Last week Facebook announced an overhaul of its News Feed, the largest single source of news and entertainment on the planet reaching over two billion people. Facebook said it would prioritise the content shared by users’ friends and family, while de-emphasising content published directly by publishers and brands.

In a live “just in time” Webinar  Tuesday morning, INMA analysed the implications to the news business and digital strategy of news publishers. The Webinar was presented by Grzegorz Piechota, an INMA board member who has spent the past 18 months studying technology-enabled disruption patterns across industries at Oxford and Harvard — notably news media and social platforms like Facebook.

“Facebook is telling us that they’re changing the objectives of the algorithm,” Piechota said, starting off the Webinar. “Now they are going to be optimised for the volume of interactions between users on the platform. I think it’s a big shift. We may expect that the time people spend on Facebook will go down.”

This contrasts with previous algorithms, which were more favourable toward publisher content. It also speaks to the attention economy, which is basically about the scarcity of people’s time.

“What we don’t know is how they will be judging the value of the interactions between the users,” Piechota said. “We don’t really know how that will affect publisher content in the News Feed. They do say they expect some posts by Pages may get lower in reach, which may affect engagements and traffic.”

Publishers have many reasons to be upset with Facebook, Piechota said. News executives are worried about the growing power of such platforms and their influence on the public all over the world. While Facebook raised expectations with the launch of its Journalism Project, unfortunately the reviews are still mixed and still to come.

However, last year another shift was made by Facebook that wasn’t announced or put out there publicly, one that resulted in sometimes huge drops in traffic for posts by publishers. Piechota saw reported drops of up to 50% after that. Facebook did something similar in 2014 after personal interactions between users decreased; so this is the third time.

Facebook’s tech architecture is a network, not a broadcaster. The News Feed is a means of conversation and interaction, not really a vehicle for the purpose of putting content out there. Facebook is trying to balance the satisfying interactions between users over all other metrics, including publishers and pages.

What do these changes mean?

“It’s not the last change that Facebook will make to alter this balance,” Piechota said. “I don’t think it is ever going to become a mass news distributor, because that would basically kill the user model of the platform.”

Facebook is not doing away with Page posts in News Feed; the company is just de-emphasizing their priority. Piechota expects that will result in a 4% to 12% potential drop in page views, although the actual impact is difficult to estimate.

Grzegorz Piechota addressed the Facebook News Feed changes and what publishers can do about them.
Grzegorz Piechota addressed the Facebook News Feed changes and what publishers can do about them.

What can publishers do?

Many publishers have been paying a lot of money to advertise and create boosted and sponsored posts on Facebook, which will likely lose their traffic and effectiveness. What is likely to continue to be more effective, Piechota said, is posts on publishers Pages, rather than advertising.

This is largely a matter of understanding the difference between sharing and broadcasting — and training newsrooms and marketing teams to understand this, and take advantage of it.

“This is a different KPI and a different activity entirely. The major KPI to maximise distribution will be sharing. Having posts that generate a large number of comments also boosts them in the News Feed.”

Users also will share Facebook posts on other social media platforms, such as Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp, so publishers need to make sure to keep those tracked and active as well.

“If you understand how the traffic is coming to you, you can better address this,” Piechota said.

Tactical responses

How can companies increase the number of visitors referred from Facebook, and fill the gap? First, Piechota analysed the opportunities within Facebook itself:

  • Mobilise users to share links, in their personal posts and in messages, and optimise your page posts for sparking conversation.
  • Switch effort to activities that aren’t affected by this change (paid posts, group posts, etc.).

“We may expect there may be more competition for paid posts, so we will be paying more for them,” he said.

Growth hacking with influencers

Piechota advised news media publishers to identify and engage well-connected users to help spread stories, and to build communities around specific topics and interests.

“The new opportunity is to think about micro-influencers,” he said. “We are talking about people who aren’t big celebrities, but are major influencers in specific niche markets.”

Piechota also mentioned Blasting News, which received 102 million visitors monthly in 2017. Communities are built around specific topics (for example Game of Thrones, paleo cooking, sports teams, etc.); 2,500 freelancers contribute, and 1,500 influencers distribute that content. 

Growth hacking with Groups

Facebook Groups is the second priority behind Friends & Family. Publishers should use Groups as vehicles for their own theme-oriented communities, or engage with admins of existing Groups.

Piechota mentioned success stories from The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal, both of which have successfully created or inspired Groups for interest communities to nurture their engagement. These are Groups both created by the publishers themselves and started organically by fans or people interested in the topics. Publishers can engage in these Groups even if they didn’t start them.

