When Facebook Hands You Lemons: How to Cope when the Facebook Algorithm Wreaks Havoc on Your Marketing

In late October, 2017, social media managers across the globe had a panic attack caused by Facebook. Why? Because Facebook ran an experiment in which they completely separated Facebook Page updates from updates from friends and family in 6 countries. Instead of seeing your favorite brand’s updates alongside pictures of your cute niece and nephew in your main newsfeed, you had to navigate to a different feed altogether in order to stay up to date with business pages.

As a result, companies reported a dramatic decrease in their traffic and conversion rate on Facebook pages. For businesses that rely heavily on Facebook traffic for marketing, things seemed dire. Articles featuring bar graphs with deep cliff-dives down in traffic were zipping around the Internet, and a
Social Media Managers Facebook group lit up with questions, concerns, and troubleshooting.

It turns out that the situation is less dramatic than it seemed at first. If you run a business and rely on Facebook marketing, you’re not doomed… yet. But before we get into that (and we will, I promise), let’s unpack what actually happened:

The Facebook Explore Tab Now on Desktop

The Facebook Mobile app has had an Explore feature for some time. It’s the little rocket icon you can see on the left-side menu in the app. In October 2017 Facebook announced that they were rolling out that feature on the Desktop version of Facebook as well.

I haven’t seen it in my account yet, but I have an idea of what it will be like when I do. It will work the same way Explore does on mobile: by serving you content from Facebook Pages that are similar to the pages you’ve already Liked and Followed. In other words,

“The posts [you] will find in this feed are from companies, media sites, publishers and news organizations that [you] do not follow. This lets [you] discover content beyond the posts made by [your] friends and the Pages they follow. Explore Feed does not display random content, however. The feature collects posts and information that are very similar to the ones that users already liked in their News Feed. They could also be content related to the stuff that’s quite popular among the user’s network of friends….” Facebook’s Explore Feed Rolls Out To Desktop Version Of Social Networking Site, Corazon Victorino

How will it do so? The algorithm, of course. But as we all know thanks to #fakenews, Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t always get it right. Here’s one user’s experience with the Explore feature:

“Unlike your main feed, this one contains posts from people and outlets you don’t follow that Facebook’s algorithms have determined you may be interested in seeing. In reality, it’s just a distillation of the worst parts of Facebook. There are memes stolen from other platforms: months-old viral videos, articles from Fox News and Mashable that you might’ve seen somewhere else and not clicked on, an unending stream of crap shared from George Takei’s Facebook page. If this is what Facebook thinks I want to see, Facebook thinks very little of me.” Facebook thinks so little of us, Mike Murphy

What has your experience been with Explore? Have you find Pages to follow that you actually like? Or has it been an “unending stream of crap”?

Facebook’s Big Audacious Goal: Never Leave

The expansion of Explore makes sense for Facebook’s greater goal, which is to keep users on Facebook. Surely you’ve heard that Facebook prefers videos uploaded directly to the platform over links to YouTube. And have you noticed that image posts get more impressions these days than link posts? Both tie back to this larger goal:

“The overall goal, of course, is to increase users’ time-on-site (or time-in-app, if on mobile). This allows Facebook to serve more ads in between the content, in videos and elsewhere. Effectively, it’s a second-tier News Feed that Facebook could monetize.” Facebook officially rolls out its discovery-focused ‘Explore Feed’, Sarah Perez

If you’re a business owner or marketer, it’s high time to start thinking about creating content for Facebook, content that people can enjoy within the platform. I’m talking about content like native and Live videos, interactive images, questions, and micro-blogs (i.e. long posts with multiple paragraphs, almost like reading a blog but in a Facebook post).

The strategy used to be to drive traffic from Facebook to your website, by using blog articles and content offers to persuade users to click to your site. But the name of the game has changed. And with change comes new opportunities:

“[Explore is] an alternative News Feed designed to help users discover content outside of their existing networks, like friends and Pages they already follow. Hence, the name — it allows users to “explore” new content, without leaving Facebook…. [It] aligns with [Facebook’s] growing efforts and modifications that encourage marketers to create content exclusively for this particular channel, rather than linking to content that requires users to navigate elsewhere.

Users have to voluntarily navigate themselves to the Explore Feed, which means that they have to actively choose to discover new content there.

Which indicates that, like so much else in the realm of a social media feed, the Explore Feed is based on an algorithm that curates content based on what you’ve liked and shared in the past.

But furry friends and food porn aside, the Explore Feed provides an opportunity for users to discover your brand if they’ve liked or shared similar content in the past. That presents an opportunity: If you’re inspired or motivated by a certain brand or its audience, for example, you can use that to guide the content you create for Facebook with the goal of growing and attracting a similar audience.” Don’t Freak Out, but Facebook Added a New Kind of Feed, Amanda Zantal-Wiener

What do you think? Does Explore on Desktop feel like an exciting challenge and opportunity?

