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Are publishers now in Facebook's friendzone? The real impact of the newsfeed algorithm change


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

January 12, 2018 | 10 min read

Facebook has deprioritized business and media content in the newsfeed to add a renewed importance to the family and friend posts that originally helped build the social network. Publishers dependent on Facebook for traffic may need to reassess their strategy now.

Introducing the paradigm shift, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote: “We've gotten feedback from our community that public content - posts from businesses, brands and media - is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

Historically, the company has benefited from the content of media organisations, whether that be posted organically, or with paid reach. However, within this ecosystem a fake news epidemic arose. Misinformation and lies would commonly go viral, especially as a means of mass manipulation around certain referendums and elections.

Now the site's solution appears to deprioritize media outlets, although the reach of live video and group debates will be largely unaffected.

Facebook initially attracted publishers to the site by hosting a desirable and scalable audience. While publishers entertained users with free content, Facebook profited from deliver ads to users. It even worked with creators to generate videos for the newsfeed in order to create a product capable of competing with YouTube.

Facebook, despite its flaws, is an established news source, some two thirds of Americans primarily get their news from the site, according to Pew.

Now, it appears to have turned its back on the publishers that helped build - or ruin - it.

What is the future of publishers on Facebook?

Niall McGarry, owner and founder of Irish-based mens publication, sees no reason to panic. "There have been major algorithm changes going back to 2013. It is a mixed bag. Facebook was so unregulated they allowed an incredible mishmash of stuff so now they have to clear up the newsfeed.”

McGarry is not worried about Joe’s reach, he boasts that all of the publication'[s content is original so he reckons it will dodge the axe that will come down upon lower quality posts. “I believe that Facebook without publishers would be a very strange place. There are too many dog on treadmills videos, the newsfeed is very ugly and they are right to address that. They have created a lot of their own problems.

He said that good publihsers will continue to do well on Facebook and that the sweeping changes will only address the "clutter". Facebook has been a vital source of traffic for Joe, it will continue to be so in the future. “Too many old school publishers want Facebook to be this horrible nightmare they picture it is, they want it to fail.”

John Ridding, chief executive of the Financial Times, said the "need for quality, independent journalism has never been greater." He called for a system that helps fund quality journalism. "A sustainable solution to the challenges of the new information ecosystem requires further measures - in particular, a viable subscription model on platforms that enables publishers to build a direct relationship with readers and to manage the terms of access to their content."

Without directly addressing Facebook, a platform that the FT is unlikely to be too heavily dependent on, Ridding concluded: "As the large majority of all new online advertising spend continues to go to the search and social media platforms - quality content will no longer be a choice or an option. And that would be the worst outcome for all.”

Some sites are dependent upon the large and usually reliable audience that Facebook houses, these are audiences that some media brands have slowly built up over the last decade. Parody website Suffolk Gazette is now in a difficult position, its editor joked that the algorithm change will allow Facebook users to “enjoy their friends’ breakfast” again.

Editor Simon Young hinted at what the renewed Facebook will show: “Instead you will see endless posts from your ‘friends’ about where they are going on holiday, what they had for breakfast, and how well their kids are doing at school.”

As of April 2017, 95% of the site's traffic came from Facebook, now that’s down to 60% across a much lower base, showing the damage that can be caused by the changes. Young added: “This is a fun site, a personal blog, written and produced in my spare time. It is not my job, and I do not rely on any income from it. But for other media institutions – actually any business that uses Facebook – it is really serious.”

Young concluded: “So while you are now avoiding fake news, one of the key drivers behind Facebook’s change in policy, you are also missing out on genuine news and many of the things you used to enjoy on Facebook.”

Late in November Facebook experimented with strangling the reach of media outlets in Serbia, Guatemala, Slovakia, Bolivia and Cambodia. In less stable states, the move threatened the reach and existential future of some free press outlets. Posts from pages were moved from the newsfeed and into a new tab that few users used. While this feature has not been rolled out globally, it shows the social network's opinion of news content.

