The biggest social media marketing news of the very new year, thus far, has been Facebook’s announcement that they’ll be implementing changes to their News Feed algorithm which will put increased emphasis on person-to-person interactions over person-to-Page engagement. In other words, the reach of Facebook Page posts is going to go down, even further than it already has.
There’s been much written about the reduction in Page reach, with experts predicting ever since the implementation of the algorithm system that The Social Network’s eventual goal would be ‘Facebook Zero’ – that Page posts will one day see no reach at all, unless businesses pay to promote them.
Last week’s announcement seems to further reinforce this theory, but given Facebook now drives so much referral traffic, it’s important to break down exactly what the announcement means, and how social media managers can revise their strategies accordingly – if that will make any difference.
As such, in this post, we’ll take a closer look at some of the specific statements made by Facebook within their announcement, the logic behind why such changes are being made and what brands can do to work with the new reality.
“The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos -- even if they're entertaining or informative -- may not be as good.”
This is the core focus of the statement on this change from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, which refers to research published by Facebook last year which acknowledged that there’s a direct connection between Facebook use and negative psychological impacts.
In fact, this connection has been made by various studies over the years, with Facebook being the specific focus (as opposed to social media more broadly).
A 2013 study conducted by Penn State drew direct connections between Facebook use and negative self-esteem; researchers from York University found that the people who use Facebook more often tend to have ‘narcissistic or insecure personalities’; scientists from the University of Michigan determined that the more people use Facebook, the more their life satisfaction levels decline.
There’s also this, from a study published last year in Harvard Business Review.
“Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year.”
Given the breadth of research, the focus here is no surprise, but Facebook’s report was the first time The Social Network had officially recognized the potential issue, and thus vowed to do something about it.
On the surface, this is a positive step, acknowledging a potential, significant, problem with their platform and working to address it, but the other side could be that Facebook’s merely getting in now to avoid potential impacts later. Given the recent furore over how The Social Network has been used to spread political propaganda and fake news, it may only be a matter of time before Governments start taking a closer look at such studies and questioning whether the platform needs to come under some level of regulation.
That could be disastrous for Zuck and Co - so while the outward message may be one of 'community good', as with everything Facebook, there’s also a clear business benefit. And it’s never 100% clear which is the larger focus.
But the bottom line here is that Facebook’s data shows that it’s better for people to interact, as opposed to scrolling through links.
But then again, even that directly relates to Facebook’s longer term business interests.
“With this update, we will prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people. To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and show these posts higher in feed. These are posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to – 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.”
Personal interactions on Facebook have been on a downward trend for some time. Back in 2016, The Information reported that Facebook had seen big declines in user engagement, with sharing of personal posts - like people's own thoughts and photos – falling some 21%. That’s a significant problem for The Social Network, as those personal posts are what fuel its almighty ad targeting system – but more than just insight, if those interactions are dropping, they're likely happening elsewhere.
Which is exactly what we’ve seen.
Now, theoretically, Facebook still wins in this scenario – Messenger and WhatsApp, both owned by Facebook, are the two biggest messaging apps in the world, with more than 2.6 billion cumulative monthly active users. But there are other competitors in there too, Snapchat being particularly notable among younger audiences.
The data suggests that personal engagement is... well, more engaging, and more likely to keep people interested, and on-platform, for longer, which is why Facebook’s trying out things like private comments on posts to keep people active.
On Instagram, they’re testing out private sharing to narrow down your post audience, but still keep people connected. The shift away from public social media posting, and towards more enclosed group conversation, is a key driver in Facebook’s new approach.
When social media first arrived, having your own public platform was great, but the negatives of that process quickly became apparent. Posted content stays on your personal record, sometimes even if you delete it – which, for those young people now moving into the workforce, means almost every embarrassing moment from their teenage years is recorded, archived, and available for all to see. Hence, private sharing has become popular, and looks set to become even more popular moving forward.
Facebook could ignore this and continue doing what they always have, or they can recognize it and put more focus on such sharing on their main platform - which is another key element of this update.
As noted by Facebook’s News Feed head of News Feed Adam Mosseri in his notes on the types of posts that will continue to appear higher in News Feeds:
“In Groups, people often interact around public content. Local businesses connect with their communities by posting relevant updates and creating events.”
Facebook’s been putting increased emphasis on Groups over the past year – and worth noting, Facebook Groups now have more than a billion monthly active users, which is more than Instagram and Snapchat’s total user bases combined. Groups enable this type of more private sharing, in line with the migration away from public broadcasting, which is why Facebook sees it as an option. The resulting decline in Page reach will no doubt see more emphasis placed on groups, particularly given Pages can now create their own linked groups.
Groups can’t replace Pages, it’s unlikely they’ll drive the same amount of traffic, or even provide a stop gap in the referral clicks you might’ve seen, dependent on exactly how Facebook goes about their changes. But you can see where Facebook’s headed with this, why they’re moving in this direction – though it is also interesting to note the potential impacts of this change in regards to the wider Facebook controversies of the time.
