Stayin’ Alive: What Marketers Really Need to Know About Facebook’s News Feed Changes

By Erin Auci on February 6, 2018

On January 11, Mark Zuckerberg made an announcement that sent the digital marketing world spinning: yet another change to the news feed algorithm.

“We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us,” mused Zuckerberg, while he casually broke the news to brands—between sharing his personal resolutions for 2018, his disgust with the government moving too slowly on DACA policies and pics of his little girl heading off to pre-school—that their organic (read: non-paid) reach within the news feed will soon drop off entirely.

Zucker 2.6.18 Blog Image

(Read the full post here)

An official announcement from Facebook quickly followed.

But as with every major algorithm update, I simply took a step back, took an extra deep breath and spent the last few weeks waiting for the dust to settle. No use panicking just yet, #amitrite? Right.

I’ve since spent time catching up on opinions published by my favored experts, reading interviews with Facebook execs and having intelligent conversations with my industry peers and other trusted Facebook sources. Cutting through all the clutter, here is what you can expect the upcoming changes to mean for your business.

First, lets recap what Facebook has actually told us:

  • Person-to-person gets priority. The Facebook algorithm has always sorted and customized news feed content based on a ranking system. It’s these rankings that are about the change. Facebook wants you to see more stuff from people—specifically friends and family—and will start gradually introducing updates to the news feed that increase the weight on friend interactions. As a result, you will inevitably see fewer posts from pages. Though, this is not entirely new news. VP Adam Mosseri said as much when they announced updates back in 2016.
  • Longer, thoughtful replies matter more. This was probably the most important piece of the announcement, and a big departure from Facebook’s current model. Recorded videos will no longer get the weight they once did. (Side note: you better log in and mark the Tasty Page as “see first” now, or you’ll lose your chance to discover how to make that random dish you never knew you should be craving until it showed up in your news feed!) Passive scrolling and low-quality engagements—like reactions or views of funny GIFs—are essentially meaningless. Instead, posts that get meaningful replies will get priority. In layman’s terms, your post needs to generate at least a sentence worth of commentary, and by multiple people (preferably connected to one another), if you want any chance of showing up in someone else’s feed organically.
  • Ads will not be affected by the change (at this time). However, there is a catch. Our sources at Facebook do caution that if a page post is getting less organic reach due to the new ranking change, it may see a slight impact within the ads’ auction if it’s boosted. Brands will want to pay more attention to their boosted and “dark” post strategy. It’s important to note, however, that engagement is just a very small part of ad’s ranking—Facebook relies heavily on many other data points to determine what ads people see. You’ll want to test and learn here.

Okay, so what does it all mean?

Free Fallin’ Despite initial threats of seeing zero organic reach back in 2013, brands have continued finding ways to thrive and the total number of brand pages on Facebook has grown. But for those of you who have spent the last few years either (1) throwing content up on Facebook simply because someone said you had to and aren’t entirely sure how to go about meaningfully reaching your target customers, or (2) regularly posting content and doing a decent job of generating brand lift, but don’t generally pay to boost that content to a larger audience, you may soon have a big decision to make.

Do you:

  1. Invest in a paid ad strategy?
  2. Invest in a more robust asset development strategy that ensures your regular content gets the right people to engage with you—and more importantly, with each other?
  3. Or do you simply do a whole lot of nothing and hope your regular content doesn’t just become pointless?

If choosing option 1 or 2, we should talk!

But either way, you should be aware that Facebook has been clear on what you can’t do. Attempts at resorting to click-baiting, tag baiting, comment bating or other forms of asking for engagements, have already been headed off at the pass.

Seems confusing, right? Facebook literally just said they want to see more engagement, but you’re not allowed to ask users to give it to you. Well, this is actually in line with Facebook’s emphasis on maintaining authenticity across the platform. The key word many marketers seem to be overlooking in this scenario is the emphasis on driving meaningful engagements. You can’t only get lots of comments, likes and shares on your content—those engagements must have value to other Facebook users, preferably friends. Consider this: try honestly asking fans what they think, not just asking them for a click.

Payers Gonna Pay

Now, if you already have a strong paid social marketing strategy in place and know the value of Facebook on your business and your customers, the road ahead seems clear.

