NOTE: As of 11/7/11 Facebook has officially fixed this bug. https://developers.facebook.com/bugs/151722701585098

Brands using third party publishing platforms like Vitrue, HootSuite, Argyle Social and the like are seeing brand page post impressions plummet thanks to a Facebook bug. Several executives with social media management systems told me Friday they are seeing up to 90 percent drop-offs in Facebook post impressions for their clients, meaning Facebook’s recent EdgeRank changes are penalizing the very companies they certainly want to be more involved with the platform since advertising dollars typically follow them there.

A spokesperson for the social network initially told me there was no such issue, but upon clarification said the Facebook bug is one they are, “working to resolve.” She declined to share further details. The issue is also recognized by Facebook on its developers forum. Still, it has been over a month since the new Graph API was released to developers. Could this issue really take that long to fix?

At issue for brands since the most recent Facebook changes were implemented for many in early September, but to the broad user base on Sept. 21, is that their content is simply not being seen with as much frequency as posts made manually on the page through Facebook.com. A look at posts on Social Media Explorer’s Facebook page shows the vast difference in impressions. The top post you see was made manually on my page. The others were posted using Argyle Social.

Facebook Page posts problem

The drop-off, which as of this writing continues to effect anyone using third party publishing platforms rather than posting to Facebook itself, has infuriated both brands and third party executives alike.

Oddly, though, few would go on the record with me to vent their frustrations. But I spoke with executives from eight different publishing platforms and two other third party platforms that provide games and other engagement content to Facebook and all were, at a minimum, upset over the bug. The only one that didn’t seem to be told me, “Facebook acknowledged to me some major problems again with impressions. They are well aware and working on resolving.” That vendor would not confirm they were seeing the problem.

Worse yet, I spoke to three different executives at large advertising agencies/PR firms, also weary of criticizing Facebook publicly, who were reporting the same large-scale drop-offs in impressions and much brouhaha from clients.

“If this Facebook bug persists, it will most certainly adversely effect our business because it effects our client’s ability to streamline their publishing of social content,” one executive who wished to not be identified told me. “Facebook has made a major mistake here. We don’t think it’s intentional, but it is hurting the very brands they depend upon for advertising revenue.”

No one wanted to jump on Facebook too harshly, though I could sense a level of frustration that has been percolating for over a month now. Since the platform holds the purse strings for many of these companies and their success, and has been known to change policies and algorithms for unknown and confusing reasons, the vendors that rely on their ability to tie into its API handle their communications about and with Facebook with kid gloves.

I get the feeling Facebook has asked a few of the vendors I spoke with to not talk about the bug publicly. Guess they’ve had their fill of public rejection of their changes.

Eric Boggs, CEO of Argyle Social, said this on my Facebook thread about the issue:

“The latest update from Facebook is effectively, ‘We’re working on it … hang tight.’ — Which is obviously sub-optimal. Argyle and all of our friends at HootSuite, Expion, Vitrue, etc., are all up in arms and putting quite a bit of pressure on Facebook to resolve the problem and more clearly communicate about these issues going forward.”

Boggs also told me the issue also brings to light another potential problem area for how Facebook handles third party partners. He said the algorithmic assignment of third party application content weight, which seems to be the main issue here, is flawed thinking. Argyle Social, Expion, SpredFast and the like are very different than Farmville or Spotify. Some third party partners provide games, music, entertainment and other applications. The publishing platforms provide the ability for users and brands to provide content and engagement to other users. Those functionalities are very different.

What Is Being Done?

The Facebook bug was first uncovered by EdgeRank Checker, which published a fairly scathing set of stats based on the new Edgerank testing on Sept. 6. Paul Sutton put together a nice post reporting his problems with it Oct. 2 that shows a bit more dramatically what the impact is.

One reason for the impressions via third party apps being decreased is that on Facebook’s Recent Stories segment of your newsfeed, multiple posts from the same third party application are often folded in together. But this doesn’t seem to happen on Top Stories placements, so the dramatic difference can’t be explained. According to multiple vendors I spoke with, the problem does not seem to occur on status updates placed as text by itself. But add a photo, video or link and you’re suddenly seen up to 90% fewer times.

Facebook’s changes might indicate the platform is sort of saying that scheduled and automated posts are not optimal for the Facebook experience, as EdgeRank Checker indicated in its post. But if I raise my hand and “Like” a brand, doesn’t that mean I want their content, automated or not? I can always opt out.

Buddy Media‘s Michael Lazerow published a “this is why you should use Buddy Media” explanation on AdAge in response to Edgerank’s assertions. His post led to rumors that Buddy Media was some how exempt from the changes. If that rumor is true, it certainly makes Facebook look bad. Playing favorites is never a good thing in an open marketplace. Vitrue’s Reggie Bradford responded a few days later, also on AdAge, asserting that his platform was just as good and Lazerow’s assertions led to more questions and were confusing.

You’d think AdAdge would do a better job of not letting their website be used for a competitor pissing match.

Instead of bitching at each other, the executives with these companies should be working in unison to force Facebook’s hand and get the bug fixed. This functionality flaw doesn’t just effect the SpredFasts, Expions, CoTweets and WildfireApps of the world. It effects anyone trying to make more productive use of their time by incorporating technologies to help them manage and distribute activity on their social networks. While it specifically effects businesses with brand pages, that accounts for much more than the big dollar deals the Social Media Management Systems worry about.

If you’re using HootSuite, you’re Facebook page posts aren’t getting the same love they would get if you posted directly on Facebook.com. That effects small businesses and non-profits just as much as it effects Applebee’s (Expion) or Intel (Vitrue) or Bayer (SpredFast).

Why is this happening? I’m inclined to think it was genuinely a bug, but the length of time it has taken Facebook to recognize and fix makes me think they may have been trying to play with their EdgeRank algorithm to assign higher value to on-site publishing. While it makes sense in that more on-site visits mean more ad revenue, it also doesn’t make sense because when you piss off the advertisers using the third party apps (some of which are paying tens of thousands of dollars per year to use those apps), then you lose revenue, not gain it. (Advertisers … keep reading. We may have an idea that you can help with to solve the problem.)

But since when does what Facebook does really seem to make sense?

So Facebook has acknowledged the problem. But we’re working on six weeks now since it was first noticed. What are you to do as a marketer?

My advice would be to take the extra time to manually post your content on Facebook. You’ll get the impressions you should be getting that way. If your service has trackable URLs, generate them with your publishing vendor, but manually copy and paste them to Facebook if possible. And don’t give up on the service you’re using. Facebook is going to have to fix it or they will have a negative impact on the bottom lines of a lot of developer partners they count on for engagement, ideas and innovation with their platform. Oh … and they’ll adversely effect their own revenue as well.

What Will Solve The Problem?

The only thing that will solve this, according to one executive I spoke with, is if the big advertisers who use Facebook’s ad platform and supply the network with its revenue come together and say, “You need to fix this. We need these tools to reach our audiences in ways your platform doesn’t allow. And if you don’t, we may be inclined to not participate as much or as often with your platform.”

If that’s what it takes, let’s see it happen. If you’re a brand-side marketer effected by these changes and want it to stop, say so in the comments. It will at least be an informal petition to let Facebook know the changes are a priority for you, if it they aren’t for them. I’ll make sure at least the press contacts I have there see the responses.

Disclosure: As an industry analyst and consultant, I often work with social media management systems in either consulting, promotional or content provision arrangements. I have provided one or more such services Expion, SpredFast, Argyle Social and Awareness Networks. While I did contact each to provide context or comment on this story, none were aware I was pursuing it until such a request was made.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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