A publisher’s guide to Facebook’s newsfeed changes

It’s been impossible to escape these last few days: Facebook newsfeed changes are coming and that’s bad news for business, democracy, and brands. After the announcement, Mark Zuckerberg’s personal net worth even decreased by an estimated $3.3 billion. There’s been a lot written already, but it has been difficult to make sense of it all. This week we’re answering your questions on how Facebook’s newsfeed changes will impact publishers.

What exactly is changing?

In short, Facebook has announced it intends to prioritise posts from family and friends in user newsfeeds, over posts by pages. Facebook estimates that the amount of news in people’s feeds will drop by 20% on average. This will affect publishers that rely on Facebook to reach their audience. Last year when Facebook experimented with putting publishers’ stories on a separate newsfeed in 6 countries, affected pages reported drops of 60-80% in Facebook engagement.

Facebook also announced that it will start this week to survey users about which publishers they trust, and this trustworthiness score will affect newsfeed placement. There are concerns however that this survey could be gamed, especially because there are only two questions:

  • Do you recognise the following websites? (Yes or no)
  • How much do you trust each of these domains? (Entirely, a lot, somewhat, barely, not at all)

For now, the trustworthiness score will only apply to US publishers, but Facebook has announced it plans to roll this feature out internationally in the future as well. Still, this led News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch to release a statement proposing that Facebook should then pay media companies deemed legitimate by its survey for their content, helping to combat the problem of fake news on its platform.

Additionally, Facebook has begun testing a separate feed especially for local news, called “Today In“. As of now, this is only available in 6 American cities, and it provides news from regional publishers chosen via an algorithm as well as picked by Facebook’s news partnership team.

Why?

Mark Zuckerberg has given a few reasons for this change, writing that the increase in news articles is “crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other”. Facebook’s research has shown that people are happier when they use social media to connect with people they care about instead of reading articles or watching videos, even if they are entertaining.

Of course, the changes may also be in response to the many controversies Facebook has faced in recent years–most notably is its role in the spread of “fake news” during the 2016 US presidential election. Yet some are worried that this change will only serve to encourage the spread of misinformation.

“The problem is that if the new system is designed primarily to encourage conversation and spark reactions, the sites which could get the biggest boost from these changes are the least credible ones—publishers who specialize in either completely fake stories, or stories that have a grain of truth but are wildly exaggerated.” – Mathew Ingram, Columbia Journalism Review

Does it even matter?

In mid-2017, Google search surpassed Facebook as the top referral for publishers and since then Facebook referrals have continued to decline, while a Reuters study found that publishers were least positive about their relationship with Facebook. 

Some publishers have already de-emphasised their reliance on Facebook. In a survey from Nieman Lab, many publishers said they had already prepared for this or that at least Facebook wasn’t as important to their strategy as it once had been.

Readers themselves have also shown a decreasing interest in Facebook as a source of news. Globally, readers place more trust in traditional journalism than social media platforms, with trust in journalism reaching a 6 year high.

Should we pivot to groups?

When Facebook first allowed pages to create groups, we saw some publishers experiment with this new platform. 

“We’ve squeezed all the water out of the Facebook page stone – where the pages are great and can generate a ton of traffic. But there’s a whole bunch of Facebook that isn’t pages, that people use extensively but publications aren’t using extensively. And there’s untapped opportunity in Facebook groups.”  Matt Karolian, director of audience engagement at the Boston Globe

The Boston Globe’s Facebook group for subscribers launched about a year ago and has seen nice results, with over 3,000 members and posts receiving more than twice the number of comments as on the page itself.

But just like the hyped ‘pivot to video’ of recent memory, a pivot to Facebook groups isn’t for everyone. Before deciding to focus on groups, make sure you consider your newsroom and audience. If your audience is already on Facebook, this can be a great way to engage them directly with your content, but it shouldn’t be that you must first get your readers on to Facebook. It’s also important that you have the resources for moderating the group to make sure it isn’t overrun with spam and non-relevant posts. While eventually the goal is to have the group be self-sustaining with readers doing most of the posting, it might be necessary to generate conversations in the early days.

What do we need to do?

We’ve seen some publishers telling their readers how to keep news articles in their feed by marking them as ‘see first’ or directing readers to their own app.

Savvy publishers will focus more on social sharing, as articles shared by friends will still appear in users’ newsfeeds. This might take the form of optimizing the sharing buttons on your website, but just make sure to not fall victim to ‘engagement bait’. Facebook will deprioritize publishers it sees relying on engagement bait, which includes such things as writing by “share this” or “tag a friend” on your Facebook posts. For how to avoid falling victim to engagement baiting, RJI’s Trusting News project has a great write up with best practices on how to deploy your fans.

Facebook will remain an important way to reach new readers, so a focus on engagement will be key. Audience development expert Ned Berke emphasises the importance of knowing what you are using Facebook for:

“Ask yourself what you want to get out of your time on Facebook. If it’s newsletter sign-ups, make sure they see a sign-up box when they arrive. If it’s to bring in new readers, emphasize sharing. If tightening up your relationship with readers is important, and you want to foster more loyalty, then entice readers to comment and contribute. If it’s to improve your journalism, use Facebook to involve readers in the process.” – Ned Berke, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism

Facebook will also deprioritize the least engaging publishers, so make sure to post only your best articles–meaning that posting non-engaging content can hurt even your most engaging content.

Could this be a good thing?

Facebook’s renewed focus on building local community can be seen as a positive change for regional publishers.

It’s possible that being part of a separate, local section of the app will help drive more traffic back to publishers’ stories and websites where they can make money through advertising, but there is no way for publishers to make money off the new local section at launch. –  Kurt Wagner, Recode

Plus, some have posited that this change could be the push publishers need to focus more on engagement than on scale.

“So many publishers think they have audiences, when what they really have is traffic. I think we’re about to find out who has an audience.” – Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor at The Verge

So don’t despair, there is hope for a world after Facebook newsfeeds. When Norwegian daily Aftenposten made this switch, from chasing Facebook reach to focusing on subscribers, they brought in an extra $500k annually. They found that Facebook likes, comments, and shares had no impact on reaching their business goals.
 

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Business Development @ Twipe

Still confused by how these changes will impact you? Send me your questions!
 
 
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