The question isn’t whether to invest in Facebook, you already are. The question is whether insights will begin to show that you need to invest a little extra or not.

If organic reach drops drastically, more and more brands may feel the pressure to put spend behind their content to reach their target audiences. And if there are more advertisers bidding for space on the news feed, we can assume that we’ll see CPCs, CPVs, CPEs, CPAs, etc., go up. Luckily, it’s early in the year, so if you haven’t finalized your annual budgets, there’s still time to add a buffer.

Alternatively, brands seeing little to no reach may decide to just give up and abandon Facebook altogether. Probably not likely, but who’s to say? But in this scenario, I’m happy to join you in a bottle of Dom to celebrate all the extra money you’ve saved and earned in returns!

A Cautionary Song

There are also a few other features on Facebook you could consider, such as Facebook Live videos, Facebook Groups and Facebook Messenger. While some experts consider these promising alternatives to investing in paid ads, be warned that each also comes with its own set of concerns.

  • Facebook Live. If recorded video is getting a downgrade due to being too passive, and live videos are known to drive more engagement, this has to be the answer to earning organic views. Facebook’s announcement literally told us, “live videos on average get six times as many interactions as regular videos.” Done. But let me ask: are you already set up to produce live video on a daily or weekly basis? Unlike recorded video that has time to go through rounds of review and edits to make it perfect before posting, once you’re live there is no turning back. Investing in new production approaches, live video training for your team and creating new approval processes takes time and money. Furthermore, what happens when every brand adopts a Facebook Live video-first strategy? We’re right back to the same crowded news feed problem that caused Facebook to crack down on organic Page content to begin with, meaning we can expect yet another algorithm change.
  • Facebook Groups. Pages were granted the ability to launch Groups last summer. But while Groups will not be affected by the algorithm changes (just yet) and allow brands to disseminate interesting topics, images, polls and other updates for discussion directly to fans for free, Lisa Barnett at ADWEEK identified some of the pitfalls to this approach back in September. The culprit? Moderation. Moderation is either all or nothing. Meaning everyone can post freely or no one can and a moderator has to approve every single post before it goes up. Moderation can be a full-time job. Is that in your current budget? Groups are also expected to have clear rules for moderation, and Facebook gives equal weight to any post made. In other words, members can reach each other in Groups a lot more easily than in a comment post on your timeline, and all members will get notified (unless they turned off their notifications). So, if someone posts something critical of your brand but it doesn’t go against any advisable moderation guidelines, and other members hop on the bandwagon...things could snowball and there is little to nothing you can do about it. If your business is equipped to respond quickly when addressing customer concerns on social, perhaps this isn’t something you need to worry about. It’s also not something to take lightly either.
  • Facebook Messenger. If Facebook wants to see more conversations, Messenger fits the bill. Messenger is a direct, personal line to Facebook users, making it a goldmine for brands. Facebook even opened up the option for paid ads on Messenger back in July. But for the purposes of this discussion, it’s important to note that you can also reach users organically—either with a dedicated staff member or at a large scale through third-party tools and bots. However, all these options take a financial investment in time and resources. If you are able to make that investment, consider this: chat services are something usually reserved for close friends. Of all the features Facebook offers, personalization is essentially mandatory. Therefore, while adding Messenger as a part of your strategy makes sense, it shouldn’t be your primary focus and likely comes with a higher risk of satisfaction issues if not done properly.

This isn’t to say these features aren’t worth investigating. Some may work for your brand, and some may not. Ultimately it will be your familiarity with your customers and their comfort level with these types of content and communication styles that should guide your decisions.

2 Legit 2 Quit. Want my opinion? The best approach is to deploy a mix of all the above. With the right budget and the right team of experts to help guide the ship (again, 👋 there!), the brands that will thrive on Facebook in the years ahead will be those who leverage a mix of paid ads, owned content and meaningfully earned engagement and discussions. Only by testing, tracking and evaluating the results of these initiatives can they continue evolving their marketing plans to meet any major shifts head on.

Have any thoughts or questions on the algorithm change that you want to discuss? Tell me in the comments.