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Facebook’s Latest Overhaul Is Putting Some Publishers Out of Business. Can Yours Make It Through?

Mar 26, 2018

Facebook is in a difficult position. Every few days, it seems there’s yet another revelation about fake news stirring up tension or Russian bots mobilized to influence distant elections. For years, the site has tried to position itself as a one-stop-shop for all social publishers updates, be they friends’ photos, breaking news or content from brands you like, but now that it has succeeded in doing just that, its creators are finding that great power brings great responsibility. Now, they’re scrambling to squish the genie back into the bottle.

What Are the Changes?

As Mark Zuckerberg put it in a post on Facebook:

“The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.
As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”

He goes on to say:

“I want to be clear: by making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down. But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable. And if we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term too.”

Okay, let’s break this down.

Facebook’s new algorithms will prioritize user-generated content, making it harder for brands to get their posts seen (unless you pay to boost them). Only content that triggers “meaningful interactions” will make it into the newsfeed – presumably, stuff that gets a lot of shares, comments and responses. Digiday reported that “reputable publishers” will also be an exception to the rule, but no one knows how Facebook defines or measures a reputable publisher!

Facebook is also hinting that they are moving away from showing people too much of the really addictive stuff, even though this is what keeps people scrolling for longer – Zuckerberg even says explicitly that the company no longer thinks “passively reading articles or watching videos” is good for their users, “even if they’re entertaining or informative.”

What Does This Mean for Publishers?

Unsurprisingly, the overhaul is making a lot of publishers very nervous. After all, a lot of brands took Facebook’s advice of a few years ago very much to heart, investing heavily in video and taking a Facebook-first approach to sharing and marketing stories. To find out now that your carefully laid engagement strategy is about to disintegrate without a contingency plan is a pretty frightening prospect.

Worse, thanks to the runaway success of Facebook’s previous approach, consumer habits have changed dramatically in the past few years: two-thirds of Americans now get their news from Facebook. Those people will take time to adjust to the change and form new habits.

In the meantime, many publishers will be in a precarious position.

The First Casualty

Facebook might still be figuring out exactly how the changes will work, but many publishers are already feeling the impact. For some, it’s been a catastrophe.

Take the social publisher LittleThings. You might recognize them for their feelgood videos and upbeat stories – the team had a knack for getting things to go viral on Facebook, and spent the four years the company was in operation adapting to every change in algorithm that was thrown their way.
They did an amazing job of this, growing to a team of 100 in a few short years with no outside funding. They monetised the site first with programmatic advertising and then direct sales ads, and brought tens of millions of viewers clicking through from Facebook. Their whole model was built around the platform and, until the company started making changes, were doing just great out of it.

Now, they’ve gone bust.

The company shut down on February 27th, after battling for the better part of the year to get their stuff seen as Facebook moved the goal posts. The new overhaul was the final straw. It was just too much upheaval with too little time to figure out a contingency plan.

As Digiday put it:

“Other publishers are looking to Google and Twitter to make up for what they’re losing from Facebook, but for LittleThings, there was nowhere else to go.”

Weathering the Storm

Are other social publishers facing a similar fate? Well, it remains to be seen. What is clear, though, is that you can still guarantee reach on Facebook if you’re a) willing to pay for it, or b) able to persuade your audience to privilege your posts.

Firstly, it seems that boosted posts are unaffected by the algorithm changes, so you can still pay-to-play. Given that people’s newsfeeds will be a lot emptier than before, with fewer videos and other enticing content, anything you sponsor might well jump out at people better than ever before.

Of course, boosting everything you post is not going to work, budget-wise, for most social publishers, so you may need to be smart about your ad placing strategy on these higher volume landing pages – and about how you draw people further into your site once you get them there.

Secondly, people will still see up to five posts a day from you without any money spent provided that they visit your page and click ‘See First’. If you’re the kind of publication that publishes hard-to-find content or has a highly engaged readership, encouraging your fans to do this could save your bacon.

Getting the Conversation Going

If neither of these approaches cut it for you and Facebook is pivotal to getting eyeballs on your site, you only have one card left to play: you’re just going to have to make sure that everything you post is designed to trigger a conversation. Remember those “meaningful interactions” we talked about at the start? That’s how you stay relevant.

Again, so far it’s unclear exactly what criteria Facebook will use to judge this, but it makes sense for you to try and orchestrate a buzz around your posts. Get your team to like, comment and share everything. Tag people. Experiment with the wording you use alongside your posts by including questions and prompts designed to spark responses within Facebook, not just pushing them to click straight through to the article.

Yes, it’s a headache, and yes, you might be headed for some difficult times in the coming year, but your best bet is to keep testing, refining and adapting as much as you can. Oh, and maybe start dusting off that Instagram account, just in case.

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