The Great Facebook Swindle And What To Do About It

by · March 24, 201499 comments

As if we didn’t expect this would one day happen, Facebook is apparently about to blackmail brands even more so than they have to date, ratcheting down organic exposure of brand page content to 1-2% at best. Valleywag reported it last week based on an anonymous and internal source with Facebook marketing. It has since been reported by the likes of Time and others.

Ogilvy & Mather has even tested and found that organic brand page content on Facebook was exposed to about 12 percent of those that “Like” the brand in October. That number dropped to six percent by February. Facebook is basically eliminating the chance your brand’s content will be seen by your Facebook fans. Unless, of course, you pay to have it exposed.

They Set Us Up

facebook-logo-reversedWhen Facebook introduced brand pages in 2007 (then known as fan pages), the concept was about driving corporate use of the social networking site. Your company, brand or organization could be on Facebook, just like all these people, and post content, collect fans/followers and more. But Facebook grew fast and offered company stock in an initial public offering two years ago. That changed the game. No longer are Zuckerberg and company beholden to investors who just want more users. They are beholden to financial investors from the public who want money returned on their investment. A financial model is now a requirement.

The first inklings of trouble came at the F8 Conference in 2012 when Facebook shared the statistic that, based on the number of connections the average person had, multiplied by all the content those connections produce which need to be ranked and filtered and placed into the user’s newsfeed, only 16 percent of a brand’s content was actually seen by its fans. This sent mild shock waves through the marketing community because the concept was always that if a person raised their virtual hand asking for its Facebook content, then they should get that content, right? Wrong.

But back then, the 16 percent could be understood as a natural fallout of the average user having upwards of 250 connections, plus 40-50 organizations or topics they also “Liked” or followed. It was organic. It was natural. It was fair, even if brands didn’t like it. And if they didn’t, they could, as of 2012, support organic posts by sponsoring them, guaranteeing Facebook would force the content on more of the brand’s audience.

But where there are investors, there is greed. And where there is greed, there is willingness to change the rules, even to be unfair, so long as they produce the required revenue streams. So now Facebook sees it can not only control how many of your fans see your content, but also how many of them don’t. Unless you pay.

Why This Is Blackmail

Granted, a sponsored post can actually be targeted to Facebook users that are not fans of your brand. In this respect, it’s just like a paid advertisement in most people’s minds. You, the brand, pay to get your content in front of new people in hopes they’ll like it enough to come be a fan of yours, click through to your deal and so on. But your organic content was never going to appear to those users in the first place. You should pay for them to see it.

Organic brand content that is unsupported by paid placement is intended for and until now understood to be seen by your opt-in Facebook audience. These are users that have liked your page, giving you virtual permission to talk to them through their Facebook news stream. They are asking to see your content. Facebook is now standing in their way, as much as yours, by forcing you to pay for this audience to see your content. It would be like someone subscribing to your email newsletter but Exact Target stepping in and saying, “We’re not going to deliver the email unless you pay us more money.”

Why This Isn’t Blackmail

Exact Target users pay for that email delivery by subscribing to the service. Brands using Facebook for brand pages don’t pay Facebook for that privilege. As a Facebook spokesperson explained to Time magazine in an email, “Like many mediums, if businesses want to make sure that people see their content, the best strategy is, and has always been, paid advertising.”

Facebook is, in essence, admitting that is is a publishing platform and that brands wishing to be involved there must pay for the privilege. As unfair as it may seem since they’ve let us use that service for free to date, there’s no other medium where a brand can communicate in such a fashion with as many people without having to fork over direct or indirect dollars to do so.

Also, Facebook can alter its terms of service and how it handles its users and the content they post without notice or input from us. I’ve long said that if Facebook wanted, it could charge brands $1,000 per day to have a brand page. This isn’t what they’re doing, but it’s not far from it. This was the risk brands took to be involved and build an audience on Facebook in the first place. Facebook owns the real estate. We’re just squatting. Now they’re asking us to pay rent.

Why This Is Bad For Social Media

Facebook’s admission that it is a media outlet on which brands wishing to reach audiences need to advertise means that it is essentially giving up on the notion that social media changes how brands communicate with their audiences. Certainly, the engaging post-style of content marketing is sort of a new mechanism and Facebook is largely responsible for teaching brands how to use it. But advertorial and content marketing plays existed long before even the Internet.

Social media promised a new method for brands to engage and communicate messages to customers and prospects. Facebook championed that notion for a while. Now it’s just saying, “Screw it. Buy an ad.” This also changes your reason and goals for even having a brand page on Facebook. Why collect fans when you’re prevented from communicating with them? Why not just use it as an advertorial placement service and target users that may or may not Like your page?