Facebook Experimented with Separating Facebook Page Updates in 6 Countries

So why did everyone panic when this Explore thing rolled out? Well, it wasn’t the Explore feature on Desktop that caused the panic. Around the same time that Explore started on Desktop, businesses in six countries around the world noticed an enormous drop in their Facebook page traffic.

Why? Because Facebook was doing an experiment. Facebook was serving all Facebook Page updates in the Explore feed, and reserving the main newsfeed for updates from friends and family, and… you guessed it… paid ads.

“As a result, media organisations in the six countries containing 1% of the world’s population – Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia and Slovakia – have had one of their most important publishing platforms removed overnight.

‘Lower reach can be a problem for smaller publishers, citizens’ initiatives, small NGOs,’ Struhárik said. ‘They can’t afford to pay for distribution on Facebook by boosting posts – and they don’t have infrastructure to reach people other ways.’” ‘Downright Orwellian’: journalists decry Facebook experiment’s impact on democracy, Alex Hern

“A new system… sees almost all non-promoted posts shifted over to a secondary feed, leaving the main feed focused entirely on original content from friends, and adverts. The change has seen users’ engagement with Facebook pages drop precipitously, with publications reporting a 60% to 80% fall. If replicated more broadly, such a change would destroy many smaller publishers, as well as larger ones with an outsized reliance on social media referrals for visitors.

For larger sites, with a number of different ways to communicate with their readers, that hasn’t had a huge effect on their bottom line, but it’s a different story for those with a reliance on social media.

Notably, the change does not seem to affect paid promotions: those still appear on the news feed as normal, as do posts from people who have been followed or friended on the site. But the change does affect so called “native” content, such as Facebook videos, if those are posted by a page and not shared through paid promotion.” Facebook moving non-promoted posts out of news feed in trial, Alex Hern

Hence the panic. This trial disproportionately impacted small businesses and independent news outlets, both of which we need to avoid monopolization over what content Facebook lets us see.

We had enough trouble with fake news and echo chambers of our own opinions thanks to Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm. To think of content being sequestered – even after we opt-in to it by Liking and Following the businesses we admire – further removes from our control what we see on the platform. It puts that control in the hands of businesses with the most money.

Facebook Doesn’t Owe You Anything

The good news is that as of now, Facebook says it has no plans of extending this experiment any further than the six countries in which it was tested (source). That’s a relief for me and my US-based clients, but it’s troubling to think about the impact these kinds of tests have on people and businesses in other countries:

“Facebook has long tested sweeping changes to its product on subsections of its user base…. But in this case, the standard practice of focusing on smaller, less developed countries that matter less to the company’s bottom line means that the nations which have been hit are those with the most riding on a stable media ecosystem.”‘Downright Orwellian’: journalists decry Facebook experiment’s impact on democracy, Alex Hern

But the bottom line is this: Facebook doesn’t owe you and your business anything. We business owners have been spoiled. We grew accustomed to earning quality traffic for our businesses at the cost of creating good content and sharing it for free online. Many of my colleagues and clients balk at the cost of Facebook paid advertising these days. The problem is that they are comparing today’s price with what digital advertising cost when it was a nascent industry and organic traffic was booming.

A more accurate comparison is with print advertising from several decades ago. In the Mad Men era businesses had to invest a lot of money in advertising. It took a long time to develop and went to print on faith. There was no way to track impressions, click-throughs, or engagement rates.

Today it also takes a leap of faith to spend on advertising. After all, the plethora of available metrics will let you know exactly how badly your ad performed and exactly how many ways you could change. It takes courage to put money toward that learning curve!

How to Prepare for Inevitable Facebook Changes

Even though Facebook has no plans to divert Facebook Page updates to the Explore tab this year, doesn’t mean they won’t change their minds. And why wouldn’t they? Facebook is a business, and businesses need to make money.

Even though you’re used to it, it doesn’t make sense for Facebook to give you free advertising. If separating promotional posts from personal updates helps their bottom line, you can bet your bottom dollar (haha!) they are considering it. After all, Facebook has already stated that you can expect organic traffic to eventually reach zero.

Why not start preparing your business for the inevitable now? You can do so by:

  • Strengthening your email list and email communications strategy
  • Strengthening your business network by going to networking events and presenting at conferences
  • Investing in other social media platforms such as Pinterest
  • Adjusting your expectations for the cost of advertising

What are you doing to diversify your marketing? What do you think of Facebook’s changes? Share in the comments!

(Image by Karolina)

The Facebook algorithm changes often - and it can be hard to keep your social media marketing strategies on point! Here's what you need to know for 2018.


About the Author:

I make your online business project better, simply put. I write about being, careers, productivity, and money.

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This Sliding Bar can be switched on or off in theme options, and can take any widget you throw at it or even fill it with your custom HTML Code. Its perfect for grabbing the attention of your viewers. Choose between 1, 2, 3 or 4 columns, set the background color, widget divider color, activate transparency, a top border or fully disable it on desktop and mobile.