design industry, which in retrospect is pretty amusing. Then things started to change. Let's call it an algorithm adjustment. We all love to hate on it and for good reason. The realisation became clear that as a result of this adjustment we as users of a massive conglomerate (Meta), have absolutely no control over what is seen by others. We are like kites dancing in a hurricane. Yet we persist. We adapt to their algorithms and we follow their rules. We think platforms like Instagram add so much value to our work but in reality we see very little return on our time, creativity, and curation. This might not be the case for large organisations that have deep pockets for advertising where they can force visibility, but small businesses don't. Minimalissimo sure as shit doesn't. So where does that leave us?

Well, we can play the game. We can follow the sheep while being guided by those who control things. Currently, that means more original content and more video. You see, Instagram is very clearly moving to compete with the unrelenting growth of TikTok, so the days of IG being a photo sharing site are essentially gone. There might be some semblance of it remaining, but using that method as primary material for your feed spells nothing but disappointment and lack of engagement. Unfortunately, in the case of Minimalissimo, creating video content is not really compatible. I also don't have the time to put into video capture and editing. Especially when social media is ultimately a support act to what I consider the product: the website. Or we can simply persevere with static images and curate a beautiful visual feed and live in hope that perhaps the algorithm will once again align with this approach. I write this with a wry smile.

I wish I could just focus on the site. All I want to do is write a feature and press publish and be done with it. None of this added labour just to get the shit noticed. I could automate posting to some social platforms upon publishing an article, but there are limitations to that. So with the acceptance that unless I put money and resource into social media, things are unlikely to improve. Therefore, a change of strategy is required. I'm going to put Twitter aside for now—we are actually seeing reasonable growth and engagement (for the time being at least). And with Elon's imminent impact on the platform, it's going to be interesting to see how that evolves.

Assets we control

What can we control? For starters, the websites we own and our newsletters. That is where attention needs to be directed. The Minimalissimo web estate has always been my priority and that is where I ultimately want readers and followers to visit. Social media is simply a means to an end. Visiting the site is one thing, retaining visitors and gaining newsletter subscribers is another. Then there's a small matter of ensuring those subscribers are genuinely interested and engaged and not simply making up the numbers. I do have one regret: waiting until 2019 to set up a newsletter. It seems absolutely mental thinking about it in hindsight. I could have capitalised on Minimalissimo's popularity pre-social media and probably amassed several hundred thousand subscribers—an incredibly valuable opportunity missed. Alas, I was late to the game but at least I played, and from day 1, it has always been about quality over quantity. And as a result of this, our newsletter subscribers are only sitting at a couple of thousand and require double-opt-in to be confirmed. So growth is very conservative, but I want to explore ways of growing this list and with it, engagement and dare I say it, community. How do I do that?

Short-term solutions

This is a design challenge with constraints. How do you get something noticed without making noise? By noise, I mean doing things like displaying obtrusive pop-ups and modals that demand your attention the second you land on a site. I know this approach actually works—it has a strong conversion rate. It's just fucking annoying and sites that do it are typically forgiven because they are offering a discount on purchases in exchange. I don't like it, but I am not averse to some kind of subtle and significantly delayed subscription prompt. There's a right way and a wrong way of doing this and conversion is not the sole criteria. So it's tempting to experiment with. I might just need to convince Manu to code it, which is a challenge in of itself because he's not fond of these things to say the least.

Our new site redesign does have a comparatively bold and simple invitation to subscribe for updates, but it remains in the footer. I do expect there to be an increase purely as a consequence of this small change, but it won't be significant. A further refinement to this could be a link to a newsletter sample. I recently improved the design of the web version, so it's useful to refer to. Should there be a call to action in the header somewhere too? Probably not, but it might be worth considering. Could there be a small text-based invitation at the end of each article? Potentially, but given how succinct our posts are, it might not strike the right balance. Another potential solution could be to run periodic product giveaways with entry criteria being newsletter signup, but it does run the risk of fleeting rather than sustained interest and it feels very similar to the discount on signup strategy. I don't currently invite customers to subscribe to the newsletter upon email receipt of purchase in the shop either, so that's something I could and should address. Related to the shop, I could quite easily subscribe every customer to the newsletter (like most retailers do) under the guise of legitimate interest, but I'm not going to do that. I want people to intentionally subscribe. You can tell I am not very good at sales, right?

I could even consider migrating the Minimalissimo newsletter from Buttondown to Revue. This would then allow us to capitalise on our Twitter audience because Revue newsletters are promoted quite heavily within the bio of a Twitter profile. But then doing this essentially pulls me back into the shackles of social media as a reliant tool. And I don't want that. Plus, BD is awesome and I want to support Justin.

There's a lot to think about there. Are any of the above solutions innovative? Definitely not. But the ones I might explore are at least honest and respectful. And I would much rather try to build trust with readers rather than treat them like a number.

Long-term solutions

Although newsletters will always remain a strong asset for any company or individual creator, there are alternative solutions to social media platforms. One such solution centres around the concept of go-to-community (GTC), which basically means creating a space for people with a common interest to meet and discuss feedback, challenges, ideas, and strategies around a particular topic, product, or brand, while at the same time supporting your business through raising awareness and referring your product to others. And in return they are given certain control over directions the business might go or in some cases, create a byproduct where they too can directly benefit.

Further to this, there is also an option to explore a web3 tokenised community. This might not be specifically for Minimalissimo, but possibly something that centres around minimalism in a more general sense. It might also feel a tad new-age-nonsense to you, but if there is a strong enough incentive and curiosity for people to join, then it could be a really interesting direction long-term. An example of its effectiveness could be opportunities to collaborate on product design between a couple of individuals or a group. The obvious concern with this approach is if you create a community, how does it scale and to what extent? How much time and resource would that take to manage? Would it ultimately be worthwhile? The only way to find out is to experiment.

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