For many publishers, the destiny and the success of their content is determined in no small way by Facebook’s profiteering whims. Here, we unpack (and rank) three recent actions taken by the tech giant, and what they signify for content marketers.
As one half of the digital duopoly that shared 90% of all digital ad growth, what Facebook does, decides and toys with can have an enormous impact on content publishers. Much energy and focus is spent trying to understand and appease the giant – whether in relation to strategy, KPIs or how we measure content success. Recent moves by the social media network around digital advertising have given some organisations cause for hope. Other moves have given us cause for despair. At least one – concerning the new ‘Explore’ feed experiment – makes us want to take to the hills.
From the latest chapter of the Facebook story, here is the good, the bad and the potentially terrifying.
While still in many ways an adolescent, Facebook has shown a little more maturity over the past 12 months. After a stretch of extremely bad PR, involving:
- its toilet flush of fake news that may or may not have swung the US election results
- major metrics bungles, such as the claim they were reaching more millennials in Australia than actually exist, and
- the discovery that Facebook was enabling advertisers to prejudicially target for and against certain audience segments (e.g. ‘Jew-haters’)
…they’ve come to realise that a ‘no mea culpa’ shrug won’t cut it anymore. Across the board, the tech giant has declared, they’re cleaning up their act.
We’ve seen this most prominently in their commitment to better brand safety controls. The rise in programmatic advertising has further muddied an already murky digital media supply chain, with ads cropping up beside ‘unsavoury’ content (e.g. terrorist videos, alt-right columns) without advertisers even being aware of it until the damage is done. In September, the social network sought to soothe the growing unease among marketers, applying new standards to regulate the kinds of content can be monetised within in-stream ads and Instant Articles. In addition, they extended transparency and control for advertisers by granting access to both pre-campaign and post-campaign reporting. Marketing Week explains:
The former [pre-campaign reporting] means advertisers will now be able to see which publishers are monetising their sites and apps and therefore create lists of publishers they might want to exclude. The latter [post-campaign reporting] means brands will also be able to see exactly where their ads ran rather than having to make assumptions and if, for example, they had run on controversial websites such as Breitbart.
We can only imagine the feeling of dread some must feel before peeling open a post-campaign report.
Alongside Google and 23 other IAB UK board members, Facebook also committed to the so-called ‘Gold Standard’ program in October. The program sets out three actions to improve digital advertising, from curbing ad fraud to agreeing to never use the 12 so-called ‘bad ads’ (as identified by the Coalition for Better Ads as ads “most highly correlated with an increased propensity for consumers to adopt ad blockers”). Ideally, these initiatives taken both independently and industry-wide will lift the digital ad ecosystem out of the swamp into healthier zones – benefiting publishers, advertisers and consumers.
In late September, for the first time since 2015, Facebook dropped to second place behind Google as the top referral site for traffic. Make no mistake: Facebook is doing this deliberately.
As we’ve mentioned before, the tech titan is first and foremost a business. And as with any business, it is motivated primarily towards building and retaining its audience and stuffing more money bags. It very much wants to keep users within its fairy-tale kingdom walls of content and friends – that is where and how the most dollars are flipped. As such, it invests a great deal in ensuring audiences don’t leave its site for anyone else’s.
The Facebook algorithm is – among other things – the gatekeeper and groundsman of the kingdom perimeter. It prioritises native content (particularly native video of late) in the newsfeed over links that take users elsewhere. And it seeks to own and control as much on its platform as possible, while enticing businesses with its vast database of insights and added potential for user engagement.
Meanwhile, organic reach has become so miniscule the term seems to almost contradict itself. Algorithm adjustments since 2014 have steadily seen this metric bottom out towards zero, with the most damage done late last year when Facebook privileged friend’s posts over those published by brands (it is a ‘social’ network, so: harsh but fair). As a result, SocialFlow found that between January and July 2016 publishers saw a 52% decline in organic reach.
We ourselves recently tested a non-promoted post on the feed and the results were felt as actual, physical pain. “If our followers hardly ever see us as an unpaid presence on their feed, do page likes even mean anything any more?” we wondered.
The bottom line is this: content amplification is no longer an afterthought or add-on – particularly if you’re not making content with viral appeal. If you want to get your content seen, you’ve got to fork out.
“Downright Orwellian.” That’s how journalists are describing Facebook’s new experiment to strip the newsfeed of professional media, and sequester its content away in a separate, secondary ‘Explore’ feed timeline. Rolled out on October 19, Facebook users in Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia and Slovakia will now only see paid advertising and personal content on their primary feed.
As the Guardian reported, the results so far have been crushing. Facebook’s own analytics tool CrowdTangle reported a 60% drop in user interactions for media organisations in Slovakia, and groups in all six nations are struggling with having “one of their most important publishing platforms removed overnight”.
While the company’s head of news feed, Adam Mosseri has said that “currently” there are no plans to roll out the experiment elsewhere, what they do next will likely hinge upon the public response to the project rather than any outcry from the press.
“As with all tests we run, we may learn new things that lead to additional tests in the coming months so we can better understand what works best for people and publishers,” Mosseri wrote in a public statement.
As if users weren’t hard enough to reach already (see previous subhead: ‘The bad’). The new structure effectively ostracises professional media from the spaces users occupy most, while severely constricting a major source of referral traffic. It also forces users to not so much ‘explore’ as ‘actively hunt down’ the media pages they enjoy content from most.
This new feed you see, as the algorithm currently organises it, could hardly be described a hub of premium content. Guatemalan journalist Dina Fernandez told the Guardian hers seems to be filled with “clips of wrestling and reality TV shows” with only a few posts appearing from pages she has chosen to follow. Junk and memes are free to swim in the upper layers, while local news is scarce.
Pages have always been encouraged by Facebook to build an audience and increase their follower account. This way, we were assured, we can increase their credibility and organic reach. Introducing a ‘pay-to-play’ system not only makes this former advice something of a jarring about-turn. It discounts a lot of money and effort we’ve expended to attract fans.
But it’s the small players who get hit the hardest with Explore. Without the dollars to buy their way into the primary scrolling space, they’re pre-emptively taken out of the running before the whistle has been blown.
Kate Prendergast contributed to the writing of this piece.