Whenever a big tech platform invokes a version of their origin story, you know they’re trying to spin something potentially controversial.
“We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us.” That’s how Mark Zuckerberg set up his post on January 11 breaking the news to brands and publishers that their non-paid reach (AKA “organic” reach) in Facebook’s news feed—which already took a huge hit several years ago—will soon drop off entirely. His announcement was followed by an official announcement from Facebook.
If you’re a brand that posts content to your Facebook wall on a daily or weekly basis, and if you don’t generally pay to boost that content to a larger chunk of your followers, this announcement could have big implications for you.
What Prompted This Change?
Facebook claims this change stems from its users’ increasingly passive consumption on the platform. In other words, scrolling and reading rather than sharing and commenting. To hear Facebook tell it, they’re concerned that this is preventing people from becoming “more connected,” happier, and healthier. One could argue that the real reason Facebook is trying to fight passive consumption is that it’s bad for business, in that it runs counter to keeping users active on the platform.
It’s common knowledge that Facebook is spooked by the kind of constant user activity fostered on Snapchat’s platform, even despite that company’s recent business woes. And regardless, Facebook knows it has to associate use of its platform with “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops,” which are more likely to be triggered by people interacting with each other than by people simply consuming and liking publisher content. So here we are—with an algorithm update that is about “bringing people closer together.”
This announcement also has a few other benefits for Facebook. By deprioritizing organic publisher content, it can begin to step away from its outsized and controversial role in news distribution which was at the core of charges that it allowed fake news to flourish. And that it was the Trojan Horse that enabled Russia to meddle with the U.S. electorate in the 2016.
On the Facebook Business Pages front, deprioritizing organic content will force brands and companies to put more thought into the content they push out on a weekly or daily basis. Generic posts lacking a compelling underlying concept will be D.O.A. from an organic content standpoint. This is probably good news for everyone except the brands that were treating the platform like a box to check on their digital marketing plan. The algorithm update will also make Facebook even more of a pay-to-play channel for brands than it already was. As always, Jon Loomer has a sage take on the various ways the update might impact the Facebook ads ecosystem.
What Does This Change Mean for Brands on Facebook?
Let’s quickly break down a few of the most important excerpts of the official announcement, extract the important bits from the PR fluff, and explore the implications. First up:
“[Facebook will] prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people…whether that’s a post from a friend seeking advice, a friend asking for recommendations for a trip, or a news article or video prompting lots of discussion.”
Facebook has always used a post’s Reactions, Comments, and Shares to help determine how much priority it gets in your news feed. What this update appears to do is put more weight behind a certain pattern of commenting (ex: a group of people engaging with each other in a post’s comments). Reactions and Shares will still factor in, but Facebook wants you to get chatty. (Shares are, of course, valuable in their own right outside of this algorithm conversation since they are the most direct way to drive earned media on Facebook.)
What is less clear is how brands’ organic posts will be weighted against posts from friends and family. You could reasonably react to the line I excerpted above by saying, “OK, so I see them calling out ‘friends,’ BUT as long as I prompt ‘conversations or meaningful interactions,’ then my organic reach should be OK, right?”
Hard to say. Later in the announcement, they restate this in a slightly different way and manage to make it even less clear:
“The impact [of this algorithm change] will vary from Page to Page….Pages making posts that people generally don’t react to or comment on could see the biggest decreases in distribution. Pages whose posts prompt conversations between friends will see less of an effect.”
See the problem? They basically conflate posts that drive reactions and comments with posts that “prompt conversations between friends.” I’ve helped plenty of brands cultivate the type of authentic engagement Facebook seems to want more of, but it doesn’t necessarily occur between people who are linked as friends. A more recent interview with Facebook’s Head of News Feed, Adam Mosseri, made it sound like the algorithm update will prioritize content that generates conversations between anyone (not exclusively people who are already linked as friends), but it’s still not totally clear, so we’ll just have to test and learn.
Organic Content Will Likely Still Have a Fighting Chance for Brands Willing to Invest
There are brands that maintain a daily or weekly Facebook presence because it’s been a line item in their marketing budget for the past years. They’re not sure why they’re doing it, they haven’t thought through how to meaningfully reach audiences important to their business, and they haven’t made significant investments in talent that truly understands the platform. Most of these brands will probably give up and go silent. Others will just stay on autopilot getting zero reach. Some might take a fresh look at why and how they use the platform, and perhaps switch to a more strategic paid-only approach.
There are other brands that know the value of Facebook follower engagement to their business, but haven’t yet cracked the code on how to keep their followers consistently engaged.* This announcement should be a fork in the road for them. They will have to decide if they want to invest in an insight-driven content strategy, and in original creative assets that pay off that strategy (hi!). They will have to decide how to approach boosted and “dark” posts differently in light of this change. Otherwise they’ll start to see their daily or weekly content efforts go from inconsistent to pointless. And if they’re looking for quick fixes like click-baiting or engagement baiting, Facebook has probably already headed them off.
And then there are brands who are ahead of the curve. Who know the value of Facebook to their business. Who have already decided that if you’re going to be on Facebook, you might as well do it right and create high quality content that will get the right people talking with you, talking with each other, and sharing your content. They know that high quality content doesn’t happen by guessing.