“Page posts that generate conversation between people will show higher in News Feed. For example, 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. Many creators who post videos on Facebook prompt discussion among their followers, as do posts from celebrities.”
This is another example of the dichotomy of Facebook’s changes. As outlined above, the need for person-to-person conversation makes sense, but you know what type of content tends to drive a lot of comments and discussion? Divisive, politically-charged posts and fake news like this:
As you can see, there are more than 1,500 comments on this post. But it’s not true. White-tail spider bites are certainly not pleasant, but they don't generally lead to amputation - a fact which is clarified in the second sentence of the story.
"Doctors are now understood to be considering the more likely cause of Terry Pareja's illness to be a bacteria from Asia."
This is further underlined in the rest of the article.
"But Mr Pareja doesn't remember being bitten by a white-tailed spider, and even if he had been, it is unlikely its venom would have caused the necrosis, an expert says."
But that doesn’t matter, the conversation has been triggered by the headline, with users sharing their own horror stories and experiences. This is an example of how sensationalism is rewarded by Facebook’s algorithm – which is also evident in this story, one of those posted by a Russian-affiliated group in the lead up to the 2016 US Presidential election:
Given there’ll be more emphasis on posts that generate discussion, it’s hard to see how these News Feed changes will limit or penalize such behavior – which, seemingly, would have appeared to be at least part of the motivation behind Facebook’s shift.
Are the changes driven by a desire to ‘make sure the time we spend on Facebook is time well spent’, as explained by Zuckerberg, or are they driven by the desire to make Facebook as sticky as possible – with the added bonus of reducing Page reach, forcing businesses to pay for ads?
As noted, the actual motivations are never 100% clear. But it is happening, regardless of core logic.
So what can you do?
The real question Facebook Page managers now have is what can they do - what can be done to limit the impacts, to counter the algorithm shifts and maintain their Facebook traffic?
Really, it’s impossible to know, because we don’t know exactly how Facebook’s going to enact the changes, nor how quickly they'll come or how significant they'll be. Facebook has forewarned that:
“Over time, we believe people will see more posts from people they’re connected to, and less content from publishers.”
So the fact that they are giving Pages the heads up definitely feels ominous. Yet the specifics are unclear.
What we can assume is this – Facebook’s algorithm will change to ut more emphasis on personal engagement over other factors to some degree. As a refresher, the key traits Facebook weighs in the algorithm are:
- Who posted it, and how you’re connected to them (and your interaction history)
- When it was posted (newer posts weighted more heavily)
- The type of post (whether you regularly view videos, read links, etc)
- Engagement (how, and how many, other people have responded)
In addition to these core factors, Facebook also takes into account a heap of other considerations.
Here’s where the new shifts will likely see impact – Facebook seems set to dial up the relevance of the ‘Likelihood to comment’ measure, which may, in fact, more it to the core listing. That would mean that the five key factors you need to keep in mind are:
- Who posted it
- When it was posted
- Type of post
- Likelihood to drive conversation
This is similar to other Facebook News Feed algorithm recipes which have been outlined before - TechCrunch’s summary has been particularly popular.
This just adds another element in, one which was already measured, but will now see more emphasis.
As such, Pages will need to consider the conversation, not just the content, how your posts drive genuine engagement. Again, that’s not definitive - we won’t know the exact impacts till Facebook rolls them out - but going on what’s been communicated, this seems to be the focus.
As such, when you go about composing your Facebook posts, social media managers need to weigh each of these elements, and consider their impact. Most good social managers are already covering the first four – you would already have been working to reinforce that connection with your audience, and would be aware of the benefits of timeliness and driving engagement. But how likely are your posts to generate conversation between people? That’s where you need to be looking.
Facebook notes that live video can be a good driver of conversation:
“…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.”
As noted, Facebook also emphasizes groups and normal video posts, while ‘posts from celebrities’ are also among their tips for how to generate engagement. That could see more emphasis placed on influencer marketing, which Facebook has been working to facilitate with Branded Content Tags.
Those, of course, won’t be options for everyone, but the key element all Facebook managers need to consider is how their posts drive conversation.
Can you facilitate broader discussion by posting in groups? Can you prompt more interaction by responding to comments (which would mean setting aside time to do so)? What are the topics that are driving conversation amongst your target audience, and is there a brand-relevant angle you can use to tap into those threads?
Essentially, the changes will put more emphasis on audience research and knowledge, and push more businesses to take the time to learn what their audience wants - as opposed to posting what they want to tell them. That’s good social media management anyway, and should be a focus for any business looking to improve their performance. But now, it may just prove crucial.
The other key lesson brands should learn is that they need to diversify their sources. If you’ve been building reliance on Facebook, it might be time to brush up on your SEO skills, or your understanding of other social platforms. Sure, none of them are going to provide you with the potential reach Facebook can, but cumulatively, maybe they can help soften any loss in traffic from The Social Network.
It takes more work, you need to allocate more time to research and development, both on and off Facebook, which is never ideal for time-strapped managers. But doing so can facilitate greater audience understanding, which will improve your performance overall.
The tools are available to develop better, more focused, audience-centric strategies. In 2018, you’re going to have to use them.