New Year… New Feed?

Facebook overhauls News Feed to promote “meaningful interactions”, bids farewell to publishers.

From threats of North Korean missile attacks to #MeToo, 2017 wasn’t an easy year by any stretch. Plagued by scandals, the proliferation of #FakeNews, dwindling teen usership, and – most dramatically – alleged interference in the 2016 US election, for social media behemoth Facebook, this was especially true.

Embarrassingly, it appears even the platform’s own algorithm agrees; its annual Year in Review feature surfacing statuses paying tribute to the Las Vegas shooting and other world tragedies under the headline “All the memories”.

Amidst all of this, several high-profile former Facebook employees expressed regret over their creation’s impact on society, and as revealed in a surprising study by the platform itself, it appears their concerns are warranted. Users who passively scroll Facebook, it reports, emerge less happy than they were prior. Sparking a global conversation, their critiques surfaced a question that has long loomed in the backs of its user’s minds: “How does Facebook affect me, my well-being, interactions, and society at large?”

With Facebook’s reputation undeniably smeared, CEO Mark Zuckerberg continued his 2017 apology tour by outlining plans to return the platform’s focus to “meaningful interactions” between friends and family. To do so, Facebook’s algorithm will begin prioritising posts that spark back-and-forth discussion, citing those that seek advice or recommendations as examples. Publishers and businesses, meanwhile, will increasingly have their posts restricted; news that has—unsurprisingly—caused a considerable stir in marketing and PR spheres. Finally, tying publisher’s hands further, is Facebook’s prior declaration that it will begin using machine learning to demote pages that directly ask users to vote on, like, or share a post; a practice aptly termed “engagement baiting”.

More than hollow New Year’s resolutions, however, Zuckerberg appears to be making good his claims. In fact, Facebook, it would appear, has been subtly implementing these changes over the past year. According to data from digital analytics service Parse.ly, Facebook’s share of external web referrals decreased considerably in 2017, from 40 percent to 24 percent, and now lags far behind competitor Google at 43 percent. With Facebook’s intentions now laid plainly in the open, these statistics are only set to worsen in the year to come, leaving us to ask: how do brands and businesses stay ahead of these changes?

The answer, quite simply, is money. Whether spurred by genuine concern for their user’s wellbeing, or (more likely), a cunning grab at increased ad revenue, one thing is for sure: Facebook sponsored posts are about to get a whole lot more expensive. After all, as scholar Sue Halpern illuminates, “[Facebook is] a publicly traded company (…) Every announcement that Mark Zuckerberg makes is a business decision.” That said, we mustn’t forget that unless these posts generate lively discussion, all the paid spend in the world won’t guarantee eyeballs on a publisher’s posts.

So, what is the answer then? More frequent CTAs? Copy encouraging users to comment if they like X more than Y? While these strategies may help, they’re certainly not the golden ticket. Instead, now more than ever, brands and agencies must think of their consumers—not themselves—as the publishers. After all, it is them, not us, who get to decide which posts live or die on their timelines. As such, brands must craft content with their consumer’s reactions solely in mind, asking themselves: “Does this content speak to our follower’s beliefs, interests, and values? Will they want to interact with, comment on, or share it for these reasons?”. If the answers to these questions are a resolute yes, Facebook’s News Feed update will be of negligible impact. If not, it may be time to rethink your content strategy.

Techniques and tactics aside, in 2018, the same is true of social media as has been true since its inception: content is king. What’s new, however, is the growing realisation that the conventional wisdom that surrounds it: employing “optimised” post times, targeted hashtags, the notion that blue posts receive more likes? It’s all just fluff; shortcuts and strategies made increasingly obsolete by the platforms themselves. This isn’t to say that brands should cut these strategies altogether, but rather those who use Facebook to connect with their consumers must see the writing on the wall.

While we’re no fans of the whiplash onset by Facebook’s continually evolving algorithms, if overhauling the News Feed will limit the sharing of memes, “Tag a friend if __!” statuses, and eye-roll-inducing “Pivot to Video”, this might just be a change that Undertow Media can get behind.

Finally, if nothing else, the News Feed update serves as a timely reminder for brands not to put all of their eggs in one basket; to diversify their social media and communication offerings at large – online and offline. Betting one’s entire strategy on a platform that increasingly demonstrates it isn’t looking to facilitate their commercial best interests is a foolish wager indeed.

For more information on these changes, as well as Undertow Media’s concrete suggestions on how to curb their effects, please get in touch via imogen@undertowmedia.com.