How Facebook's algorithm tweaks have cut the value of a "like" list
Traditionally it has always been Google that has been renowned for surprising marketers, wrapping up an algorithm change as an unwelcome surprise Christmas present.
Christmas just gone, though, it was Facebook’s turn. While less is made of the tweaks it makes to the algorithm that picks which Pages posts appear in a fan’s news feed, they are becoming at least as important to brands engaged in social media marketing as Google’s legendary search algorithm changes.
And as brand managers came back in to work in the New Year, they could see fewer of their posts were appearing organically on the news feeds of people who have ‘liked’ them.
From what Phillip Dyte, Paid Social Media Manager at digital marketing agency iProspect could make out, the proportion of posts feeding through organically had been roughly halved.
“They tinkered with the algorithm around Q2 of last year and we were estimating that around 15% or so of posts were then feeding through to news feeds,” he says. “Come the New Year and that had gone down to around 7% to 8% overnight.”
For the newcomer to Facebook marketing, it may come as a surprise that not every post a brand places on its page appears automatically. To the seasoned social media expert, though, it was more of a tightening of the screws than a surprise.
“It has ever been thus,” says Dyte. “You have to have a lot of sympathy for Facebook. The biggest complaint from users is unwanted ads appearing in their news feed and it’s clear a lot of people can’t distinguish between suggested posts from third parties they’ve not ‘liked’ and those from pages they have liked.
“Certainly when Facebook tightened things up in Q2 last year they could show an instant large drop off in the number of spam reports. So they are clearly motivated to improve the user experience by cutting back on news feeds being full up with brand messages, even if they are from brands a person has liked in the past.”
Follow the dollars
This is a kind way of looking at it. Lewis Austin, social media manager at Absolute Digital Media, believes there is also the issue of revenue generation at Facebook which is likely to be playing a large role in its algorithm tweaks.
“Brands have got every right to feel they’re being squeezed by people trying to get more money from them beyond their page,” he says.
“Now the message is clearer than ever that if you want to reach out to your target market you’ve got to pay for sponsored posts, even among those who’ve previously liked you.
“For the huge brands who’ve spent a fortune building up large fan bases, and continue to do so, it’s less of an issue because they’re spending budget anyway on suggested posts and they probably have a mass of people who are new to the page and so still pretty active.
“For anyone who’s tried building up a loyal following over several years where a user group might have become a little less engaged, it’s going to be tough because they’ve probably been thinking they can do things organically, but the latest algorithm change is making that virtually impossible.”
Success beyond likes
To get a good ranking within the Facebook algorithm the accepted wisdom is that a post needs to feature media; a picture or a video, a link to encourage engagement and the obvious metrics for success, likes and shares. Effectively, if it’s content that goes down well, Facebook will pick up on it and allow more fans to view it.
Indeed, this assumption has been backed up by a statement from Facebook which encourages brands to think longer and harder about creating engaging content which features pictures, video and links. A spokesperson revealed that the social media giant curtailed brand posts because they are generally shared, liked or engaged with far less than those from friends. Hence, they have been downweighted and need to prove their popularity before they appear in news feeds.
So, where does this leave brands and their social media agencies? Nobody would deny that guarding against unappealing brand posts is a good thing. However, as brands look over their Facebook Insights results from January and February, there will no doubt be some gnashing of teeth and perhaps consideration given to other channels, as Amy Kean, head of futures at Havas Media predicts.
“Generally the impact has been clients resenting having to pay so much to reach their fans,” she says. “So we’re having to both establish evolving methodologies to work out what content has most chance of reaching as many fans as possible as well as spending more time distributing content on other social platforms.”
In a single algorithm change Facebook has become synonymous with Google. The same tireless efforts of agencies trying to crack the SEO code so clients can get an organic search boost are now going in to establishing which posts work best with users and are spread organically by the Facebook algorithm.
What is clear, though, is that the days of relying on huge numbers of ‘likes’ to get a message out there are over. While fans are still hugely important, brands are going to have to blend paid campaigns into their organic social marketing. The days of farming thousands of likes through giveaways and then treating that ‘like’ list as a core marketing asset offering guaranteed results were waning throughout 2013 and were finally given the last rites in time for the New Year.