Five implications of Facebook’s newsfeed changes

At the end of 2017, I suggested that the main focus for publishers this year would be a “pivot to readers”, as publishers attempted to extricate themselves from an over-reliance on one platform for traffic. Thanks to Facebook, that focus has been sharpened a lot earlier than planned. Publisher and brand content will be deprioritised in favour of posts and conversations from friends and family on the platform. Facebook’s News Feed in 2018 promises to look very different from 2017.

While it’s going to mean a stressful start to the year for many social strategists, at least Facebook have had the good grace to give us a few days notice. It’s not unheard of for an algorithm tweak to send reach and traffic crashing, resulting in some awkward scrambling for explanations as your reporting numbers fall off a cliff.

As ever with Facebook, there’s likely to be an immediate impact followed by a series of smaller but more interesting changes as their engineers start tweaking according to the data. It’s always worth digging into the social behemoth’s posts in a little more detail, so here’s a few initial thoughts and questions about how the change might play out.

Elevating comments (at the expense of a debate)

One area to pay a lot of attention to is the correlation between comments on posts and the prevalence of these posts in the News Feed. Facebook’s stated two aims here: to cut down on clickbait and to increase conversations between you and your connections on the platform.

The implication here is the more you chat with people you know on a brand or publisher post, the better chance it’ll have of being displayed, unless it’s telling people to deliberately tag a friend or engagement baiting.

They’re not mutually exclusive outcomes, but they’re not entirely compatible, partly because these “comment if you love rock music, tag a friend who likes pop music” posts, while engagement bait in nature, often spark unexpected conversations, but also because I suspect most people don’t want to engage in long debates.

A potential Facebook comment thread post-algorithmic changes

Where the change could end up is with an increase in polarisation. Facebook has stated it wants more comments between connections, with necessarily specifying exactly what type of comments these are. And nothing gets comments going like a cyber-argument on an issue of the day.

Facebook clearly envisions this to be a place where people have pleasant debates with contacts (which comes across as a bit of less brutal version of Black Mirror’s Nosedive, albeit no less disturbing), but anger and disagreements drive engagement. Which, weirdly, may actually drive greater prominence for news articles on contentious topics.

As for branded content, there’s very few brands outside of Paddy Power and Protein World who actively court controversy and anger online. Many have started to even find a happy medium that likes somewhere between paying and engagement bait. That strategy will change again as brands try to find a way to work around the algorithm’s new preferences while still producing relevant, engaging content that isn’t saccharine or inflaming.

Pivoting to Groups

If there’s one big winner on Facebook in 2018, it’s Groups. Previously somewhat of an unloved hangover from the early days of the platform, last year Facebook seemed to realise that like minded communities drove a lot of engagement (and by default, site stickiness). It’s no coincidence that notifications are now full of your most popular Groups, as the site pushes you to spend more time debating your passion.

Slowly but surely, publishers have been catching on. The Times, for example, has a number of excellent Facebook Groups, including a relatively civil (for the topic in hand, at any rate) Brexit Group, 52:48.

As publishers rush to work out how to mitigate the algorithm, Groups will probably become de rigueur in their playbook. It might be a struggle to monetise, but it gets people in the same place talking about news relevant to the publisher. It’s definitely useful for brand building and audience feedback.

Brands, as ever, will be trying to find their purpose with Groups. Expect to see plenty open a Group, because that’s what they’ll have been advised to do, only to have no real engagement, users or point of view. You can’t create or force engagement around a topic nobody wants to talk about, or a category that doesn’t inspire any form of passion. Come, tell us how you use toilet roll!

I suspect that we’ll see a few missteps in this area, with brands making the mistake of creating Groups for people to talk about their brand only to attract precisely nobody. Worse will be the brands who open up Groups, only to find it quickly fills up with complaints that completely burns their brand.

Good brand-run Groups probably come from brands that have a good sense of where they fit into wider conversations. So, for example, it wouldn’t be a stretch for a brand like Bunnings Warehouse to create a group focused on DIY or home interiors.

The other interesting area for brands is Groups that already exist around their brand. To continue with the Bunnings Warehouse example, there’s a relatively large Group (about 8.5k) around Bunnings inspired homes, and a second smaller Group set up by mums who love Bunnings. I could easily set up a Group dedicated to Bunnings sausage sizzles across New South Wales. These are potentially more valuable than a brand-run Group.

Bunnings’ most valuable social asset?

Of course, this sets out somewhat of a dilemma for community managers. Should they become members of these Groups. Should they interact in these Groups using their personal profile as an brand employee. Do the admins even want them in the Group? And how do they monitor the Group if they’re not in the Group? It’s like forums and 2007 all over again.

And yes, if brands and publishers want to run successful Groups, they’ll need excellent community managers to keep debates on track and civil. It’s somewhat ironic that many publishers who’ve turned off comments will now be opening an area where the floodgates are even more wide open.

As for the tracking element, providing metrics or tools to report back to the business is going to be tricky. I’ve yet to encounter a tool that specialises in measuring and analysing Facebook Groups, or even what your KPIs would be. And while Groups now offer admins an insights dashboard, if you’re not an admin, there could be a lot of manual hand-cranking of stats involved.

Finally, if you think it’s a little bit risky to attempt to build a home for your key audience on a platform that’s shown it’s quite happy to switch off vital functions for brands and publishers and isn’t exactly known for sharing ways to monetise said audience, you’d probably be right.

Pay to play is as relevant as it ever was

It’s not quite zero news feed, but anybody who thinks they’ve found a way to avoid paying Facebook to get their output into the news feed will be in for a rude awakening.

There’s not really much to say here. We may yet see a way of utilising organic posts but if you want to be visible as a brand on Facebook, you’ll need a decent media spend.

Removing fake news

I guess it’s a solution of sorts to clamp down on fake news by clamping down on all news sites within the news feed. That said, I think fake news will still be active on the channel, it’ll just be in less visible areas. Like Groups. Good luck monitoring hundreds of these.

Better selling

If you’ll forgive me for being a little cynical, it’s in Facebook’s interests to elevate relationships on the site over news, as it helps build data points around what people are actually interested in, as opposed to commenting on Donald Trump’s latest faux pas.

Creating a cleaner understanding of the audience and how relationships work on the platform is a great sell to any advertiser. No doubt somebody, very quickly, will do something very smart / terrifying with these data points.

And if you’re a brand or publisher, just divert more of your media budget to Facebook if you’re desperate to still play in this space. Otherwise, rewrite you social strategy and do your damndest to find a traffic stream that doesn’t overly rely on one platform.

Marketer. Content, social, and podcasting specialist. Ill-informed occasional freelance writer. Professional tea drinker. Occasionally has an opinion.