It also sends a message to content marketers everywhere that says their work won’t matter without a media budget. You can create the most relevant, useful, rewarding content in the world for your audience, but you still have to pay to get them to see it. It will prove to be more efficient to just go back to a pay-per-click model for things like customer acquisition and many content marketers will see their work valued less and less over time.

This move means that to be a successful Facebook marketer, you need to be more of a search engine or pay-per-click marketing expert than a social or content marketing expert.

Why This Is Good For Social Media

The explosion of brand content marketing, especially on Facebook, over the last few years has been mind-numbing. Most of that numbing comes from brands that don’t understand the ethos of social and just spit out ad copy masked as posts. Because brands are reluctant to invest serious dollars on social or content marketing, when they do get the ethos, they have interns, amateurs or inexperienced people driving the delicate nuance of engaging audiences in social channels. Facebook’s pay-to-play switch will force many of these brands back to more traditional paid advertising models for online success because the cost efficiency will be better.

But it will also help weed out the really good content marketers from those that aren’t. Brands continuing to invest in Facebook content will see slivers of organic success (see the how-to tips below) but when you do see it, it will be real, good and strong. Content marketing is no longer amateur hour. You’re going to have to be good or you simply won’t get seen.

How Brands Can Still Win With Organic Facebook Content

So the rules and arena have changed. How can brands still win? Well, let’s consider the factors:

  1. The audience is still one that wants to see the content. They “Like” your page. That’s their opt-in.
  2. Facebook won’t let most of them see it organically in their news stream.
  3. They can still visit your page to see it.
  4. You can still pay to promote it and reach more of them.

That gives you two clear and one less obvious path to organic Facebook success.

1. Direct people to your Facebook URL

It’s no longer enough for us to tell our audience to “Like” us on Facebook. Now we have to ensure they know that we offer great content there but Facebook won’t let them see it unless they go to the Facebook page just like they would come to our website. Facebook pages will be less of a hurdle than sending them off-site to our website or blog, which is good, but they are going to have to type in our brand name or URL to see our content. For your traditional communications, stop using the “Like us on Facebook” call to action and start using the “Visit us on Facebook at facebook.com/yournamehere” one.

2. Share is the new Like

When a user does find your content, intentionally or not, and uses the Facebook “Share” button, it places that content on their timeline as if posted by them. They are recommending that content to their friends and followers. This circumvents Facebook’s brand classification as it sees the post as being from the individual. It is content they are organically recommending. So every single call-to-action must be “Share with your friends.” By building a loyal group of advocates, readers, fans or customers who will go the extra mile to type in your URL or bookmark your Facebook page, plus who will Share rather than like, perhaps even writing a little lead in to tell their friends why they should go see this content, you can still organically reach a lot of people. The challenge is that your content has got to be dynamite and your audience has got to love you beyond their love of most other brands.

3. Pay to play

I know … this isn’t organic. But now you know that in order to achieve organic success you need a highly engaged audience willing to share. When you have content that will attract that kind of user or you can target to find that kind of user, take advantage of the fact you can offer up a little bit of money to get it in front of more of the kinds of people you want to collect. It’s a numbers game, in a way. For every 20 users, you’ll probably have one that really digs you enough to type in the ULR and/or “Share” your content. (Your traction here may vary from 1:20, but that’s a good starting point.) The more users you have the more advocates you’ll have to choose from.

What the future holds

It’s probably too early to tell, but there are several scenarios of what could happen when or if Facebook moves to this model. On one extreme, brands may appreciate the black and white knowledge of how to leverage Facebook content to reach more people, budgets will align appropriately and Facebook Paid Marketing will become its own cottage industry much like SEO or SEM. The other extreme is that a collection of brands take Facebook to court for essentially blackmailing brands and failing to serve its users with content they’ve requested. This could very well wind up in court as the denial of brand content to someone requesting skirts awfully close to violating the user’s trust. When you have 1.2 billion users, governments will take note when you’re messing with them. This smells a bit like the seeds of government regulation to me.

Either way, brands who have always had an uphill battle understanding and properly leveraging social media as a marketing platform just saw their content efforts given a new, steep mountain to climb. Or they’ve just been given the direction to make Facebook a spam-magnet for brand content ads, which is a battle in and of itself since consumer trust is on the line.

Only time will tell who wins, who loses and how much money Facebook winds up with.

What do you think? Is it blackmail? Not? How else can you think to improve organic reach under these circumstances? The comments are yours.

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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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