Over the past decade, brands and agencies have devoted teams, funds, and other resources to expanding their social media followings. Along with a large audience, the focus has been on boosting the number of likes, retweets, favorites, and replies--all with little regard for the quality of engagement.

On Jan. 27, 2018, The New York Times published "The Follower Factory," a bombshell report that examines the purchasing of social media followers, many of which are bots. With the increased exposure of this quantity-over-quality approach, brands are pushing their agencies to take charge of oversight. Understanding content engagement--and particularly the importance of a cultivated audience--is more essential now than ever before.

The Future of Analytics, Today

Moving forward, brands will be looking more into the analytics behind social following to ensure that they are reaching a truly engaged audience. For example, SocialRank for Content allows brands to drop in a post from either Twitter or Instagram and generate a SocialRank report based on each user that has engaged with it (as shown by retweets and replies on Twitter and likes and comments on Instagram). The goal is to help show the data and accounts behind engagement on social platforms in an effort to combat the long-running decline in quality.

With new tools like this emerging, users can now fully grasp who engages with a post, answering questions like: how did a post go viral, what similar interests does an audience have, what posts attract which demographics, who should be targeted in the future, and more. Not only that, but an analysis like this can expose fake followers and fake engagement, two concerns that are at the forefront of the conversation.

A Tale of Two Tweets

If you are worried about fake followers, such an analysis is now a lot easier to do. For me, I'm consistently looking at the people who are engaging with my content, what they are discussing, and who else they trust. Here's an example of how you could run through an analysis to identify these things.

The morning after his first State of the Union speech, President Trump shared a tweet regarding his speech's viewership, along with praise of his favorite network, Fox News:

The same day, an account named @RVAwonk responded to the speech by criticizing the president's failure to acknowledge the #MeToo movement:

After running these posts (and the hundreds of thousands of users who had interacted with them) through the tool, a user can learn exactly who is engaging with each piece of content. An engagement analysis can reveal:

1. How engagers identify.

By analyzing the bios of social media accounts that engage with a particular post, individuals and businesses can build a picture of how their audiences choose to identify themselves.

Of those engaging with Trump's tweet, over 4,000 users proclaim themselves Trump fans in their bios, with another 4,000 using the acronym "MAGA." Other popular words include "conservative," "proud," "God," "America," and "country."

The summary report for Trump's tweet showed that 56.8 percent of those who engaged are male and 43.2 percent female; 30.12 percent have 0-25 followers themselves, while only 0.96 percent have over 100,000 followers. As for usage frequency, 90.3 percent have been recently inactive in terms of posting from their own accounts.

The analysis of RVAwonk's post told a more complicated story. Regardless of the tweet's dig at the president, 417 of those who engaged are self-proclaimed members of the #TrumpTrain. SocialRank found that 62.7 percent of post's total engagement came from women, but the top cities that engaged are located in blue, red, and swing states alike.

2. What engagers discuss.

Trump's engagers also share a number of political hashtags in their own content. #MAGA, #ReleaseTheMemo, #TrumpShutdown, #FakeNews, #ImpeachTrump, and #SOTU were talked about by 26,000 of those engaging with this tweet alone.

Although their political parties varied, those who engaged with RVAwonk's tweet most commonly used hashtags invoking the State of the Union (#SOTU), the most recent government shutdown (#TrumpShutdown), Make America Great Again (#MAGA), and equally political messages.

3. Who else engagers follow and trust.

Out of the thousands of accounts interacting with Trump's post, some of the most valuable include loyal supporters @DiamondandSilk, host of Diamond and Silk Chit Chat Live; Jack Posobiec (@JackPosobiec), a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer; and America First (@AmericaFirstPAC), a PAC dedicated to electing federal candidates who support the Trump administration's agenda.

For RVAwonk's tweet, outside of her own audience, traffic and retweets hitting five times her account average can be attributed to a number of users, with Pedro da Costa (@pdacosta), a verified senior correspondent at Business Insider, being the first large account to share her message. Stephanie Miller (@StephMillerShow), host of the Stephanie Miller Show, was another public figure to increase the traffic of this post early on. The most valuable account to retweet RVAwonk's content was a meme account titled "Aunt Crabby" (@DearAuntCrabby), with a following of 130,600.

What can your brand do with such information about your own content? You can start by deleting or more actively monitoring users (if any) who engage in profane language so they don't create a negative experience for your other followers. You could run a campaign targeting the users who were tagged in Twitter comments. Or you could reframe your content to appeal to the largest demographic of users from a geographic region where engagement was high--or, alternatively, try to increase engagement in a region that showed low interaction levels. Better understanding the actual people behind the engagement with your posts can empower you to increase the success and authenticity of your ongoing social efforts.

This last year has shone a light on users' lack of trust in many types of media. Addressing this issue will require more analysis similar to how I walked through the examples above. High-level numbers for engagement and followers are no longer enough. The new age of reckoning on social media is calling all brands to lose their thirst for vanity metrics and move forward into the era of quality over quantity. Brands and agencies will soon jump into a more data-driven world. The quality of followers and engagement is a vital trend that cannot be ignored.