You’d think that the world was coming to an end.
That was my thought as I read the response in the marketing and advertising trades over the last week since Facebook pulled the rug out from under publishers by making (yet another) algorithm change. What Facebook announced was that they are going to be prioritizing content from friends and family over public content posted by brands and publishers. Currently, they look at engagement metrics such as the number of likes and comments a post receives when determining where that post will appear in users’ News Feeds. That sparked publishers to create various forms of click-bait. This change will force publishers to create content that fosters engagement – comments, sharing, etc. – between friends to get the content shown more often.
Why is Facebook doing this? I’m assuming it’s based on two factors. The first is that by making it harder for brands to have their content displayed those brands will ramp up their ad spend on Facebook. That’s Facebook’s business, folks, and it’s hard to criticize them for that. In fact, I’d once again criticize those publishers who relied on Facebook for traffic rather than creating reasons for people to come to their content directly. Instead of spending resources trying to figure out how to game Facebook’s algorithm, maybe spending those resources on targeting specific audiences and bringing them to their content. Building a loyal audience of your own rather than being a remora of sorts on the back of another platform is smart even if it’s not nearly as easy. If you’re focused on creating engaging content that sparks conversations, I think you’ll be just fine, both on and off Facebook and other social platforms. Facebook must satisfy their users so they keep coming back and stay on the platform (younger users are abandoning it in droves). They own the audience – you don’t.
The second reason I assume Facebook is doing this is to mitigate the effect of “fake news.” Generally speaking, news outlets and especially dubious news outlets will show up less often in the News Feed. I don’t know if the algorithm has been tweaked to evaluate the authenticity of some post but I’m sure that unless something is interesting enough for users to share and comment on it will be downgraded.
Has this been a bit of a bait and switch by Facebook? After all, it has spent years cultivating publishers to build their brands on the platform and now, suddenly, it’s saying pay me or you’re on your own. No, it’s not. Any marketer should have been wise enough to know that the Facebook audiences are generally fly-bys – they don’t engage very much and they certainly aren’t very loyal based on what I’ve seen in the analytics I’ve looked at. Paid audiences are different, and while the short-term pain will be there, over the long-term learning to build better engagement is a positive. I’m sure we’ll see all sorts of brand posts begging people to comment and share in yet another attempt to game the algorithm. That’s too bad.
I’m also not sure how this will affect Facebook’s business. Think of travel agents. The number of them has declined precipitously (down about two-thirds) in the last 20 years as online travel sites grew and people could book themselves. Maybe as publishers get back to doing what they were doing before Facebook – creating loyal engaged audiences on their own platforms – they’ll figure out that a paid Facebook audience need to be icing and not cake. Maybe this isn’t the end of the world but just a fresh start?