ALL CAPS: The never-ending trials and tribulations of the Facebook Algorithm and dealing with change
With every announced adjustment to a major social platform integral to social media managers and strategists, conversations turn to postulating what this change means for the work that we do. Yes, we must be nimble and cat-like in our approaches, but what does that actually look like in action?
In this edition of ALL CAPS, we turn to three social media managers for their thoughts about the changes to Facebook and how managers and institutions can adapt quickly when social media platforms pull the old switcheroo. Mike Petroff, digital content strategist at Harvard University; Lori Packer, web editor at the University of Rochester; and Ma’ayan Plaut, manager, social strategy and projects at Oberlin College have been doing a lot of thinking about what this latest change means, and they go back and forth about the challenges and the ramifications.
With Facebook’s recent decision to more favorably promote posts by friends and family in the News Feed, content strategists working for brands, publishers and businesses can once again blame falling analytics on “the algorithm.” But what is Facebook trying to do here? How can we use this change to our advantage? I think we need to refocus our content strategy efforts in two key areas:
1. The origin and destination of your content
The origin of your content, for Facebook specifically, is most often the News Feed (unless users go to your Page directly). But where are you sending those users? Back to your website? Facebook has been pushing for more and more native content — Instant Articles, Live Video, etc. — in recent months. Unsurprisingly, Facebook wants to keep their users on their platform.
With this recent announcement, Facebook is essentially pushing for more of the interactions on your content to be on their platform too. Want people to see your latest post? Provide followers with something they are willing to share with their friends. If your sole intention is to post in hopes of driving pageviews to your website, you’ll see a dip in performance and may need to rethink your content strategy for Facebook.
2. Measuring and reporting success metrics
How do we build analytics models that show the benefits of reach and engagement on Facebook as complementary to website traffic when for years, web traffic has been the primary measurement tool for success? We should think about this immediately because platform-native content on Facebook will only become increasingly important.
To start, it may be helpful to establish “buckets” to help define the content funnel (impressions/reach, views, engagement). Each platform may call their metrics something unique, but if you define buckets, you’ll be able to categorize your performance across multiple platforms. For example:
|Platform||Potential reach||Views||Engaged views|
|# of Page Likes||Reach||Total engagements (likes, comments, shares, etc.)|
|# of followers||Impressions||Total engagements (clicks anywhere in tweet, retweets, replies, likes, follows)|
|# of followers||N/A (yet)||Likes + comments|
|Website article||Pageviews to website article||Set scroll depth or other indicator||Sessions with more than two pageviews, newsletter subscription or other engagement indicator|
|Totals:||Potential reach||Views||Engaged views|
The framework isn’t perfect — it’s just the beginning of a conversation. We’ll need to think more holistically about measuring content performance if our content and its engagement are native across many platforms.
Facebook publishers have worried and stressed and railed against the vagaries of the Facebook Newsfeed algorithm for years. When brands see their reach dip, they shake their fists at Facebook and yell, “foul!” And Facebook responds, “produce better content, and you’ll get better results.”
With the announcement of their “News Feed Values” statement, it turns out the Facebook really was not kidding when they said they want us to create great content that people want to share. Only now, it’s clear that they value the content that comes from those people themselves over content that comes from media companies, publishers and brands.
What does this mean for us? It means an opportunity to step back and think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. A few thoughts:
Facebook is, first and foremost, a technology company. They don’t really create anything other than their software and their platform. They don’t create original content; they create the tools that allow others to create and share original content on its platform. So when people say they “get their news from Facebook” (as 44% of U.S. adults say they do), well they do and they don’t. It would be more accurate to say that they get their news from their Aunt Linda who posted an article from the New York Times to Facebook. And Facebook has now clearly articulated the fact that in their Newsfeed algorithm, they value Aunt Linda over what the New York Times publishes itself, and that that preference is going to grow.
So what does that mean for the New York Times? Or for the University of Rochester, Oberlin College or Harvard? I probably don’t visit the New York Times website every day. And I certainly don’t visit the Harvard Gazette or the Oberlin newsroom every day (sorry, Mike and Ma’ayan). But I do visit Facebook everyday. So how do the UofR and Harvard and Oberlin get the things about themselves that they want me to know in front of my eyeballs where I can see them? This is where I think the difference between owned social and shared social starts to become interesting, and kinda gets to the heart of this most recent announcement.
Owned social: Facebook is a destination
Each of our schools probably has a Facebook page. The UofR and Harvard and Oberlin post content to their Facebook pages every day in the hopes that their fans will see it, comment on it, like it, share it on their own profiles, maybe click on it to visit a website and complete some other action. This is owned social, and it’s the stuff that’s poised to take the biggest hit in Facebook’s continually tweaked algorithm. If you’ve been thinking about your owned social in this traditional way — that Facebook posts are primarily drivers of traffic back to websites, and are deemed successful based on how well they do that — then I think it’s time for a rethink.
