When attempting to acquire new customers, some drug dealers have been known to give away their products for free. Once the customer is addicted, it becomes increasingly hard for them to stop returning for more, despite an every-increasing price tag being attached to an increasingly-weak product.
Wait, did I say drug dealers? I meant Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg’s once charming social media network, which was the backbone that helped launch a bevy of digital newsrooms and once offered a lifeline to struggling legacy publishers, has once again made the decision to cut off the very journalists it has insisted all along it wanted to help.
Think of Facebook less as the hotel concierge happy to send business your way and more as Darth Vader slowly force choking you as he plainly states, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”
Back in January, Facebook once again made changes to the algorithm that powers its “News Feed,” the main way users are shown the content created by your newsroom. Basically, Facebook will be placing more emphasis on the content created by family and friends (which keeps users on Facebook), and less on the stories created by news organizations (which sends them away).
This move really shouldn’t come as a surprise to most newsrooms, considering the dramatic decline in traffic Facebook sent to web publishers in 2017, forcing many to shell out money in order to promote posts. Then there is the experiment rolled out in six countries, such as Sri Lanka and Serbia, which saw posts created by media organizations placed in a separate “explore” feed. As a result, referral traffic to news organizations in those countries plummeted as much as 60 percent, according to Facebook’s own analytics site CrowdTangle.
“My country, Serbia, has become an unwilling laboratory for Facebook’s experiments on user behavior—and the independent, nonprofit investigative journalism organization where I am the editor-in-chief is one of the unfortunate lab rats,” Stevan Dojcinovic, the editor-in-chief of the Serbian news outlet KRIK, wrote in the New York Times. “Facebook allowed us to bypass mainstream channels and bring our stories to hundreds of thousands of readers. But now, even as the social network claims to be cracking down on ‘fake news,’ it is on the verge of ruining us.”
This new change won’t be as dramatic as what those six countries experienced, but it will undoubtedly impact the traffic Facebook sends to all news publishers, especially digital outlets that overly rely on the network for a large majority of their traffic. Publishers, like Mashable and BuzzFeed, that have shifted resources to create the short videos that have performed well on Facebook will likely be among those most impacted by the changes.
One thing the changes should do is finally wake all publishers up to the fact that Facebook doesn’t care about your web traffic. It doesn’t care about providing access to meaningful journalism. It doesn’t even really seem to care about Russian propaganda and fake news. All it cares about is getting users to spend more time on its own pages, whether it features your content or not.
That being said, Facebook isn’t going anywhere, so there are moves newsrooms can consider in order to maximize the potentially-diminishing return that the social media network has to offer.
First, tell your readers how to keep your stories in their News Feed. Most Facebook users are passive and don’t think to make many changes to the algorithm that automatically provides them with the content. But a simple post explaining the simple steps readers can take to keep your news organization’s content in their news feed (the Mercury News wrote a thorough explainer with the headline “How to keep important, local stories in your Facebook news feed”) could help keep your most passionate readers informed and clicking through.
Next, experiment with Facebook groups, which the social media network opened up to Pages last year. The Boston Globe has uncovered a treasure trove of engagement with its Facebook group for subscribers, where more than 3,000 readers interact with the newsroom’s journalists about everything from typos that appeared in the paper to the return of a favored sudoku puzzle. Vox created a Facebook group for enrollees of Obamacare, which has generated new story ideas to reporter. The Wall Street Journal has a book club with more than 9,000 members.
Another potential avenue for publishers is “Today In,” Facebook’s new experiment in local news that mixes local news, events and announcements. This mobile-only feature is currently being tested in six cities across the country: New Orleans, La.; Little Rock, Ark.; Billings, Mont.; Peoria, Ill.; Olympia, Wash.; and Binghamton, N.Y.
The good news is all publishers that will appear in the feed must first be vetted and approved by the company’s News Partnership team, which works in the favor of local legacy publishers. Unfortunately, this isn’t Facebook’s News Feed, and the fact that users need to seek out this info themselves means the upside in terms of traffic is probably pretty low.
“In the Facebook user experience, there is the News Feed and then there is everything else,” said Jeff Sonderman, the deputy executive director of the American Press Institute. “Facebook may be adding opportunities in the ‘everything else’ category like this new space for local news and creating groups—but if publishers are losing the News Feed, they’re losing overall.”
Most importantly, try to focus on non-Facebook methods of audience engagement that include everything from events to newsletters to podcasts. Look into tools like the Coral Project and Viafoura that can help center the engagement on your own website rather than Mark Zuckerberg’s.
And above all, keep doing what you already do best—writing engaging content that speaks to your core readership, and not to a nebulous horde you hope to hook with a snazzy headline or salacious image.
“The biggest thing a publisher can do is focus on creating valuable content that readers have a reason to share—it’s helpful to them, it’s relevant, it’s emotionally moving, and so on,” Sonderman said. “This is a time to turn more readers into brand ambassadors by serving them better and listening to them more.”