Any business that spends even a little time on Facebook has probably been frustrated by the recent changes in the social media giant’s algorithm. What used to be a totally free, easy way to reach your target audience has suddenly become pay to play.
Does this mean it’s time to pack it in and move on to greener pastures?
The Perils of Building a House on Rented Land
Copyblogger calls it “Digital Sharecropping.” Others call it building a house on rented land. However you refer to building an entire marketing strategy around free social media sites, you’re probably painfully aware (now) that that it can be a perilous endeavor.
When you choose to operate on social media, you’re doing all the work while the platform reaps the rewards. You’re generating content that they own. Many businesses forgot along the way that the landowners make all the rules. They can suddenly raise your rent, eating away at your profits. Or they can kick you off the land entirely, rendering you helpless.
Unfortunately, many businesses threw caution into the wind when developing their Facebook strategy. Instead of using it as a supplementary service to market content found on their blog or website, they made it their primary means of content creation and delivery. Plenty of businesses spent more dime developing their Facebook page than their own website.
And in recent months, these businesses have seen their organic engagement drop exponentially. When Facebook tweaked its algorithm earlier this year, many businesses saw their engagement and traffic, which took years to build, dry up overnight.
Angry reactions to this change aren’t without merit. Facebook has gotten years and years of free promotion thanks to the business that market there. How many television commercials have you seen that direct viewers to a Facebook page rather than their own website? How many small businesses do you patronize that prominently display “Like us on Facebook” signs in their stores? These brands and entities helped build Facebook to what it is today.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done. We can cry, whine, yell, write angry blog posts, but the landlord has spoken. If you want people to see your content, you’re going to have to start opening your wallet.
Pay To Play Is The New Normal
Brand posts have been dwindling in the news feed since Facebook made a change in December, 2013. And Adage was kind enough to post a sales presentation from Facebook that recommends brands offset the sudden drop by purchasing ads.
This realization frustrated and angered many brands. But it shouldn’t have come as too much of a shock. Facebook was a free-for-all for a long time. And strategically so. They created a space that was vital to successful marketing. Everyone and their grandmother is on Facebook. There isn’t one target demo that can’t be found there. Brands got a free taste of what’s possible. And now, the free ride is over.
This push is somewhat similar to Google’s recent push toward AdWords. For years, the search engine gave marketers a plethora of useful referral data that allowed them to target their organic search marketing efforts. But late last year, they turned off the faucet. If you want your referral data, you’ve got to purchase ads.
It seems that pay to play is the new normal.
How It’s Going To Work (Or Not Work)
Here’s how the new algorithm works. Facebook will “learn” which brands an individual interacts with. The more they like, comment on, and share a brand’s posts, the higher the odds that brand’s updates will show in the news feed. If they don’t interact with your business page, your individual posts die and your content will eventually fade from their news feed.
Unless, of course, you purchase promoted posts.
But promoted posts aren’t an instant remedy. You have to create posts based on Facebook’s guidelines. And yes, you can target the audience who will see your promoted posts, but Facebook can (and sometimes does) make its own choices regarding who sees your posts.
And there is something that feels just plain wrong about paying to show your content to people who have already indicated that they like your stuff. This model isn’t really sustainable for small businesses or nonprofits who rely on a fan base to help them promote their work.
Let’s take a look at YouTube. They’ve managed to monetize their platform without alienating their user base. On YouTube, content creators, advertisers, and viewers have distinct roles, and each understands the part they play. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Viewers go to YouTube to learn things and be entertained, and they know they’re going to have to sit through a brief ad here and there to get the information they seek, and they are perfectly willing to do it.
On Facebook, the lines are a little more blurry. Everyone is now seen as a potential advertiser, because on Facebook, each user creates content (this is dizzying). So according to Facebook’s new model, all users are also potential advertisers. Yes, that’s right. All users. Did you know you can pay to promote your own, personal posts, too?
The biggest problem with this roll out is that people don’t come to Facebook to buy things. They come to interact with their friends and family. How ads fit into wedding photos and baby updates remains to be seen. Speaking of wedding photos and baby updates – this algorithm change is going to affect personal posts, as well. If you enjoy your cousin Susie’s posts about her kids but you don’t constantly “Like” everything she says, she’s going to drop from your news feed.
Eventually, users aren’t going to necessarily see the content most relevant to them, but rather the content posted by the highest bidder. That doesn’t seem like a great user experience, does it?
The whole draw of social media is that individuals can control the content that they see. They choose who they want to follow based on their interests. And Facebook is now taking that away. Can it really be considered ‘social media’ if the platform chooses what you see?
Is This The Beginning Of The End?
It’s important to remember that Facebook is a publicly traded company. Their goal is to make money. Just as your goal is to make money. Nobody expects you to give your products and services away for free. So while we can all be frustrated, we can’t necessarily deny that this was bound to happen.
But while it is certainly Facebook’s right to change the way they do business, many question the way in which this change was implemented. Just because a user doesn’t engage with content doesn’t mean she doesn’t appreciate reading it. And Facebook knows that most users are on mobile devices. So the logistics of providing a strong user experience while increasing ad revenue gets a little tricky when you’re talking about the real estate available on an iPhone screen.
And then, there’s this. The blogosphere recently caught wind of a study conducted by John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechler, from Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Actual rocket scientist who predict that Facebook will lose 80% of its peak user base by 2017.
They concluded that Facebook has already peaked, and has been on a decline since 2012.
And there’s evidence to support this fact. First, the teens are leaving. The demo that made the platform so popular is abandoning it for other social media sites. According to iStrategy Labs, Facebook has 60% of teen members (over 11 million) over the past three years. And when the teens are gone, it’s only a matter of time before others start leaving too. Everyone wants to be hip. Who are the hippest people in the world? Teens. When the hip kids leave, the rest are likely to follow.
As previously mentioned, half of Facebook’s user base visits from a mobile device with limited real estate. This also means that these users are checking in for quick bits and bites, rather than spending an extended amount of time scanning their feed. It doesn’t matter how much you promote a post, if it’s not relevant to that user at that moment in time, it’s worthless to him.
What Does This Mean For You?
Some businesses are moving away from Facebook. They aren’t willing to pay money to interact with people who they spent years building relationships with. Many small businesses didn’t budget for this shift and simply won’t be able to afford it. But that doesn’t mean you should abandon your Facebook page all together. At least not yet.
While it’s a little too early to tell if Facebook is truly on the decline, it’s not too early (or too late) to diversify your social media marketing efforts.
First, put your energy back into building your own house on your own land. That means spending more time on your own website. Build an active blog. Develop a content marketing strategy. Build a community on your own, personal real estate.
Consider branching out. If you haven’t put much time and effort into other social platforms, now’s the time. It’s not too late to build a strong following on Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus.
Most importantly, don’t bang your head against the wall. If you lost traffic due to Facebook’s algorithm change, pick yourself up and regroup. Decide whether it’s in your best interest to stay there and play the game, or branch out and move on. No matter what you decide, it is probably wise to diversify and sure up your own website.
Have you been affected by Facebook’s algorithm changes? How will this alter your future social media marketing efforts? Do you think Facebook is on the decline? Sound off in the comments.
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