Facebook moving the goalposts for brands and advertisers is nothing new.
But with Zuckerberg & Co. under pressure to be more socially responsible after a spate of recent controversies, the latest changes to the News Feed algorithm could be the most significant yet.
Zuckerberg even suggested that people may spend less time on the platform as a result:
"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."
There have been a lot of great articles published already since the news broke, but there has also been so much speculation based on very little substance, especially when it comes to how advertising on the platform will be affected.
Let’s start here: What did Zuckerberg actually say in his announcement?
First of all, advertisers are not mentioned. Paid media is not mentioned. That is an important piece of information to take away from the cryptic message. Yes, there is likely to be some kind of impact on advertisers, but let’s take a moment to step back and really think about what that impact is going to be.
The first instinct is that brand and media publishers won’t show up on the News Feed anymore. In years to come there will be an old social proverb:
“If I publish a post on my Facebook page and there is no one around to see it, will it get any reach?”
It also raises a few more questions for marketers. If people's time on Facebook goes down, should my brand's time on there go down? Should media budgets go down? Should we look to promote content elsewhere?
It’s been a long time since organic reach had any impact for business page owners. It now looks as if they are finally turning off the organic tap altogether, which has been little more than a dribble for a few years now. The shift towards brands paying for impressions, in reality, is old news.
What has potential to affect advertisers
Relevancy score. This is the metric to track if the content is appropriate for the targeting criteria you have set. Already the relevancy score can throttle the reach of your ad if people are not seen to interact with it in a positive way from the get-go.
Bid price. If more brands and media companies are forced into paid media approaches for their content, there is likely to be more competition for overlapping audience groups. More competition means higher bid prices. Higher bid prices mean higher CPC or CPM. Budget pacing can run through quicker. Reach will be reduced. Interactions will decline.
If anything, this could force marketers to step up their targeting criteria, fine-tune their content look and feel, and focus on more precise CTAs in line with their digital objectives.
What is to blame for this shift?
Is Facebook’s own “boost” button to blame?
If people without marketing skills are regularly being prompted that they can get 20,000 more eyeballs on their content for only £10... have Facebook shot themselves in the foot by allowing untrained people to distribute (potentially) poor content, with blanket targeting in an attempt to get their vanity metrics higher? There’s certainly a case for it. Especially when you compare it to the comprehensive support network Facebook provided to businesses using their Ads manager or power editor.
Zuckerberg references a research study they have carried out, highlighting both the positive and negative impacts of social media - in particular how a passive experience of endlessly trawling through the News Feed with few personal interactions can have a negative experience for the user overall.
Instead, using social media to connect with people you care about can have a positive impact on the user.
Whilst that is no doubt true, there has been a passive experience problem on Facebook for some time now.
One potential reason for this is that there has also been a behavioural shift towards dark social for those social interactions instead (for example, sharing photos one-on-one via What’s App or SnapChat). Remember, this isn’t the first time Facebook have tried to encourage more social interactions in the News Feed over brand/media posts.
Perhaps there is a bigger research study that needs to be done here - do people still want to have social interactions in public spaces? Especially when there is so much choice to communicate privately to friends of families, or even to groups, rather than those guys you used to go to school with and former employees you have little contact with anymore.
Things to consider
“Meaningful social interactions” will be a bigger priority for Facebook than “Relevant content”
That is something Zuckerberg makes clear. Marketers should take away that priority from this:
Creating content so good it has to be shared.
Should that not be everyone’s approach anyway? (Answer: Yes.)
Groups are better for engagement than Pages
Are we going to see more from Groups? Groups have been quietly making huge improvements on Facebook. There is the ability to turn notifications on or off, allowing for that traditional fire hose approach to accessing social content for users, compared to Pages which would limit you to a 1-3 % of the content. There is also potentially a much larger sense of community than with a Page these days, which has become a one-way feed that offers few incentives to visit regularly.
Having said that, will people start to go back to using Pages if they are getting a craving for those updates that used to appear abundantly in the News Feed but are now nowhere to be seen?
I’m sure there’s plenty of people who will be quite pleasantly surprised to see the back of the LADbible popping up in their feed all the time. Others... might have to admit they have a guilty pleasure for this kind of content.
Another rising star of a feature for Facebook. Arguably as true a form of “word of mouth” as you’re going to get. How many businesses would love to appear tagged in a recommendation section?
A Change is Gonna Come
In reality, everyone is speculating right now.
Good advertising and good content should pull away from the pack. This is as true as it’s ever been.
And Facebook are going to keep making changes, whether we like it or not. Advertisers need to make sure they adapt.
More developments to features like Groups and Recommendations are going to be a positive step for Facebook in order to increase the time a user spends on the platform.
We can also expect changes to Pages. Without organic reach in the News Feed there needs to be a new role for a brand or business Page. That much is clear - but given the $25B hit to Facebook’s market cap following the announcement, it’s also clear that even Zuckerberg can’t predict exactly how these latest changes will play out.