Buzzfeed, which has cut a third of its UK staff after failing to hit revenue targets, also issued a statement on the changes, cognoscente of the fact the social network will be one of the site's primary traffic sources. It read: "BuzzFeed’s mission from day one has been to create shareable content that enables meaningful interaction among families and friends; meaningful social content is our sweet spot. We expect to continue to fulfill that mission and transcend these News Feed changes, which confirm trends we’ve seen over the platform in recent months and have already taken steps to evolve alongside."

Engagement bait vs good content

James Whatley, planning partner of Ogilvy UK, outlined that there will be two parties affected by the change-up. Engagement bait publishers and those who produce quality content.

“If you’re a publisher that focuses on ‘engagement bait’, as Facebook calls it, then your days (or at least the days of your existing content ‘strategy’) are numbered.

“However, if you’re a publisher that consistently publishes interesting and stimulating content, then you’re golden. This move is unsurprising - especially considering Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year announcement on his focus for the year – so one would hope that many publishers saw this coming and were prepared for the shakeup... One would hope.”

Publishers have a foot-up on brands

Richard Beech, chief marketing officer at online auto community DriveTribe, formerly editor of Joe and sports editor of Buzzfeed, weighed in on the changes.

He said that some of his colleagues think the move spells doom for publishers on Facebook. Others see it as Facebook loosening its grip over publishers on the platform. “It'll force publishers to refocus on the brand values that made them successful in the first place, they’ll need to create genuinely engaging content for their core audience rather than focus on pushing up page views with viral news.”

Beech admitted that the switchup may lessen the current homogeny of the news, (such as the recent cauliflower steak story that did the rounds). “Ultimately, I think Facebook’s changes will be good for the end user, and that’s Facebook’s prerogative.”

He added that while publishers may be able to “exploit the algorithm change commercially... it will get much, much harder for brands and agencies to reach people online.”

Beech concluded: “Publications will learn quicker than brands how to continue reaching their core audience with content that has genuine value to the reader.”

Brands being strangled?

Mike Blake-Crawford, strategy director at social media marketing Social Chain offered insight from a brand perspective. "Working across brands such as Thomas Cook, Superdry and New Balance, as well as media brands such as Student Problems, Sporf and LoveFood, we'd noticed some anomalies in the organic performance over the Christmas period."

Blake-Crawford said that some posts reached less than one thousand users, down from an average of between 20k and 50k. He added "this was a an issue we'd seen replicated across some of our media portfolio too".

As it stands established pages that are already being shared by users stand to benefit, the impact on these groups will reportedly be "negligible". Blake-Crawford said: "It's a huge boost to established influencers and influential pages - If we're taking the information on board correctly, while the organic reach of brand and publisher pages will decline, content shared by friends and family should still prevalent on the newsfeed."

He noted that the personal family and friends content Facebook wants people sharing on the newsfeed is actually being routed through Messenger and other chat apps, so the gambit may not play out as the social network wants. "The newsfeed as a product is somewhere people go to be entertained and waste time with viral videos.

"I envisage that your biggest brands and pages such as McDonald's, LadBible and some of our biggest properties will still be OK. However, for the smaller pages who are looking to get a cut on the viral content action, they will really struggle in the new algorithmic landscape."

He predicted that the likes of Messenger (which is currently experimenting with brands and ads) will be the new place for companies to congregate. "In a way it's almost as if they're closing one door - at least making it more difficult to get through - while shepherding agencies, brands and creators through others."

Parting with some advice, Blake-Crawford concluded: "To succeed there will be a greater need to implement a paid strategy."

Less social, more media

Greg Allum, head of social at Jellyfish noted a shift in what social media actually is. "Brands now realise social media is 'less social, more media' and have to pay for their content to be seen by target audiences."

Allum added: "Will publishers who have seen large organic reach, increased followers and significant video views fall for the bait and switch? Will they try new platforms? Or will they invest increased media budgets into Facebook?"

On the content front, Allum predicts that publishers will try to wean themselves off Facebook. "Ultimately they will fish where the fish are and return to Facebook with increased media budgets in hand."

They will concentrate on "less but bigger pieces of content" he offered.

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