About a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced (in a Facebook post, of course) that Facebook would be revising the algorithm that decides what its users see in their news feeds. In an effort to make users' experience on the platform more positive, they decided that they would show more posts from friends -- particularly those that generated comments -- and fewer posts from brands and organizations, particularly posts that generated link clicks rather than comments. The exact wording:
I'm changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.
We started making changes in this direction last year, but it will take months for this new focus to make its way through all our products. 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.
The analysis was pretty unequivocal: this was bad news for the brands and organizations that relied on Facebook as a principal means of sharing their content with consumers. But given that Facebook's main source of revenue is the advertising that these very same brands pay to have their posts and pages be more visible on the platform, I also think that most people thought that the changes would be modest and gradual, like what happened when Facebook made a similar announcement in late 2013.
So, what have we noticed? There seems to be a small decline in reach of our posts, at whatever level of engagement we achieve, since an inflection point in early February where we noticed a few posts that we expected to be shown to a large audience achieve smaller reach. So, I broke down what we've seen so far in February compared to what we saw in January. For modest-engagement posts (those that between 6.6% and 8.5% of our fans interact with) the percentage of our fans who see these posts has declined 13.4%, from an average of 1287 of our roughly 9100 fans to 1114. For high-engagement posts (those with between 8.6% and 10.5% engagement) we've seen a decline of 11.1%, from an average audience of 1734 fans to 1450. And for very high-engagement posts (those with 10.6% engagement or better) we've seen a 20.4% decline, from an average audience of 2239 to 1770. That's significant but hardly catastrophic. It's perhaps easier to see in graphical form:
What's more, brands and organizations are is still in better position than in 2015, when I wrote a blog Is Facebook Even Worth It Any More? after our reach had dropped nearly in half since late 2013. Combining the data that I pulled then with what we see now, you see a graph that is more encouraging, and suggests that Facebook's algorithm writers realized that their actions in 2015 were too dramatic:
So, where does this leave wineries, organizations, and other businesses that rely on Facebook? Not that different than where we were before. Our options remain:
- Work to produce especially engaging content. If there is one thing that was true with "old" Facebook and remains true in this new era, it's that it will reward good content. It's worth keeping an eye on what sort of content the platform's coders decide is good, as this has changed over time. But from Zuckerberg's own post, it seems likely that producing content that people comment on and which engages them in a discussion, rather than content that people click on to take them outside the platform, will be rewarded.
- Share links from sites Facebook respects as credible. If you are sharing links, pay attention to the source. Facebook has clearly been sensitized to the criticism that they served to disseminate dubious (and polarizing) posts during the 2016 election, and they are making an effort to weed out unreliable or misleading content. It has seemed to us (though our sample size is small enough that I would treat this cautiously) that Facebook is showing links to blogs less than links to mainstream newspapers and magazines. It would be logical for this split to continue.
- Continue to invest in video. We've only posted a couple of video posts this year, but they continue to be shown to a larger audience than an image or link post that receives the same engagement. If you are able to post Facebook Live videos they receive even more of a bump. It's important to note that videos have to be uploaded directly onto the Facebook platform (rather than sharing a link to YouTube or Vimeo) to receive this bump. In fact, given that Facebook perceives these other companies as competitors, it's unsurprising that links to these other video platforms are some of Fecebook's least-shown posts, in our experience.
- Build and use your email lists. Facebook (and social media in general) has never been a particularly effective platform for spurring immediate action. Announcing a sale or a special offer typically gets very low engagement. It's a famously ineffective way of promoting events. Instead, its impact is more subtle: you build mind-share, and keep your customers more engaged to your business or service. That shows up in the long run in loyalty, but it's exactly that: a long game. Email outreach, on the other hand, is still the most effective way of turning contacts into customers. And those contacts are yours, whatever the ebbs, flows, and algorithm changes of the various platforms. If your focus is in adding people to your Facebook or Twitter fan base rather than to your email lists, I would suggest you reconsider.
- Be prepared to pay periodically. Even at relatively modest levels, doing so gives you much greater access to your fans and to those who you target, whether they be friends of your fans or others that fit specific demographics or interests. We've paid to promote three posts so far this year, and have had these posts served something like 2800 extra times for each $20 we've spent. Given that our average post is reaching something like 1400 of our fans organically, if we were to choose to promote one post a week, at $20/post, we might be able increase the total number of views of our content by 33% at an annual cost of around $1000. That's hardly exorbitant.
- Don't put all your eggs in Facebook's basket. In the conclusion to my 2013 piece on the changes Facebook announced then, I observed that it was really Facebook's sandbox at that point. After dispensing with Myspace and blowing past Twitter in user base and revenue, their position looked secure. It looks less so now. Instagram (which is, of course, owned by Facebook) now has over 800 million active users. Youtube has 1.5 billion. And they are far from the only options out there. Though both remain smaller than Facebook, which has 2.2 billion users worldwide, the demographics of both skew younger and both are growing fast. Should you abandon Facebook and focus on other social media platforms? I definitely don't think so. But neither would I invest in it exclusively.
It's worth noting that Facebook is always a moving target, and these changes only make it more important to keep up on your own analytics data. I fully expect there to be additional changes implemented throughout 2018 and beyond. If February's one month decline in reach of roughly 15% is compounded the next several months, I'll be singing a different tune. But for now, it's not time to panic. It's time to make great content.