Beginning in 2017, Facebook embarked on a gradual change that is just now unveiling itself to users. A big shift is happening with the social network, and Facebook is essentially reverting back to its roots in order to prioritize personal content over content pushed by the media or by businesses. Remember when Facebook was solely a site for posting photos and seeing what your friends and family were up to? It’s since evolved into more of a media hub where users can get their news and indulge in masses of video content, viral posts and a whole lot of targeted advertising. Now, Facebook is saying it’s time again for the News Feed to show users more information from the friends and family they follow, and much less from any company or organization pages.
Since subtle changes started happening toward this direction last year, many people have wondered why. Why build such an impressive media platform only to completely strip it down? It actually may be because Facebook cares about us more than we think. The company has admitted that when users are shown more personal content, they’re likely to spend less time on the platform in comparison to the average 37 minutes per day by American adults. Furthermore, both internal Facebook studies and external research have shown that when people passively use social media –mindlessly scrolling through without personal or meaningful social interactions- they’re more likely to feel worse about themselves and experience negative effects on their mental health. On the other hand, actively engaging with people on social media – keeping up with friends, having genuine conversations, and sharing photos and stories – leads to more positive feelings of joy and sense of community.
Another big reason for the change is because of the meddling and false advertising that was pushed on the platform during the 2016 Presidential Election. We now know that around 3,000 Facebook ads were purchased by Russian operatives during the election, with the main goal of influencing voters in favor of Donald Trump and against Hillary Clinton. Often, the ads used a false sense of credibility, and fake stories were distributed as if they were real news. Facebook has since acknowledged that there are many errors within the platform that allow for these types of abuses, and the company also experienced pressure from legislators and regulators to make sure actions of that nature never happen again.
While we can’t be absolutely certain of Facebook’s intent, it does seem that the change is supposed to be better for users and better for the company in the long-run. Despite users possibly dedicating less time spent on the platform and being averse to such a big change, the company has proved time and time again that they’re able to keep users throughout re-designs and updates, both big and small. Back in 2006 when the News Feed was first introduced, many users revolted and vowed to boycott the site, yet look at where we are now – arguably addicted to scrolling the feed every day despite experiencing its negative effects.
The question is whether this particular change will be able to keep businesses. Back in 2016, we saw Facebook strategies going hand in hand with SEO. The times have changed, and while a business page can correlate to strong SEO, it hasn’t been a direct cause for some time. This change might widen that gap between businesses and a successful marketing strategy on Facebook, and it also shows how important it is for businesses to become continually adaptable. Circumstances beyond our control, such as the alleged influence of foreign entities on the 2016 Election, can be the catalyst for sweeping change, and it’s never something you can prepare for.
What This Means for Businesses
Even if the News Feed change ends up positively impacting Facebook’s users, the entire concept isn’t looking too promising for businesses and marketers. Many companies and social media managers have invested a lot of time and money into Facebook strategies and advertising over the past several years, and now it seems like that might all be moot. If Facebook stops showing page content to users, is there even a chance of reaching them through the platform anymore?
The answer is yes, but it might take a lot of re-strategizing and possibly more money as well. The upward trend that’s been happening in video is going to be redirected toward Facebook’s own video platform, Watch, which is rumored to start prioritizing live video and sponsored content. Videos from publishers will be given less priority in the news feed, whether they’re posts or in-stream video ads (sorry Tasty and Buzzfeed), but this will be done in an effort to move businesses toward spending their ad dollars on videos within the Watch tab. Luckily, however, trends in social advertising have already included user-generated content and influencer marketing for the past couple years, and now those strategies are looking more important than ever. If you can’t beat them, join them and take your message directly to the consumer. Facebook’s news feed is going to be dominated by individual user content from here on out. That gives brands a clear direction for spending their time and money if they want to continue using the platform. The data behind user-generated content and influencer marketing already shows how successful the two strategies are, allowing brands and products to seem more credible online for potential customers.
Facebook’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has also stated that public content won’t be completely hidden, it will just be held to a higher standard where it should “encourage meaningful interactions between people.” It isn’t clear exactly what this type of content will look like for brands, but it sounds like interactive content and anything that has more meaning beyond a typical ad or promotion will be prioritized on the News Feed. At face value, this could look like asking customers questions or incorporating inspirational messages within your usual Facebook posting schedule.
The worst possible outcome for brands would be if the News Feed turns into a pay-to-play platform. Facebook’s standards for public content could be so limiting that the only good chance of having a post show up is if it’s paid for. Many people have argued that this was in fact a big influence on the entire decision to change the news feed algorithm, since it could lead to a lot more revenue in Facebook’s pocket. If this is the case, your company or business will need to re-think the budget it’s been allocating for Facebook ads, or if it’s worth it to start allocating a budget if it hasn’t already. Unfortunately, this pushes out many small businesses from the opportunity to use Facebook within their marketing strategy.
The entire change is going to take months before its complete, so in the meantime businesses can prepare by re-thinking their strategies and budget, or even by looking to other platforms. Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn are still here too, after all, and there could be a big opportunity on any one of those platforms that may have gone overlooked in. There are also many other traditional ways to engage online that are just as important as your social media strategy, including content and email marketing, and Google is still the number one space for digital advertising.
What It Means for Users
Facebook’s position is that the news feed algorithm change is going to be a big benefit for users and their wellbeing. While the amount of time that people spend on Facebook has been steadily high, the company is acknowledging that it’s not always healthy, productive time. In Zuckerberg’s statement about the change, he also said “I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down. But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable.” Meaning we’re supposedly no longer going to go cross-eyed scrolling through pages and pages of news videos, recipes, meaningless quizzes and memes. We should be able to log on and actually feel fulfilled after the social interactions we have on the site.
Seeing less content from publishers will have its pros and cons, but overall many users have complained about the site’s ad space growth as well as the type of ads that they’re shown when they log in. By boosting overall happiness while using the platform, Facebook is also hoping that less ads will mean greater approval of the site. According to a recent study, only 11% of Facebook users are “extremely satisfied” with the platform, which is down from 15% in the previous year. If our collective mental health takes a positive turn in response to the coming News Feed changes, Mark Zuckerberg’s probably will too.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and there are downsides to the plan that many people have been quick to point out. Facebook is already known for its extremes when it comes to sharing opinions. There are either hours-long arguments over single posts, or people tend to unfollow anyone who doesn’t agree with them so that the only content they see is from like-minded people. This is undeniably a more enjoyable social media experience for users, but it also creates an environment that can foster the type of fake news that was shared so successfully during the presidential election. Facebook’s prioritization of users’ happiness might mean sacrificing the opportunity to present people with information from many different points of view, which encourages fact-checking.
Only Time Will Tell the Outcome
In Facebook’s own experiments that ran last year, the results seem grim for everyone. While running a test in Cambodia that introduced a separate feed for businesses and kept the traditional News Feed for individual users’ personal posts, small businesses saw a 60% drop in reach and little to no ability in delivering information to their customers. For users, the experiment limited them from seeing helpful public content from community organizations and local businesses, creating the same type of “filter bubble” that caused so many problems for Facebook U.S. in 2016.
As of now, it’s still hard to tell what the true outcome will be for businesses, users, and even Facebook itself. Overall engagement on the platform has already been falling over the past several years, so perhaps this is a signal of the true end of an era. Businesses have thrived with and without the platform, and it may be time for the next big thing to step up to the plate.
On the other hand, if the new algorithm succeeds and manages to make consumers both happier and eager to engage with Facebook more, marketers will need to know how to adapt and successfully use the social network within its new parameters.