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Social savvy | Facebook’s woes and what algorithm changes mean for content marketers

Facebook's annus horribilis means content marketers can expect further changes.

Facebook has had a terrible week. Mark Zuckerberg has apologised for a “massive breach of trust” over the Cambridge Analytica scandal – the latest in mounting criticism of the platform. Content marketers can expect changes, but how have they adapted so far?

With condemnation around ‘fake news’, declines in organic sharing and concerns about the psychological impact of ‘passive’ social media use, Facebook is attempting to soothe a number of challenges. That was before allegations that Cambridge Analytica used data from 50 million Facebook accounts to target political advertising during the 2016 presidential election.

In response to the latest scandal, Zuckerberg said it will introduce changes such as stricter rules for third-party apps that collect data and a new section in the Newsfeed where users can review what third-party apps use their data.

But it’s not the first adjustment this year. On Jan 11, Zuckerberg uploaded a post announcing changes to Facebook’s algorithm. These changes would deprioritise brands’ and publishers’ content by focusing on “meaningful connections”.

We take a quick look at how content marketers have reacted to the changes and strategies they may take in the future.

Passive versus active engagement

First, however, a key distinction to make is between passive and active engagement – this determines what is a “meaningful connection” and what falls short.

Passive engagement requires the least amount of action required. It means moving a mouse (or your thumb if your using mobile) and clicking. In the Facebook world, passive engagement would mean the only interaction you had with a post was to like it or use one of the reactions (eg: love, sad, haha etc).

Active engagement is when someone has read a post and found it useful enough to add to the conversation with a comment. Or passed on the information to friends through the share function. This requires more effort to do than clicking a button and shows more engagement overall. You have to plan your thoughts to write a worthwhile comment, for example.

Mark Zuckerberg said “passively reading articles or watching videos – even if they’re entertaining or informative – may not be as good” for creating “meaningful engagement”.

The changes mean that watching a video without sound, as many people do, is not valuable. Liking an article also isn’t valuable. Thoughtful exchanges between people in the comments section of a post or people sharing content between friends is valuable

Important information will, it’s hoped, reach your Newsfeed because your friends, family and larger community think it is important.

So how have brands and publishers responded?

When something as big as Facebook is a key part of an organisation’s distribution efforts, even a small change will disrupt the ecosystem. A Dutch TV station encouraged publishers to follow its lead in taking a “Facebook fast”. Brazil’s largest newspaper pulled its content from Facebook, arguing that the change would aid the proliferation of ‘fake news’ by effectively silencing trusted publishers. Some publishers have turned to other social media platforms.

Publishers like The New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post and Bloomberg News have all recently created special-interest Facebook groups. Groups tend to inspire a lot of conversation and valuable interactions. Organisations using groups hope that increased interactions will mean their content is seen. The NYT Australia group, for example, has close to 6,000 members and posts their content regularly.

Locally, publishers like the ABC and the Guardian have added Facebook Messenger to their distribution strategies through the use of chatbots. These chatbots sent a round up of articles to engaged users and offer an alternative method that isn’t reliant on the whims of an algorithm.

A number of publishers, brands and content creators also made posts reaching out to their followers to encourage them to use the ‘see first’ option at the time of the algorithm change. When users make this selection it signals to Facebook that they find the content engaging and want to see more of it in their Newsfeed. But it is unclear how many groups have been successful in driving audiences to take this action.

How has this affected content marketers?

At this stage, we are already seeing some trends. Chartbeat data showed Facebook traffic to publishers declined six per cent since the beginning of January.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has caused users to campaign to delete Facebook altogether. Even if this does not cause a mass exodus it has damaged users trust in Facebook, and possibly made them more wary of marketers who use it. Organic reach will continue to decrease and we’ll need to put more time into building the trust of engaged audiences on more channels.

I’ve always eye-rolled at the idea of organic traffic. Even if you have an audience of 100,000 people, you might only reach a fraction of them. Using Facebook’s paid tools to target people is a more effective way of connecting with relevant and engaged users.

In the past I have optimised 20% for engagement and 80% for website traffic. Engagement means like and shares; website traffic is where people meet business objectives, like subscriptions to newsletters.

Since Facebook is favouring posts that receive certain kinds of engagement, content marketers have to change the way they optimise posts on social media. Cost per click may also increase.

Stop the spam

But content marketers should avoid trying to outsmart the algorithm. It may be tempting to encourage people to react to posts in ‘valuable’ ways. Facebook has already moved against practices like engagement baiting – spammy posts that goad users into interacting with likes, shares and comments. If you try getting people to share posts with their friends to win an iPad, your post will be further deprioritised (and you’ll be telling your audience ‘hey we’re spammy!’). “Comment below to let us know you love puppies” will also not work.

While Facebook groups and live videos have been the most talked about methods among marketers to ‘beat’ the algorithm changes, this may not be ideal. For example, live video has higher levels of engagement (6 times the Facebook engagement to be exact). But if everybody is producing live videos and competition increases can high engagement still be counted on?

I think content marketers should take the Facebook changes as a sign to focus on quality not quantity. To slow their program down to create a more targeted posts. Under the new algorithm if the majority of your posts receive little interaction it may be detrimental to your brand’s visibility.

Diversify your social media strategy

It comes back to the good old audience-first strategy. With a good budget, you might get some traction on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram, but it’s time to take a step back and start thinking about your audience’s behaviour. When are they online, how do they consume information, what apps are they on, what social channels do they use? Use the answers to be there for them when they want to read something.

A good content marketer would never think a piece of content is going to get anywhere by sitting on a website. They think of new ways to connect to and get in front of people. They understand what their audience finds valuable.

This is an opportunity to explore new channels or increase your distribution on other channels. You could create a messenger bot for content, get onto news aggregators like Apple and Google News, or look into other platforms like LinkedIn and Instagram.

As long as content marketers are dedicated to their audiences (and not posting on Facebook just because it’s what most people do) they will survive even the most apocalyptic algorithm changes.

The state of flux surrounding Facebook recently has had a positive effect. It has made a lot of organisations have a long, hard think about how they use the platform. No one should act on autopilot. We shouldn’t use Facebook without checking if the audience is engaged or if they are on other channels. This is an opportunity to assess whether you are getting the most out of your social media strategies.

The moral of the story is to always be innovative and forward thinking. Have a strategy, test the strategy, improve the strategy.

Hannah Dixon contributed to the writing of this piece.

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