Facebook’s News Feed Tests Worry Small Publishers who have Few Alternatives

Small publishers are becoming increasingly concerned about Facebook’s experiments with forcing publishers to pay to make their content visible in the News Feed. Facebook started trialling a new version of its News Feed that moves page posts to a separate ‘Explore’ tab, which massively decreases small publishers’ reach on the platform. While some of the larger publishers VAN spoke to felt less threatened by the experiments, the moves are leading many publishers to question their trust in Facebook as a vehicle for content distribution.

Currently, people who like a Facebook page will see that page’s posts appear on their main News Feed, alongside content posted by their friends and paid promotional content. Page owners can also choose to pay to boost their content, which effectively turns the post into a targeted ad. This ad is then served to not only users who the publisher has no direct relationship, but also to those who have chosen to ‘like’ the publisher’s page i.e. a publisher’s followers don’t in any way belong to the publisher and that data is solely controlled by Facebook.

Last month though Facebook began testing a new version of its News Feed in six countries — Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Cambodia — where publishers have seen their Facebook page posts relegated to the separate ‘Explore’ tab.

Reports from within those countries where the change has been tested have shown that publishers have had their reach massively reduced. Filip Struhárik, editor of Slovakian publication Denník N, says that pages like his own have seen their reach drop by as much as two-thirds, with posts getting only a quarter of the interactions (likes, comments and shares) that they used to.

This hasn’t improved as time has gone on either, suggesting the reduction in reach isn’t just a case of users getting used to navigating to the new Explore tab. For the most part it is small, regional pages that these experiments have been hurting the most, who are reliant on Facebook for a lot of their distribution. “Facebook is still very important for a publisher like Denník N – we get nearly 40 percent of our traffic from Facebook” Struhárik told VAN.

But there are few alternatives for smaller, more regional publishers. “Facebook is the dominant social network in Slovakia,” said Struhárik. “Maybe we will experiment with something new, but nothing can replace Facebook for now.” Despite its importance, Struhárik does not plan to start paying to advertise on Facebook, as he believes it wouldn’t be a sustainable strategy for news media.

Facebook says it currently has no plans to roll the test out globally, but if it does it might be the death knell for the ‘social publishers’ who have scaled rapidly using social platforms. Many are already questioning the future of the model as companies like Buzzfeed have started to show signs they’re struggling. Buzzfeed is reportedly expected to miss their 2017 revenue target by as much as 20 percent and the company recently slashed its US workforce by 8 percent.

Those who have already found success on Facebook are of course already wary of relying too much on the platform. Unilad, one such publisher, had its Facebook account deactivated for a brief period earlier this month. Whilst it was quickly restored, it raised questions of how publications like Unilad would fare if they could no longer use the platform.

Larger publishers are more confident about their ability to succeed without Facebook. A spokesperson for The Guardian spokesman told VAN that the changes would mostly affect smaller publishers with less diversified revenue streams. Large publishers tend to receive more of a passive benefit from Facebook too, as their large numbers of readers share their content of their own accord i.e. it’s content which would still show up on the main News Feed. But the trial is significant nonetheless as a reminder of the dangers of Facebook dependence. “These changes underline the need for high quality publishers to focus on stronger engagement with readers on their own platforms with a view to creating paid relationships,” said the Guardian spokesperson. “It also further demonstrates the issues around Facebook’s support of quality journalism.”

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