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Jan. 19, 2018, 11:34 a.m.
Audience & Social

Publishers claim they’re taking Facebook’s News Feed changes in stride. Is the “bloodletting” still to come?

“Let’s put the nail in the coffin of chasing clicks and likes.”

Facebook took a look at all the news and pages it’s recruited to populate the News Feed, and decided officially, never mind: Friends and family first.

Publishers reacted quickly. Some have specifically appealed to readers about the change, whether that means directing readers to dedicated mobile apps or offering instructions on how to manually select outlets to “see first” in the feed.

We reached out to dozens of people working in audience development and social media across many different types of news organizations, offering them anonymity (some preferred to be identified by name) in exchange for their unvarnished thoughts on Facebook’s official announcement that it would refocus the News Feed on sharing and “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.” Many of the publishers we spoke with chose to remain vague about their strategies, leaning heavily on the word “diversification” and stressing that they expect the unexpected from Facebook and thus hadn’t been blindsided by the changes. (Touch of Stockholm Syndrome? Maybe.)

By the middle of last year, Google Search had surpassed Facebook as the top referrer for publishers in the network, as Facebook referrals continued to drop overall.

And since October of last year, sites in the Chartbeat network have suffered a 15 percent decline in Facebook referrals, the analytics company said in a Thursday blog post.

It was unlikely that normal people were seeing much news on a day-to-day basis in their main Facebook feeds anyway. And the “pivot to video” craze now seems to be crashing: Wochit, one company that makes and tracks social video for publishers, reported an 8- to 15-percent drop in views across 300 different brands (some 500 Facebook pages) in the second half of 2017.

Said one person from a non-U.S. digital publisher:

Our Facebook reach and traffic has been declining all year, so we are not entirely surprised by the decision. Platform dependence is always a risk for social publishers like us, but we have tried to hedge by diversifying our distribution channels — adding YouTube, WhatsApp, Telegram. Facebook was a major channel for us and our traffic will naturally take a hit due to this change, but it will definitely not kill us. Over the past year, our brand has grown and our audience seeks out our content everywhere, not just Facebook, so we should be fine. On a monetization front, there will be little to no effect as we barely make anything on Facebook anyway. We have been preparing ourselves for this day, although it came quicker than expected.

Another audience engagement lead at a digital publisher said that they would stay their course, and that their organization was already making video anyway, but “we will not follow [Facebook] blindly if they head in a direction that’s not in line with our editorial goals.” Facebook reps are frequently in touch with this company, but usually about product releases, never about algorithm changes. This publisher rarely pays to boost posts, and plans continued restraint on that front.

Facebook has been open with my organization about making their news feed more about baby pictures and engagement announcements and trying to move video into the “Watch” tab. For us, the push to longform is welcome, because it’s a direction we are moving anyway and we already have a nice suite of longform video offerings that we can make into shows.

But there’s a big question about whether reactive news (rather than programming) can live anywhere on that platform. Facebook doesn’t have an answer for us on that. We’ve already been seeing our short-form news content clearly de-prioritized in the algorithm over the last year, demonstrated by the decrease in reach (which our same videos haven’t experienced on other platforms). And these seemingly “made for Facebook” text-on-screen news videos do work well in other feeds. They continue to do well for us on Twitter and Instagram.

For now, we aren’t going to totally stop putting news videos on our page. We still have a hefty following of people engaging with them, even if Facebook isn’t doing any lifting to get them out there. If in a few months, we’re seeing our videos not surface at all, then we can re-evaluate. Facebook could also change its mind again, or go in another direction. That’s why nobody should rely too much on them and why we’ve been working to diversify our distribution channels for the last year or so. Our strategy is to keep doing what we do, and if that works with the Facebook algorithm, great, but we will not follow them blindly if they head in a direction that’s not in line with our editorial goals.

The positive thing about Facebook turning into such a source for news the last few years has been that younger generations (the ones who don’t have television or read newspapers) started watching and paying attention. I think the news industry is going to have to keep shifting to meet young people where they are, because many are no longer accustomed to seeking out the news themselves and can’t be relied on to repeatedly visit one website or one app.

Meena Thiruvengadam, Bloomberg’s global head of audience engagement, also suggested positive possible outcomes.

I’m hearing a lot of mixed feedback. Some people are saying they’re only seeing group posts now, but I’m hearing other people say they’re still seeing a lot of publisher posts. So we’re still keeping an eye on it, it’s so early.

One of the things I’m really interested in is whether the change can benefit us by tightening our focus on engagement. The guidance given to engage through the comments is encouraging. To have a platform say it will prioritize engagement and the conversations we have with users is a great reminder to put our audience at the center of the content experience we’re creating. We can shift a bit, even if it’s just saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got an update to this story’ in the thread of the comments, rather than in a new post.

Facebook Groups has become the flavor of the month. Some organizations have been cultivating, with great effort, active groups on the platform for a long time (see here and here and here), but caution that it’s not a stopgap for traffic losses.

One engagement editor at a U.S. publisher:

The Facebook change is not a surprise. Social media and engagement editors have known the platform was headed this way for a long time. Building meaningful, authentic relationships with readers — no matter what platform — is my goal. Facebook groups are a way to do that, but so is meeting readers in the physical space and intently listening to what questions and concerns the community has. I do worry this news is going to make ‘pivot to groups’ the new ‘pivot to video.’ I’m looking forward to the opportunity to facilitate more conversations with our reporters and editors about using our journalistic skills to build relationships — let’s put the nail in the coffin of chasing clicks and likes.

Kate Ward, the editor-in-chief of Bustle Digital Media, said:

We’ve largely stayed consistent in our strategy since launch. Obviously there’s been changes across the last few years; there are always going to be changes. We’ve always been focused on giving our readers the content they want. I don’t think anything is going to change, from our end, with this algorithm change. We’ve made an effort over the past five years to diversify where readers are getting our content from, so that we’re not completely reliant on one platform.

We do the standard thing, which is putting money behind some posts that are performing really well to give them an extra little boost. That’s the standard play we have there.

But even if people are hesitant to say it out loud, and even though many have already been diversifying their outreach to audiences, we may not have seen the full repercussions of these changes yet. Said one audience engagement director at a digital publisher:

There’s been a lot of talk about diversification. The problem is that Facebook is such a juggernaut that even the publishers that maintain an active presence on many different platforms will take a hit. Facebook has a base of 2 billion monthly active users. For news organizations to lose access to that user base is devastating, even if their audience teams have a strategy that is less reliant on Facebook.

I don’t blame the audience engagement professionals who fear for their jobs. They should. They have to answer to media executives — many of whom don’t understand how the Facebook algorithm works. All they’ll see are the declining traffic numbers. Many of those top executives could care less about creative forms of engagement (unless they have a clear effect on the bottom line). Those media executives will likely keep their jobs, while many reporters, video producers, and digital storytellers lose theirs. Anyone who works in journalism should be prepared for the bloodletting to come.

Photo by Ksayer1 used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 19, 2018, 11:34 a.m.
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