The Facebook free ride is over (but did it ever really exist?)

ValleyWag’s Sam Biddle reported this week that Facebook intends to tighten the screw even further on brands that use the platform for promotional purposes, effectively killing the notion that the social media site can be used for free to reach fans and followers.

If Biddle’s (anonymous) source is correct this will probably be the final nail in the coffin for free Facebook promotion, the moment that the social media behemoth finally declares that if brands want to reach their followers, they’re going to have to pay for the privilege. Biddle writes:

“…The social network is “in the process of” slashing “organic page reach” down to 1 or 2 percent. This would affect “all brands”—meaning an advertising giant like Nike, which has spent a great deal of internet effort collecting over 16 million Facebook likes, would only be able to affect of around a 160,000 of them when it pushes out a post. Companies like Gawker, too, rely on gratis Facebook propagation for a huge amount of their audience. Companies on Facebook will have to pay or be pointless.

This isn’t a particularly new issue. There has been a steady drip of stories over recent months on the changing relationship between brands and their Facebook followers, most notably the December announcement of an algorithm change that smashed brand visibility in the News Feed with an average 44% decline in reach for (unpaid) promotional posts.

There was some respite for brands last month with announcements of yet another tweak that would increase the visibility of brand posts that also tagged other relevant brands, personalities or entities. This certainly has some value for curators but can hardly reverse the long-term trend of reducing free exposure in favour of pushing brands towards paid promotion and ads.

So is the free ride over? Well yes, but a better question would be, did the free ride ever exist? The idea that a brand with x number of followers could reach all (or even a significant chunk) of those people with a post was entirely fictitious from the start, and probably went a long way in convincing everyone from small business owners to C-level executives of the need to divert their precious time and money into developing and maintaining a Facebook “presence” in the first place.

The fact is that Facebook’s “Edge Rank” algorithm has always stacked the odds against promotional and branded messages, because they’ve known (rightly) that users don’t want to be bombarded with ads when they’re squandering their downtime with their virtual friends. Only the most successful of Facebook entities have been able to surf the Edge Rank wave with any significant degree of reach, and doing so demands serious resources in content creation and creativity.  To use Biddle’s example, with collateral like this Nike probably did ok. Your local Italian restaurant with its 400 followers was always posting in the dark to virtually no-one.  This was long before the recent changes that have upset so many corporate social media types.

There’s Always a But…

On the other hand, perhaps there’s a real silver lining to this largely fictitious cloud. A lot of the impetus behind these moves has been a drive towards promoting the kinds of quality content that users presumably want to see in their News Feeds (ok, the extra ad revenue doesn’t hurt either.)

facebook focus on in-depth and related links

“Quality” is a recurring theme across all digital channels these days and it seems like Facebook is also jumping on the bandwagon.

Facebook intends to cut down on News Feed clutter such as (unpaid) brand promotions, click-bait memes and low quality articles. In their place they’re promoting in-depth and authority articles, news content, as well as links to related content elsewhere.

This all fits with the overarching desire for Facebook to become the main “hub” from which its users discover and share the content that matters to them. Fluff, junk and too many promotional messages clearly do not fit within this strategic objective.

Brands that want to achieve real reach on Facebook now face a choice.  They can continue to push their promotional messages out to their fans and be willing to pay good money to make sure they’re seen.  Advertisers are already given a reasonable suite of analytics tools and you can expect these to improve over time. (Although there are VERY ominous questions being raised about the quality and veracity of paid clicks on the site.)

The alternative is to consider how brands might reach their intended audiences organically, i.e. by users sharing their content to other users without overly relying on ad spend.

This route takes a lot more thought, creativity and resources to pump-prime the kinds of content and engagement that works (see comments on Edge Rank above). But companies that are truly able to identify and fulfil the needs of their target audience might find that this slow but inexorable march towards quality, depth and authority will start to pay off.

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