Understanding what generates engagement on Facebook is key to maximizing reach and response, but Facebook is not overly forthcoming with its usage insights, which can make it hard to know what's getting the most traction with Facebook users.
Over the last few years, New York Times journalist Kevin Roose has sought to shed some light on this by tweeting out listings of the most popular Facebook posts, based on listings from Facebook's own CrowdTangle monitoring platform, on any given day. And those listings haven't exactly painted a positive image of how Facebook facilitates certain elements.
Today's top-performing Facebook link posts by US pages are from:— Kevin Roose (@kevinroose) July 20, 2020
1. Fox News
2. Fox News
3. Occupy Democrats
4. Fox News
5. Ben Shapiro
6. Ben Shapiro
7. Ben Shapiro
9. Blue Lives Matter
10. Dan Bongino
This week, however, Facebook decided that it was time to step in and clarify some key points about Roose's lists, which many have used to criticize The Social Network's negative, divisive impact.
As per John Hegeman, Facebook's Head of News Feed:
"Some important things to consider about these lists. [...] While some link posts get a lot of interactions, likes or comments, this content is a tiny percentage of what most people see on Facebook."
Hegeman says that while the information Roose uses to source his lists is accurate, it doesn't take into account the full scope of how people see content on the platform, because it only measures interactions on posts from publisher Pages, and doesn't factor in shares between users.
"[Posts] from these Pages don't represent the most-viewed news stories on Facebook. CrowdTangle calculates interactions, not impressions, which is the number of people who see posts. Pages in these lists see high engagement because followers, or those interacting w/ the posts, are passionate. But it shouldn't be confused with what's most popular."
So, essentially, Hegeman is saying that these posts might do well, relative to other Pages, but that's only one element of the broader Facebook engagement puzzle.
So what does do well? Hegeman also posted a few comparative examples of Roose's lists and the actual most popular posts on the platform on selected days.
As noted by Hegeman, the actual listings of the most popular posts on Facebook include "a mix of news from mainstream outlets, GIFs and other pop culture content".
Indeed, of the four daily lists Hegeman shared, these were the content splits:
So news content clearly dominates Facebook discussion, but it's not as specifically biased as Roose's original lists suggest.
Outside of news, listicles remain a winner on the platform, along with celebrity gossip and comedy posts, two of which were GIFs.
Of the news posts listed, around 12 were overtly political, with others looking at local crimes and COVID-19 related updates. This element is probably not as useful for marketers, but in terms of considering how you can utilize this insight in your approach, listicles and humorous posts should be on your radar.
The data provides some interesting insight, if not overly groundbreaking. You would probably have assumed, based on your own Facebook usage, that these would be the most popular content types, and creating catchy, lists and funny posts isn't necessarily easy. But if you were wondering what generates traction, and how you should look to focus your efforts for maximum reach, these could provide some considerations.
In terms of the broader question around Facebook's influence on general discourse, it's clear that Facebook has become a key news source for many, and therefore, what it's algorithm focuses on, and optimizes for, plays a significant role in what people subsequently see. And that can definitely influence opinions.
The problem, as always, is that if Facebook's system focuses on amplifying posts that spark engagement, that incentivizes more divisive, argumentative perspectives, as such posts will prompt heated debate in the comments.
If Facebook wants to maximize engagement, then divisive content seems to be an essential element within that, which means that, no matter how Facebook might frame it, it has reason to boost posts and updates which sow division.
So while Facebook says that its content split is actual not as concerning as Roose's original listings may suggest, the fact remains that debate is a key element in Facebook's incentivization matrix, in order to keep users posting, commenting, and coming back to the site.
Hegeman says that Facebook is exploring ways to share more insight like this to show what content is gaining the most traction across its network, which would be a valuable tool for researchers and marketers alike.