Facebook’s announcement a few weeks ago that it plans to put more content from friends and family into users’ news feeds will have forced many digital publishers to reassess their social strategies. From social-first publishers in the vein of Unilad to mainstream news outfits like the New York Times, the majority of publishers have seen Facebook as a key part of their distribution and marketing strategies.
Video strategies in particular might need a rethink, with many publishers pushing into video due to it’s Facebook-friendly nature, and some even devoting teams entirely to social video, as Al Jazeera did with AJ+.
With the dust now settled after Facebook’s announcement, what come next for digital publishers?
Engagement is King
Though some publishers may see the move as an attack by Facebook, the company itself says the update is an improvement based on user feedback. As such it believes the changes will make its platform more engaging for users, which has potential benefits for publishers; a more engaged user will pay more attention to the content they see.
The changes are also part of a broader reaction by Facebook to allegations that Russian actors used the social network to try to influence the 2016 US election. The Russia story has tarnished the platform’s image as a news distributor, so any actions which restore Facebook’s reputation could make it a more effective tool for publishers too.
The company does however acknowledge that “Pages may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease.” Interestingly too, Facebook’s director of product management Mark Hull admitted the company expects time spent on Facebook to go down, meaning not only will publishers’ content be further down the News Feed, but it’ll be less likely that users scroll down that far too.
Facebook’s advice to publishers is to focus even more on engagement, which it measures through views, reactions, comments and shares. It seems comments in particular will significantly boost ranking, as the company says posts which “generate conversations” will show higher on the News Feed.
Adam Mosseri, head of News Feed, says that video is actually the best way to do this, saying that videos, and live videos in particular, tend to prompt discussions. Facebook’s line, then, seems to be that Pages can still reach big audiences, but it will be more important than ever that content plays to the all-important algorithm.
Double Down on Facebook?
Some do think there’s merit to Facebook’s angle, saying that the update will improve the user experience, getting a better balance between publisher and user generated content.
Matt Breen, commercial director at social publisher Media Chain, agrees that a less cluttered news feed will provide opportunities for companies like his own. “Facebook’s latest announcement means that there will be less clutter in the News Feed, with publisher content reducing from 5% to 4% of total posts,” said Breen. “This represents a greater opportunity for Media Chain’s social media brands to stand out, capture attention and drive user engagement.”
Jungle Creations, the social focussed publisher behind popular Facebook pages VT and Twisted, says it will use the opportunity to double down on the platform. The company believes that a reduction in publisher content on the News Feed will mean those like itself who specialise in social content will stand out even more.
“The News Feed update is an opportunity for us to really own the branded content space because we’re best placed to navigate the updates,” said Jungle Creations’ commercial partnerships director Mitch Strong. “There will still be room for quality publisher content in the News Feed, it’s just now it will be a less crowded place so we’ll have a greater opportunity to cut through the noise.”
Strong believes the rules for Facebook essentially remain the same, and follows Facebook’s line that those who create content which drives engagement will find success. Breen echoes this sentiment, saying that “our focus is to engage users on platform, with quality content that evokes emotion from users, which ultimately stimulates conversation on platform that Facebook will prioritise in the News Feed.”
However both acknowledged the importance of diversification for any digital publisher across social media platforms, and said social publishers like their own should diversify beyond social media, with Strong citing Jungle Creations’ release of cookbooks and opening of a restaurant as examples.
“Henric Ehrenblad, co-founder of mobile programmatic platform company Widespace, meanwhile believes the changes will create a better environment by encouraging higher quality ads. He described the update as “a result of a worsening user experience when it comes to ads on Facebook, a classic case of ad fatigue due to increase in quantity of ads, coupled with decreasing quality”. Ehrenblad predicts that advertisers will be hit with higher prices as it becomes harder to attain reach on Facebook, and that this will raise ad quality since “you don’t want to spend money on expensive placements with cheap ads.”
Strive for Self-Sufficiency
Others see opportunity in the changes for a distinctly different reason: they believe it will force publishers to finally call time on an unhealthy relationship and focus on fostering direct relationships with their own publications.
“It’s critical for media outlets to create innovative, monetizable solutions on their own terms—rather than staking their futures on social algorithms over which they have no control,” said Jessica Rovello, co-founder and CEO of Arkadium, which creates interactive content for digital publishers.
“Going forward, we’re going to see more publishers using subscription models, and investing in innovative, interactive experiences to secure user loyalty on their own platforms.”
James Pringle, co-founder and CEO of video discovery platform Suggestv, agrees while acknowledging that some publishers’ video content is more suitable for social distribution, meaning that social media will continue to play an important role in their distribution strategies.
“Different publishers will have different requirements on this balance – for example, news brands will have a different mix compared to creators of emotionally driven engagement and community content. But, what all publishers have in common is a need to engage users for longer, within their own brand context, on their owned and operated websites,” he said.
Pringle doesn’t think that video should be any less of a priority for publishers in light of the changes, as he sees the push into video as a consumer driven trend, but he does think it’s time for publishers to refocus their video strategies on their own domains.
“We are seeing a lot of publishers going back to basics on their strategy and taking a far more rational view of what needs to be done to grow high-yield inventory, maximize the ROI of their content investment and move them from low-video environments to potentially being able to have video on every page,” he said.
Survival of the Fittest
Some believe other platforms will emerge which will provide distribution opportunities in the same way Facebook did, which could become a new focus point for video strategies.
“Nature abhors a vacuum,” says Todd Krizelman, co-founder and CEO of MediaRadar, an ad sales management tool. “As Facebook pulls away from publishers, others are stepping forward to help drive audience. So, while publishers will need to backfill the audience urgently, they are unlikely to be left in a lurch for long.”
Whether that happens or not, it looks like on Facebook it might be a case of survival of the fittest. The publishers that know best how to make Facebook’s algorithm work for them will operate the same as before, perhaps even putting out more video to ensure their content appears high on the News Feed. These publishers might actually benefit from the change, with their posts now appearing in a more user-friendly environment, and having to compete less with other publications.
For others though, now might be the time to adopt their strategies to become less reliant on third party distributors like Facebook. This could hurt in the short term, but if they can foster more direct relationships with their readers, the long term benefits of no longer being beholden to platforms like Facebook could outweigh the negatives.