The Algorithm Change
In January of this year, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be making significant changes to its News Feed algorithm. Now, under the new algorithm, posts which generate “more meaningful” interactions such as shares and comments appear higher up the News Feed than those which generate simple likes and reactions. The stated aim was to prioritise content from friends, family, and groups over public content from businesses, brands, and media organisations following feedback that “public content is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”
Zuckerberg’s announcement looked like bad news for digital content creators. Publishers had already seen their organic reach falling for some time, and it was tempting to see this algorithm change as the final nail in the coffin. Some commentators went so far as to claim that “the days of organic reach are definitely over.” At the same time, there was an explosion of online articles offering advice on how to navigate the algorithm change, as publishers looked for guidance on how to adapt their content for the new year.
The prospects may have been gloomy for content creators, but what’s actually happened?
Prior to 2012, the organic reach of the average Facebook page was as high as 16%. Then, between February 2012 and March 2014, this steadily fell to 6.5%. From 2016, organic reach for large Pages was typically as low as 2%. For a Page with 1 million fans, only 200,000 would actually see the post. So, to put it mildly, the base-line for organic reach was already pretty low. Then, within the month of their algorithm change, Facebook reported that people were already devoting 50 million fewer hours a day to the social network (which works out at about two-minutes per user on average) -indicating that organic reach could be expected to fall further as people spent less time scrolling down their Newsfeed.
It’s undeniable that for some content creators, things really did become a whole lot worse after January 2018. Most notably, LittleThings, a four-year-old site geared toward sharing feel-good stories and videos to American women, shut down in March after losing 75% of its organic reach. LittleThings’ overreliance on Facebook to circulate their content has been widely seen as a lesson in the importance of diversifying one’s online presence and directing traffic to one’s own platform.
Other content creators, however, appear to have successfully weathered the Facebook storm. In late March, Newswhip published a report into the impact of the Facebook algorithm change on publishers and content creators so far. They found that hard news content – breaking news and current events stories – still made up over half of the top 100 most engaging articles, and that major news publishers such as CNN, Fox News, and NBC published over half of the most engaging content on the site. Moreover, Newswhip noted that “it doesn’t seem like other news publishers are seeing the extreme dive off of the deep end” that many anticipated.
How have these news publishers done it? Not, it turns out, by simply posting more content. Rather, in addition to selecting relevant and quality content, the most successful news organisations have fostered strong relationships between journalists and their readers. Journalists such as Nicholas Kristoff at the New York Times, for example, interact with their readers on their own personal Pages and encourage conversation and debate on their publications.
The success of these news publishers teaches content creators, above all, the importance of community. It’s now clear that preserving one’s organic reach requires maintaining an active and engaged community of loyal followers. Preferably more than one. The brands which survive and thrive on Facebook will be those who succeed (e.g the New York Times) in building many smaller communities -or audience sub-sections- providing each with carefully chosen material that stimulates conversation. NPR, the Washington Post, and even brands and agencies like HBO and 360i have all been developing Facebook groups as a means of ensuring their content is seen in spite of crowded Newsfeeds. Creators who fail to heed this lesson do so at their own risk.