Feb 05, 2018

in News

It’s Not You, It’s Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm

Facebook recently announced that its News Feed feature will prioritize posts from family and friends over content published by organizations and brands. In the wake of these sweeping changes, all manner of publishers from media companies to political campaigns are being forced to rethink how they use Facebook as a content distribution platform. Read more to learn some of the clever tricks some publishers have already developed in order to get their content seen without having to pay for it -- and what we recommend.

by Lyla Wilton

Don’t have time to read this full post? Here are three things you can do to make sure your organization’s content continues to appear on the screens of your target audience:

1. Produce and post video. “Pivoting to video” didn’t become a catch phrase for no reason. People love watching videos on Facebook — but remember the context. Facebook isn’t a place for you to post the video of your two-hour long committee meeting. Videos should be short, punchy, and include on-screen text for the majority of people who will see the video without sound.

2. Whatever you’re posting on Facebook, write an accompanying caption that solicits a response. Social media is a two-way communication, not broadcast medium. People want to share their opinions and, the more they do, the more the Facebook algorithm will share your content with others who might want to share their thoughts.

3. Take an audience-first approach. More than anything, don’t think of Facebook as a place where you can post the content that you want your audience to see. Think of it as a place where you produce the content that your audience wants to see. Take a look at the posts that have performed the best in the past, identify what it was that your audience liked most about them, and do more of that!

On January 12th, CEO Mark Zuckerberg pulled back the curtain on a sweeping change to a central element of Facebook’s platform: the News Feed. He announced that the News Feed prioritizes posts that friends and family interact with while de-emphasizing content posted organically by brands, publishers, and media companies.

Why all these changes? Survey data revealed complaints that feeds have “shifted too far away from friends and family-related content,” crowded out by branded posts. Is that so bad? Facebook and the outside research they cite say that passive consumption on the platform leads to worse moods and mental health outcomes, while people who interact actively through messages, comments, and posts reported improvements in social support, depression, and loneliness. Facebook contends that “it’s about how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being.” So, they are changing how we all use Facebook.

Zuckerberg has predicted that these changes will likely reduce the time spent on Facebook, working against its immediate business interests. The day after the public announcement, his personal fortune fell $3.3 billion dollars. But he is confident that the time that is spent on Facebook will be more valuable, and that the change will prove a savvy business decision in the long run.  

This is not a welcome change for brands that rely on Facebook for organic marketing or publishers who depend on Facebook as a primary means of content distribution. Pages will see metrics such as reach, video watch time, and referral traffic decrease dramatically, as their posts are shown less frequently and to fewer users. For example, organic Facebook views per video declined by 8% in the third quarter of 2017, and another 15% in the fourth.

This “mass deprioritization” has publishers rethinking their distribution strategies. NowThis, a producer of short-form video content published their content exclusively to Facebook until recently. However, as these changes dramatically reduce their ability to reach users, NowThis has recently reinstated their website. Buzzfeed, a publisher which also relies on Facebook for a hefty share of its readership, has responded to this change by running ads promoting their Buzzfeed mobile app in hopes of expanding the platforms on which their content is consumed. In a series of prescient moves over the past year, Slate has worked to reduce its dependence on the platform, revamping its newsletter, and investing in podcasts. It worked — Facebook has gone from providing 30% of Slate’s monthly traffic, to less than 10%.

And it’s not just content publishers which are taking note of how this change will shift strategy. For example, it has implications too for how political campaigns reach voters. Seasoned experts in the political campaign space are voicing the need for outreach that extends past a phone call or knock on the door. While meeting voters where they are and developing personal connections have always been at the core of the progressive campaign gospel, translating this engagement to Facebook — whether that means commenting on politically focused social media posts with ways to get involved or maintaining an active presence in local Facebook groups — will now likely prove more effective than ever.

Some publishers have gone to extreme measures to outsmart the algorithm. When Facebook announced the elevation of video content over still image posts, publishers without the capacity for video production had to get creative. Last July, one publisher posted what appeared to be a live video stream of a huge electrical storm. The stream lasted over 3 hours, driving 22 million views during that time. The catch? The video wasn’t a live stream at all, but rather a 5-second GIF repeating itself over and over for 3 hours. Other publishers have attempted to game the system by posting still images, largely memes, as videos. Facebook inevitably took note, and responded with a tweak to its algorithm to recognize still images posted as videos by flagging those that did not contain any moving elements. In the wake of this change, users started to notice what appear to be floating translucent triangles or arrows on top of the still image videos. These moving shapes represent the latest attempt to trick Facebook’s algorithm into treating these still images as videos and drive a higher reach.

Tricks like those will inevitably only work for a short time. Rather than playing cat and mouse with Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm, we recommend taking a longer view on how to earn the attention of your audience and maximize the reach of organic content. Post content that encourages active engagement from users, such as comments and shares. Skip a repost of a relevant long form article, and opt instead for posting authentic new photos, video content, or a live-streamed video. Put testimonials and comments from real people front and center to boost the human face of a page. Instead of a statement, integrate language that asks questions of those who see it, that sparks conversation.

In short, we’ll all need to work harder to develop an audience-first mentality when creating social media content. Ultimately, it has always been true that good content is content that makes people think, react, and engage. What is new is the penalty publishers will pay for failing to meet that criteria. Strategic changes can help publishers maximize organic reach in the face of this shift, but Facebook has made clear that no matter what, publisher content is no longer king.

Branded content, however, will continue to reign supreme in one area: Facebook’s digital advertising platform. The changes that Facebook has and will continue to make to the News Feed does not affect the process through which digital ads reach its users. In order to make up for lost reach of organic content, publishers should focus their efforts and their dollars on brand awareness and video views campaigns which most effectively drive up reach.

At Precision, our digital strategy and advertising teams work in close collaboration to strike the right balance between growing an organization’s audience and reach while meaningfully engaging those supporters online. This is surely not the last time that a seemingly minor shift in a social platform’s algorithm sends publishers and organizations spiraling into panic. It has become more important than ever that content distribution and digital strategy be dynamic, coordinated, and diverse.

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