Why are we on Facebook? And have we made ourselves too dependent on the platform? Danish media house TV Midtvest decided to take two weeks off Facebook in an experiment searching for concrete answers. The results were highly surprising and changed the whole digital media strategy at the organisation.

A year after the detox, head of digital Nadia Nikolajeva shared the effects of the detox and what she and her team at TV Midtvest learned, in an exclusive Webinar presented for INMA members on Wednesday.

Nikolajeva opened the Webinar by saying that today marked the exact one-year anniversary of the Facebook detox, adding, “I’m so proud we survived it.”

Nikolajeva is a digital journalist who turned into the social media editor for Metro Express in 2014. “We had to establish ourselves with a young audience, and we had amazing results,” she said of her experience with that company. “I developed a framework for the perfect Facebook post to get maximum results.”

While her relationship with social media had its ups and downs, she took a lot of what she learned into her new job as digital chief at TV Midtvest, she said. Based in Denmark, the company’s audience is a half-million.

The "relationship status" we all have with social media can be complicated.
The "relationship status" we all have with social media can be complicated.

“I was the first in this job,” Nikolajeva said of her position. “I really had to modernise this organisation. I used all of the tricks I had up my sleeve. Things were really going great; I had some amazing results and my boss was very happy.”

Until one day, when she dived into the data behind the growth and took a hard look at the social media numbers. “I had this amazing growth — 48% increase in users. I was super proud of this number. But there was a dark twist: 40% of this was driven from social media. That’s a huge dependence on a platform that changes a lot. I had a bad feeling when I discovered this number.”

Challenges of Facebook

Facebook is a challenging platform to work with when you’re a media organisation, she said. The constant algorithm changes create many challenges, compounded by the fact that Facebook doesn’t always tell people where, geographically, those changes will occur. “You really don’t know if this applies to you. Several times I experienced intense panic about something, only to find out it didn’t apply in Denmark.”

In addition, the inability to predict audience reactions and engagement with posts was frustrating. Sometimes her team would spend a lot of time creating a post, and there were no clicks or shares.

Nikolajeva began to worry about this. “I started talking with my boss about it, and we really wanted to make some sort of statement with this development.”

Nikolajeva embraced the philosophy of doing something that scares you to detox from Facebook.
Nikolajeva embraced the philosophy of doing something that scares you to detox from Facebook.

She shared one of her favourite quotes, saying that when it comes to work, it’s very helpful to do something that’s scary even though it might feel unnatural. She and her boss started talking about what would happen if TV Midtvest left Facebook.

“We had so many problems with the platform and wondered what would happen if we could release Facebook and use that energy doing something else,” Nikolajeva shared. “Would our readers leave?”

The Facebook detox

They decided to find out. In January of 2018, TV Midtvest launched a Facebook detox, putting a banner on their Facebook page that the media company were “closed” for the next two weeks, and why, and when they would be back. “What a scary day that was,” Nikolajeva admitted. “This is the morning that we can’t share anything on Facebook.”

The TV Midtvest newsroom on the morning of the Facebook detox.
The TV Midtvest newsroom on the morning of the Facebook detox.

It was also frustrating when they had a piece of news that was perfect for Facebook, but they couldn’t share it. “But my colleagues are amazing and brave,” she said.

“Of course when you make an experiment, something unexpected can happen. On the second day of the experiment, we were at the top of Apple News; this had never happened to TV Midtvest before. This was the very first time we were shared on Apple News. We got a huge traffic increase directly to our Web site.”

The second day of the Facebook detox, TV Midtvest was featured on Apple News.
The second day of the Facebook detox, TV Midtvest was featured on Apple News.

It was a bit ironic that right after they quit a platform they can’t control, in came another huge push of traffic from another platform they can’t control. Nikolajeva said that it really messed up her data about the detox.

What happened?

“The days we didn’t share any content on Facebook of any kind, we had an almost flat graph,” Nikolajeva said of the resulting traffic numbers. “Our traffic there was based on sharing content; and you can’t control that, even if you follow all the rules and do your very best creating the post. It’s not the great road to users that it was even a couple of years ago. I think that ordinary news really has a hard time on Facebook. You have to do a lot of entertaining to engage people.”

However, what they did find was that they have a loyal reader base that comes to TV Midtvest every day, around the same time every day. “They want to read the news, and they spend time with our articles.”

Results from the detox included:

  • 27% decline in users. “That’s a big number, and it felt strange to lose them due to our self-inflicted reason.”
  • 10% decline in pageviews. “There’s a big difference between a Facebook user and a user who goes directly to our Web site. The Web user spends much more time on the site and reading more articles.”

“These two users have very different behaviours,” Nikolajeva said. “This wasn’t such a huge loss for us; we just lost the ones who were using us very superficially, the fly-bys.”

She recommends that any media company take a look into its data to see what the real value is of its social media users. “A lot of people thought we were crazy, but they were very interested in the results.”

