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Facebook's Testing a New 'Topics to Follow' Option to Get More Content into Your News Feed

In a recent session on Facebook’s News Feed algorithm and how it works, News Feed VP Adam Mosseri noted that one of their key areas of focus for News Feed moving forward will be discovery and helping users uncover more relevant information from Pages and people they don’t follow.

As explained by Mosseri:

“We want to a better job helping people learn about stuff that they might not even know exists yet, but they would love or find interesting or meaningful in their lives”

Facebook’s actually been trying to do this for some time – a year ago, they tried out alternate, topic-based News Feeds for some users in the app, while more recently they’ve been testing a new ‘rocket’’ tab which connects users to a listing of posts Facebook thinks you might like from sources you're not following.

Alternate News Feed listings (left) and the new ‘rocket’ tab

And now, TechCrunch has reported on a new discovery test - but this time, Facebook’s looking to bring fresh content direct into your feed, as opposed to relying on users to click elsewhere.

As explained by TechCrunch, some users are being shown a “Topics to Follow” box in their News Feed which provides them with a list of topics to choose from – you can see the prompt in the first image in the sequence below.

Image via TechCrunch

Once you tap on one of these topics, you’re given the option to follow that subject, with a listing of all the sources that Facebook is using to bring you relevant information on the theme. It’s unclear whether you have the option to edit this list, or if it’s only to show you which sources you’ll be following if you choose to click on ‘Follow Topic’.

Once you do follow a chosen topic, those stories will be added into your News Feed – these will obviously still be shown to you based on your engagement, as per normal News Feed process, but as noted, rather than giving you an alternate feed to click across to, Facebook’s now trying to find a way to better engage users in the stream they’re familiar with, which could help increase adoption – and ideally, broaden perspectives.

Providing greater perspective has become a bigger focus for Facebook in recent times, with concerns about filter bubbles and the echo-chamber effect putting increased pressure on The Social Network act and avoid the facilitation of the spread of fake news. Or, maybe worse, making it easy to filter out dissenting viewpoints, which, in effect, fuels confirmation bias, leading to greater polarization in the community. The only way around this is to show users more perspectives, which they’re trying to do. But the battle against telling people what they want to hear may not be so easy.

At this stage, the topics on offer are fairly ‘safe’, there are no political subjects or polarizing issues to select, but you can see how Facebook may try to use the tool to provide alternate perspective, if it proves popular. This is in line with another recent initiative to curb the spread of disputed news content by providing links to alternate, authoritative stories on the same subject along with the main post.

The tests are interesting in themselves, and it’s impossible to know what users will and won’t respond to, but they do also highlight the challenge Facebook faces in broadening people’s horizons. The very model Facebook has been built upon is providing you with only the content most relevant to you, which puts the user in full control. Inevitably, there'll also be some downsides to this, but countering it goes against that which has seen The Social Network achieve greatest success.

From a social marketing perspective, the addition of new ways to uncover content provides more capacity to get more people to see your content. Now, rather than just the main News Feed, there’ll be additional opportunities for exposure in topic listings - if, of course, it sees a wider roll-out. This should increase brand exposure, though the actual impacts will be driven by how popular the option is and how much authority Facebook gives such topics in the algorithm.

For now, we have to wait and see, but expect to see more Facebook experiments on this front on future – and to consider the marketing potential of such tools as they’re developed.  

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