“What is important about Groups is that their engagement rates are much higher than Pages,” Piechota said. “They are much more active.” Engagement can be up to 20%, compared to 1% for Pages. “The thing is that you need to admin these groups, or deal with existing admins.”

Tactical responses

Piechota then moved to opportunities beyond Facebook. How do news media companies increase the number of page views on their sites? His suggestions:

  • Mobilise existing users through increasing the frequency and depth of their visits.
  • Attract new users by mobilising existing channels and finding new ones.

This means identifying super users, and super-serving them. There is a lot of worthless traffic on social media; Mather Economics data shows 74% of monthly visitors to U.S. sites are fly-bys. The Boston Globe, for example, sees 86% of its digital revenue brought from only 2% of their users.

This also means identifying networks used for news and by your target audience: “Maybe we should be much more innovative with platforms like WhatsApp,” Piechota suggested. 

Platform strategies

News media companies should align platform strategy to their business model, as platforms disrupt it by decoupling content use from their advertising.

“I think we first need to think about the business model,” Piechota said. There are completely different strategies for different publishers, depending on their business model and goals. Is that to reach as many people as possible? To get subscribers? To monetise? 

“We are seeing shifting business models of many publishers, based on their digital revenue,” Piechota said. Many are now optimising for quality of audience rather than massive reach. The platform strategy should vary depending on what the business model is, what publishers seek from the platform and what the end game is.

Takeaways

  • Don’t despair; the change in news feed seems to be manageable. Many of the losses will be from those fly-bys, and may not be that valuable anyway.
  • Get used to the changes — but don’t outsource your future to an external platform.
  • Focus on attracting and engaging customers, not just the audience.
  • Innovate the business model, then align platform strategy accordingly.

“The biggest lesson is we need to innovate the platform first, not change the strategy first,” Piechota advised. “For example, don’t necessarily go and create a Group tomorrow; rather, think first about whether Groups are the right strategy for you. Look at the value of the traffic, not just the numbers. You need to think long-term about your business, long-term relationships.”

Q&A

INMA: Will publisher posts in Groups get punished if they bring down the average engagement of the groups with their content?

Piechota: Short answer — yes. These people are already invested in a certain topic. You cannot treat Groups as places where you can go and dump your content; you need to be focused. You need to create meaningful conversation about the topics of their interest. We have something to contribute; we have experts on staff. We have content that is relevant to these people. You need to be very mindful of how you approach these groups.

INMA: Can requests on posts such as “tag a friend” still be helpful?

Piechota: If they are, Facebook could just create another tweak in the algorithm to punish it. Tagging people within a group works very well, however.

INMA: In terms of video content, should we steer away from uploading to Facebook? Will that be impacted as much as articles?

Piechota: Yes, video viewing time may be impacted as well. Unfortunately, this is a guess; we don’t really know.

INMA: Is it a good practice to double or triple posts under Instant Articles?

Piechota: I think it doesn’t matter very much. The speed is what matters; whether people share it and comment/message on it is important. It’s more about the type of story and your engagement style.

INMA: Would it help to cut down on the number of Facebook posts?

Piechota: Traditionally, it doesn’t matter that much; the algorithms will limit the exposure of posts anyway. If you are publishing too much, however, you can get classified as click bait or spamming, which could influence your reach. A lower number but better quality should work better.

INMA: How will Facebook Live be impacted? What about chatboxes?

Piechota: Live, don’t know. Chats, perhaps. What we are seeing with the social networks right now is that they are specialising more; for example, Instagram is for photos. Messenger is for other types of sharing. Facebook wants to focus their News Feed on commenting and interaction. This is where the value of other platforms like WhatsApp, which is highly used even for news in many parts of the world, come into play.

INMA: What about native content?

Piechota: Traditionally, this has better engagement than links.

INMA: How much of all this is cultural for publishers?

Piechota: I felt like the reaction was almost like someone who was in love, and then broke up. It was emotional, a lot of resentment; it’s not necessarily useful in a business model. Maybe their expectations were so high that they felt almost betrayed. It was more about emotions than real facts.

The business model in advertising is completely disrupted, and people need to change it as soon as possible. The right opportunities are still there; you need to innovate with the business model. Thinking just about traffic and audience is misleading us. We should be more focused on heavy users, readers who intentionally come to our sites. We should innovate towards them, not the fly-bys.

“I think there is a bigger lesson in all this,” Piechota said, wrapping up. “Publishers outsourced interaction to social networks, even to the extent of disabling content on their own sites. There is a huge value in social interactions between our readers, and we completely surrender it to social media platforms.”

Do you have questions? Send them to Piechota at grzegorz.piechota@gmail.com.