Editorial opportunities during the detox

Nikolajeva introduced one of the TV Midtvest digital journalists, Sarah, who went through those painful two weeks. “You can see in her eyes she is aching to post on Facebook.”

TV Midtvest journalists like Sarah used the detox to create an editorial series about social media detox.
TV Midtvest journalists like Sarah used the detox to create an editorial series about social media detox.

But Sarah and the other TV Midtvest reporters used the time off Facebook to their editorial advantage, creating a series with students who agreed to go on their own Facebook detox right along with the newsroom.

“We made it an editorial series about being ‘locked out’ of Facebook,” Nikolajeva said. Those students kept a diary during their two weeks off the platform, chronicling how it was and how they felt about “missing out.” Sarah and other journalists interviewed those students and wrote about them and their experiences.

One, for example, said that because of the detox, he downloaded a news app for the first time — and found that he actually missed out on a lot of real news by getting it from Facebook. The important stuff that was more useful to him, he found in the app and had not seen on Facebook. TV Midtvest filmed this student at the moment when he logged back on for the first time, capturing his true pain: discovering a party he had missed. “What he felt he had missed out on the most was his social life,” Nikolajeva said.

Mindless versus mindful social media for news organisations

“This is an important conversation to have. Do you really have access to your readers [on Facebook]? Or do you only have access via this American, billion-dollar company? We wanted to spark this conversation.”

The Facebook detox experiment prompted the team to take a hard look at the different ways it was utilising social media.

  • Mindless: “We found out that we were on Facebook with this mindless approach. We were there because it had been working in other organisations. We were just following trends.” It worked to a certain extent, but not at a deep level.
  • Mindful: After the detox, TV Midtvest started using the platform more mindfully. “We share content on Facebook more rarely; we used to post nine articles a day; now it’s down to 4.5 on average. The journalists really choose what they’re sharing and they have a plan. They talk to their editor about what is the most important story of the day.”

“When we take up space on social media, we make sure it’s content that really makes a difference in the world in a positive way,” Nikolajeva said. “Does it speak to our brand or is it just driving traffic?”

Her advice for other media companies is to not be afraid to challenge themselves, to ask why they are on social media. “It’s really important to do once in a while. It’s so much fun to do something scary.”

The year after

So, what has happened and changed for TV Midtvest in the year following its Facebook detox? “I vowed that I wouldn’t launch any new products related to Facebook for a year,” Nikolajeva said. Instead, she focused on:

  • Major focus on platforms where they have control instead of chasing trends.
  • Big Web site redesign, with positive user feedback.
  • Optimised workflow in the newsroom, spending time on details that make a difference to increase time spent in the articles.
  • Created the company’s own platform — a streaming app called TV Midtvest Play.

“Facebook was such a huge time-consuming part of my job. So when we kind of stepped off that train to be there half as much as we used to and reorganise our strategy, I had more time for other things that mattered” Nikolajeva said. “We put the energy into creating good articles.”

The new streaming app, TV Midtvest Play.
The new streaming app, TV Midtvest Play.

With the streaming app, the company has the advantage of complete control. “The numbers we get from this platform are super interesting. The users finish watching when they join us in the app, and they stay longer. We developed a new type of user when we created this platform.

“It’s crazy to realise that it took such an extreme experiment for us to see this.”

Nikolajeva encourages people to delve deep into their Facebook data to really look at the actual engagement and shares: “Give your readers what they expect from you, in a positive way, that speaks to your brand.”

TV Midtvest still has plenty of items on the strategy agenda.
TV Midtvest still has plenty of items on the strategy agenda.

Q&A

INMA: If you’re reducing the number of posts in Facebook, a year after the detox, do you have any generalisations what content on Facebook triggers the most traffic to your Web site?

Nikolajeva: That lies in Facebook itself. The algorithm right now focuses on comments and engagement. So, posts that generate such engagement will get better results. But you should stay true to your brand. If Facebook wants funny videos, that doesn’t mean necessarily that you should post funny videos. It makes no sense to chase those trends but [instead] spend energy on what supports your brand.

INMA: Why are you now investing time and energy into Instagram?

Nikolajeva: This looks like a platform where we can get some interesting results. We made an analysis of the audience we can reach there. We really need to reach women aged 16-24, and that’s exactly the audience we can reach on Instagram.

INMA: Did Facebook offer you a new deal after this experiment? Did they have a reaction?

Nikolajeva: I got a call during one of the first days of the experiment from the Nordic contact of Facebook. He wanted to let me know that he thought it was a great experiment and Facebook was positive about the idea. The time was when Facebook had a pretty big change in their algorithm, from 5% of news content down to 4%.

INMA: What actions did you take to encourage users to move from Facebook to your news app?

Nikolajeva: Unfortunately, we didn’t get a huge increase in news app downloads. But when they launched the new streaming app, they did see a big increase.