They know it takes research on their consumers’ attitudes and behaviors (on and off Facebook) and on their competitors’ activities to glean actionable insights. They know it takes a robust content strategy based on those insights to maximize the relevance of every post produced. They know it takes a crack creative team working from that strategy to ideate and execute social-first content that pops out of the feed and compels the audience to engage or take some specific action.**
A great example of this latter type of brand is our client, Ferguson Enterprises; specifically the Facebook presence of their “Trade” business which is focused on selling supplies to plumbers and contractors. Their posts are able to consistently engage this audience by knowing what will truly resonate with them. For a brand like Ferguson whose content is already generating organic conversations, shares, and positive reactions week after week is likely this algorithm update will have minimal impact, assuming that Facebook is going to prioritize posts more on the basis of “meaningful connections” than “friends interacting.” (Again, Facebook isn’t 100% clear on this.)
*(NOTE: I’m ignoring the viewpoint of the last-click-obsessed acquisition marketing crowd who would argue there isn’t any value in regular organic engagement. That’s another blog post for another day. But just because it’s currently difficult to measure its contribution to the business doesn’t mean it isn’t making a contribution.)
**And sometimes it takes media planners who know all of Facebook’s little tricks to give some content a boost when it will most benefit the brand.
A Few Words About Facebook Groups, Live Video, and “See First”
Some articles reacting to Facebook’s announcement have mentioned potential work-arounds to the algorithm update. “Start a branded Facebook Group” seems to be a popular refrain (Business Pages were granted the ability to do this last summer). For those of you not familiar, Facebook Groups are pretty much an updated version of bulletin board communities reimagined through Facebook’s UI.
The theory goes that brands could throw out interesting topics, fun visuals, polls, or whatever else gets people talking. Members of the group would get notifications (until they turn them off) when there are new posts, and the most engaging discussions would get surfaced in members’ news feeds perhaps now even more frequently given the nature of this algorithm update. This could work well for brands that are generally well-regarded by their customers (telecom companies and airlines would want to steer well clear), and have a lot of fodder for discussion.
But there is one important point to keep in mind: Facebook Groups are generally expected to have clear rules for moderation, and also give equal weight to any post made within them. Which means a member could make a post that is incisively critical of the brand but not against any advisable moderation guidelines which could then take off in a hurry within the Group. In other words, members (your audience) can reach each other in Groups far more easily than they do in, say, a comment to a post you made. A negative pile-on within your own Group might not be the worst scenario if the brand is equipped to respond effectively and authentically when addressing concerns. But a lot of brands might want to avoid opening that proverbial can o’ worms.
You no doubt know by now how desperately Facebook wants you to create video content for the news feed. It gets people to spend more time on the platform, users seem to like it, and it lets Facebook expand ad inventory. But this one little sentence from the aforementioned official announcement has some folks in a tizzy:
“Live videos often lead to discussion among viewers on Facebook—in fact, live videos on average get six times as many interactions as regular videos.”
This line has led people to speculate that live video is going to get more priority in the updated algorithm even against pre-recorded video, which has historically enjoyed preferred status in the news feed. This heightened importance for live video could be true, but how many brands are set up to produce live video on a daily or weekly basis? Sure, it could be done if the brand can get comfortable with completely new production approaches and approval processes. But what happens if a lot of brands do start to adopt a Facebook strategy with heavy use of live video? We’re right back to the flooded news feed problem that caused Facebook to crack down on brands’ and publishers’ organic content in the first place. Live Video can be great, but it can’t be the only solution.
Get Your Followers to Mark Your Page As “See First”
Digiday reports that Facebook has been emailing marketers who are concerned over the algorithm update, telling them they should ask their followers to mark their page as “see first” in the news feed preferences menu. This amounts to a double opt-in, and is not a realistic solution. Most people figure the initial “Liking” of a page should be enough to have its content pop up in their feed, and simply won’t go to the trouble to seek out that preference setting, even if they usually enjoy content from the brand.
The Era Being Able To Half-Ass Facebook Content Is Officially Over
Organic content from brands on Facebook has always had its work cut out for it. Brands compete with family updates, hilarious animal memes, friends’ photos from last night, and videos of various people looking impossibly attractive while on FOMO-inducing trips. We’ve curated this type of highly personalized “programming” with every Friend Request. Which means all but the savviest brands will feel irrelevant in our feeds. How could they not when competing with our content?
Paid ad placements fight a similar relevance battle in our feeds, but come with a different set of user assumptions. When users see the “Sponsored” designation, most of them accept the bargain that this company is financially supporting this thing they’re currently enjoying. Users aren’t likely to get too mad at Facebook for placing that content in front of them. It’s just an evolution of the television ad model. But if users started to perceive that Facebook was showing them brand content at the expense of posts from friends, family, or their crushes without any kind of bargain in place, then people would get irritated and Facebook might see increased user defection from the platform. None of this is typically a conscious reaction on the part of users, but that’s basically the reason that Facebook started curtailing the organic reach of marketers 5+ years ago.
The sheer breadth and number of people using Facebook every day means most brands need to be there or face mounting opportunity costs. And now being there means either buying reach or earning reach possibly both in a lot of cases. The days of getting some residual engagement just for making the effort are gone. Every brand on Facebook needs to decide now exactly what the platform is worth to them.