When Facebook flutters its wings, the world of social media feels its effects-for better or worse. One such recent "flutter" was a change to the EdgeRank algorithm that Facebook's Will Cathcart swears was meant to limit spam and not, as some accuse, to drive brands to buy more promoted posts. Whatever the reason behind the changes, Renegade has found significant evidence that the changes have negatively affected the reach of branded pages, especially those using photos as their primary post type.
Below you see a graph representing a branded Facebook page's posts from July 2012 through October 2012 in which we examined a few key elements: reach, post type and virality. As you may know, virality is the number of people "talking about this" divided by the total reach of the post. We chose this particular brand because it had long enjoyed significant engagement with an organically built fan base and had been consistent with the types and quantity of posts over the four-month time period.
We've chosen to show reach as a percentage of total page likes to normalize the change in fan growth; essentially, this makes all posts equal relative to the number of fans. If it is true that posts on average are seen by 16% of your fans, then most of the posts should hover around that blue line, with the more viral ones (larger bubbles) above that line. However, that was not the case--overall page reach declined, and with some types of content, the decline was remarkable.
Even more disturbing is the fact that despite similar virality of many October posts, they simply didn't achieve anywhere near the same kind of reach as equally or even less viral posts in August. This means that even if your fans are demonstrating legitimate engagement with a particular post, the reach of that post is still going to be throttled by the new algorithm.
One other finding of note is that rich media content-that is, posts that include photos or video-saw a greater decline in reach than your basic all-text status updates. Represented by the orange and red dots, respectively, on the graph, photo and video posts showed a huge decline in reach regardless of the level of virality. In contrast, the reach of text-only status updates, represented by the green dots on the graph, hovered around the 16% line and even showed some upward movement towards the end of October.
Just in case you found the above chart confusing, the one below simply plots out the absolute reach of each post over the same time period (with the numbers removed to protect confidentiality). With this chart, you can see the dramatic decline in average daily reach (-35%) between August posts and October posts. This is what most pages have reported and why the accusations against Facebook have been flying across the net.
In order to make sure we were comparing apples to apples in terms of post types, we broke this down even further to compare posts with photos, posts with videos and text-only status updates in the chart below. And then to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt, we selected comparable posts from October that had higher levels of total actions (likes, comments and shares) and more engaged users. Amazingly, despite the head start we gave the October posts, Facebook's new algorithm has decreased reach by 30% or more for both photo and video posts. However, less engaging status updates (plain text with no previews) seem to be unaffected or only slightly affected by the changes.
Recognizing that the branded page we are studying here is but one example, we ran the same kind of analysis on other branded Facebook pages, and the results were consistent with the example above, regardless of the size or nature of the fan base. For example, a brand page that had grown organically and another that had grown through sponsored posts both saw the same declines in reach during the same time frame.
Whether it's intentional or not, Facebook is sending a complex message to marketers. First, don't over-do it with photos and videos-you'll reach and engage about the same number of fans with a pithy text-only status update. In fact, it would be safe to conclude from this data that Facebook's changes to EdgeRank have significantly devalued rich content posts like photos and videos. Second, if you want to reach more of your fans, you'll just have to pay for it, regardless of the quality of your content or the genuine interest of your fan base.
The findings above are consistent with a recent study by Group M Next that revealed a 38% drop in percent of Facebook users that see an organic post by a brand they like. While Renegade does not believe that Facebook made these changes out of avarice, the results are pretty much the same-the value of a fan has been deflated and the cost of engaging more than a small percentage of them has increased.