Facebook is a destination too. When thinking of ways to tell a story, think about how you might tell it on Facebook in a way that keeps it on Facebook. Native Facebook videos (especially ones that don’t require audio), new 360-degree photos, even the humble text post all have a role to play. And this is key: treat the success those stories have on Facebook with the same consideration you give your website traffic. I love Mike’s approach above to measuring the real impact of a piece of content across all the these platforms, and not just privileging website pageviews because it’s the thing we know how to measure.
Shared social: Make awesome things that people want to share
Welcome to a new argument for doing less but making it awesome. Maybe our job isn’t so much to post things to Facebook, but rather to create amazing things that Aunt Linda and Cousin Heather will want to post to Facebook.
That’s shared social: not what we say about ourselves on our own social properties, but what people share about us to theirs. Now it seems like we need to figure out how to understand success in terms of what Aunt Linda and Cousin Heather say ABOUT us. I don’t know how to do that yet, or how well our tools currently help us.
But maybe we can use this latest Facebook change to argue for the value in doing one thing a week that is amazing — that people will love enough to want to share — instead of 10 things a week that are mediocre?
On the morning of Facebook’s news feed announcement, I sent the following email to some of our social media managers here on campus:
“Ma’ayan here, with a loop thrown at us by Facebook.
With a new news feed tweak (here’s the Facebook statement and NYTimes article; main takeaway: page content is out, updates from your friends and family is in), there’s some (re)thinking we’re going to need to do, both in terms of time dedicated to figuring out compelling content people will share and how to best reach them and in terms of money to get that compelling content in front of the right people.
Celebrating Oberlin people has always been front and center for the main college Facebook page, so this adjustment could mean a shift in our process (like explicitly telling our featured folks they’re on our pages) will be crucial for that content to be seen by others. For all the other focused Oberlin accounts (conservatory, alumni association, admissions), we might need to think about what and why we’re sharing and how much money we’re putting toward marketing it.
To note: All the people included on this message aren’t new to social media management or our approach here at Oberlin. For you readers out there in the world, there’s backstory that means this sort of off-the-cuff email is founded and understood. Overarching social media strategy at Oberlin is guided by the underlying mantra of make content more social (in essence: spend time on the things we make and assure that they’re compelling enough for people to share) and our main accounts ascribe to a less-is-more approach I’ve nicknamed enlightenment (in essence: keep the lights of your social media spaces on so people know you’re there, and amp it up a few times a year to bring more people in).”
I like the philosophy of this stuff. I wrote about Facebook strategy in 2013 and 2014 and it still rings true (spoiler alert: it’s about communications strategy, not just the platform you’re expressing it on). The thing that’s appealed to me most in the past few years that closely ties to Facebook’s newest news feed adjustments is to build upon the existing stories and projects of our people. We’ve had great success doing the listening loop-the-loop — essentially, listening on social media to find the (already-socially vetted) content that’s interesting to our audience and putting a bit of communications touch on it before releasing it for more people to enjoy — and the newest adjustments to the Facebook news feed to emphasize humans rather than brands is somewhat aligned with that mindset.
I consider a platform change to be a prompt for a good conversation on holistic communication strategy and audience engagement, including but not limited to social media. We’ve been discussing this for a while, for our own good and our audiences’ good, and it’s sort of reassuring to have the outside affirmation that yes, we should be talking about this and yes, the people behind the social media platforms we use are thinking about this too (though the motivations may differ). Included in our discussions is a frank conversation about the content our audiences want and need and how we determine that they’ve gotten that from what we do. How do we know we did it right? What criteria determines our success? What can we do differently next time to make it better? Will there be a next time for what we’re doing? Do we need to try something new to get to our goals?
When I think more broadly about Facebook’s emphasis on the sharable news rather than distribution via the source, I’m contemplating as much about the content as the people who wish to pass it along. As much as I’m loath to call people who read the news and share the best/worst/most clickable/most social cred-giving links with others “influencers,” they are. Human filters are the way I receive most of my daily news, and while it’s not necessarily the best way to keep up with the world, it’s how I prefer. Human filters receive their news via different outlets first, from the source or from an aggregator — RSS, newsletters and Reddit — and distribute accordingly. This makes me wonder about the top of the funnel, specifically, initial strategies about delivering the right content to the right people, and how we assure that they get it. Yes, that takes time (and money) but why are we doing all of this in the first place? What if we spent as much time identifying and telling our own stories as monitoring the stories being told about us? What if we nurtured reader relationships as much as media relationships?
And this is why I am a strategist. I have all the questions and very few of the answers, but that’s not going to stop me from thinking about it.