Written by Marcus Collins, SVP, Executive Director of Social Engagement
Since its introduction in 2006, two years after the social networking platform’s founding, Facebook has long placed great focus on the optimization of its “Newsfeed.” The Newsfeed is the default welcome screen which dynamically aggregates the posts and updates from the various accounts which Facebook users follow and are connected — people, brands, artists, publishers, small businesses, etc. To optimize the experience of the Newsfeed, Facebook began using an algorithm in 2009 to prioritize what content gets seen by a given user. This form of content sorting depended heavily on the perceived relevance of the content, informed by user engagement. Previously, Facebook delivered content in the Newsfeed via reverse chronological order, a far departure from the 2009 methodology. Over the years, this approach to sorting content via popularity has experienced many changes — from design alterations to algorithmic shifts. The latter ushered in efforts to: prioritize content shared by users’ close friends and family, reduce “clickbait” posts, and give preference to video media which were growing in favor among users. Brands, of course, benefited greatly from the captive audience Facebook amassed and the unprecedented sophistication of Facebook’s ad-targeting capabilities. While Facebook happily opened its doors to the ad revenue, which grew year over year thanks to eager marketers who spent aggressively on the platform (as well as the laggards who were slow to adopt the technology as a marketing communications vehicle), its focus has been centered, by and large, on its users — people.
It should come to no surprise that Facebook would embrace new changes to the Newsfeed algorithm, as it has previously done so frequently. The company hires an army of social scientists and data analysts to do this very thing, observe human behavior on the platform and augment its features accordingly. Whether it be a response to the criticism of the widespread “fake news” articles, which circulated across the platform during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, or business as usual, change is a constant practice for Facebook, as it is for tech broadly. The most recent changes, once again, put an added emphasis on the user by prioritizing the content people see in their Newsfeed based on the posts most popular among people’s friends and family. Sound familiar? Facebook’s focus is centered on its users — people.
This is a hard pill to swallow for many marketers because brands have grown accustomed to buying their way into users’ Newsfeeds. Once Facebook began reducing organic reach for brands (yet another sweeping Newsfeed change some five years ago), companies delivered their communications to the Newsfeeds of brand “fans” — and anyone else on the platform who matched a targeted profile — by simply writing a check. With a population of over 2 billion people, Facebook became (and still is) a super compelling media investment for marketing communications, rivaling that of traditional television and radio outlets. The most recent Newsfeed changes, however, signal that those days are likely waning.
According to Facebook, the new changes to the Newsfeed will reduce the amount of content users see from media publishers and companies alike. That is to say that people will see more content from their people — the way Facebook was intended to function from the very beginning. Just recently the company stated that the shifts will affect publishers most, particularly those which have been able to reach users for free through the Newsfeed’s automated placement of these publishers’ posts. While Facebook may be focused on people, it’s not a philanthropy either. Therefore, publishers like Attn:, Buzzfeed and Upworthy, who have benefited from organic reach, will now meet a similar fate as brands once did — if they want to reach people, they will now have to pay up. The result of this move will be devastating for these publishers and likely undermine the value proposition they once offered as an alternative to ad agency-made creative. While Facebook has assured the advertising community that sponsored posts (that is, media-supported content) will not be affected by the recent Newsfeed changes, it certainly hints at a few things:
Facebook has long invested in video as a priority undertaking for the platform. In the last year, the company doubled down on this commitment by building a dedicated home for original video content. The new tab, called Facebook Watch, was designed to host content produced exclusively for Facebook by such partners as MLB, the NBA, National Geographic and others. Facebook plans to allow advertisers to buy against this content, not unlike television, based on contextual relevance. This is no doubt aimed to be a YouTube competitor. It also forces publishers to shift their content efforts toward Facebook Watch, as opposed to the Newsfeed, to keep the coveted real estate of the Newsfeed focused on people and their networks.
This strategic investment in highly produced content through Facebook Watch will likely nudge marketers toward this inventory as well. The move certainly resolves some of the brand-safety anxieties which marketers have been feeling as of late in regards to YouTube media placement issues. Not to mention, buying interstitials against video content feels far more familiar to traditional marketers than navigating the ambiguity of programming “social” content.
This is not checkers, it’s chess. As mentioned above, Facebook is a firm believer in putting things in the world and optimizing along the way. If this rollout proves successful for the company, it would not be much of a surprise if similar changes were soon knocking at marketers’ doors also. Whether it be a premium on sponsored posts — due to the reduction of Newsfeed inventory, in favor of more people-generated posts — or a fullout shift to Facebook Watch — adopting a YouTube-like model for on-platform advertising (or perhaps a combination of both), a detour from the advertising status quo on Facebook is inevitable.
The takeaway is this, Facebook is a social networking platform that became a marketing platform over time. While the company has made a fortune in ad revenue, its focus is on people first. Facebook’s Newsfeed changes are actually prioritizing the “social” in “social media,” and that’s a good thing. If marketers are to fully leverage social, then we must do the same also. We must put people first.
This cannot be overstated. Marketers have long viewed the inhabitants of Facebook as a population of potential consumers dubbed an “audience.” But an “audience” is an assembly of passive spectators, and people just aren’t passive. People are dynamic and their behaviors are largely influenced by the dynamism of the networks of people to which they subscribe. Now, more than ever, brands must earn their way into the conversations of would-be consumers and their networks of people. We can’t simply buy our way into the party, we have to be invited. The notion of disruption with no intrinsic value to the network will continue to erode marketing opportunities for brands in today’s hyper-connected world. Thus, it is more important than ever that marketers create “things” (content, stories, experiences, etc.) that are built to share, which will require of us a more nuanced understanding of human behavior.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, describes the new updates to the Newsfeed as a move to prioritize “trustworthy content” in an effort to make people’s time spent on the site more meaningful. The underlying implication of this statement speaks directly to the prioritization of people, which should also be the top priority of brands also.