Facebook: beyond the social network

There’s been a long standing myth that social media marketing is free. While the likes of Facebook and Twitter have never charged for the privilege of setting up an owned channel within their platform, brands were often surprised at the time and money required to set up and maintain an effective presence. Facebook was able to monetize the opportunity by offering a strong advertising model – the use of profile data for targeted ad campaigns for fan acquisition. A well-managed ad campaign would deliver fans to the page for a reasonable spend. The value of that acquisition was derived from the following:

  • profiling should ensure the fan is in the target market
  • the fan has demonstrated interest in the brand by opting in to future messages
  • the brand has the opportunity to continuing communicating with the fan at no additional cost

These are benefits a smart marketer can use to their advantage. They were strong enough propositions to convince businesses to invest money in Facebook despite concerns over ROI (particularly for those without an e-commerce solution). Facebook delivered the opportunity for brands to speak to their target audience on a daily basis for the cost of acquiring their registration of interest.

The times they are a-changing. Facebook is evolving (into a chair apparently) and marketers are now asked to reconsider the idea of Facebook as a social network and see the investors’ vision:  a mass reach impactful media platform.  So what does this mean?

Since September 20th, data nerds in agency land began to notice a drop in the number of fans who saw an update. The statistic is displayed to admins at the bottom of each page post and more detail is given within Facebook’s native insight tool. The stats are checked regularly by any capable Facebook page manager as it drives content and conversation optimization. So when the organic reach for one of our pages dropped from an average of 25,000 fans to 7,000 fans within a week before continuing to flail on 3,000 fans, we were paying attention, especially as we continued to get a good percentage of fans interacting with the post – if they saw it. Ogilvy and We Are Social were quick to report it and in early October confirmation came that the Edgerank algorithm has changed and was impacting on reach.

Around the same time a new ad product was released that allowed brands to place their update in the news feeds of fans and friends of fans. Given there’s only so much news feed to go around, it’s an obvious replacement: updates which used to be published into fans’ news feeds are being replaced with promoted page stories from brands the Facebook user hasn’t liked (albeit with social context as a friend has liked the page). If as a brand you want your fans to see your own update instead, you have the ability to purchase it through the ad product Promote.

As a mass reach impactful media platform, Facebook now expects brands to pay to continue to reach their opt-in audience.

The direction to avoid the drop in reach was to create more engaging content. My issue with this takes me back to the trusty Forrester Groundswell social technographic tool. Years ago we learned that social participation is scaled based on the level of interaction required – only a fraction of your audience would ever feel motivated enough to vote, comment or create their own content while the majority of your audience would be content with being voyeurs. Facebook itself appealed to this with the introduction of the “Like” – considered a micro-commitment in comparison with a comment. Unfortunately those not compelled to like or comment on a status have always been penalized by Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm which determines what a user sees in their newsfeed based on their recent interactions. This audience has been halved with the recent changes. Personally I thought our right to publish to our audience was established during the fan acquisition stages – someone who Likes your page is saying yes! I want to hear from you whether I like or comment on your updates or not.

I understand Facebook needs to protect its audience which means maintaining a destination where users discover and share things that interest them with minimal commercial interruption. What I fear is that brands will continue to place a false importance on the need to “win” at Edgerank and instead of wiping out “like-baiting” and fluffy messages about cats and rainbows we’ll see these (ironically) irrelevant posts take over, and pay for the privilege of having fans see it. There’s a shift in the benefit of engagement – previously we’d be aiming to increase the number of people who like or comment on an update as we valued the impression it created. Literally.

A positive action from a fan would be viewed in the news feed of their friends and they’d see why their friend liked us, not why we thought they should like us. That benefit shaped the type of interaction we’d aim for as well – a testimonial or declaration of loyalty. Now we’re told to focus on engagement to maintain our reach stats. There’s a big difference between delivering on brand communications to an opt-in audience on a regular basis versus extracting a like or a comment from every update in the hopes of maintaining reach. I predict few brands will be able to justify the financial or human resource to produce like-worthy content on a weekly basis if they’re now only going to reach half the audience they used to and we’ll see a drop in the number of updates brands publish each week. Perhaps Facebook should have focused more on proving ROI before adding an additional layer of cost to their service?

So what does this mean for your 2013 marketing plans? The most significant impact on your budget is that you will now need to consider paid support for your page publishing strategy and extend your Facebook investment from solely fan acquisition. Should you choose to maintain an organic community management strategy it’s difficult to predict the results you’ll achieve in 2013 but I’ll say with some certainty that your results will be drastically lower than 2012.

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~ by mandi bateson on October 18, 2012.

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