Facebook's latest news feed tweaks are once again causing ripples of confusion across the industry – is it time to panic? The short answer is no, the move is arguably actually a good thing for marketers, but if you're a publisher there may be more to worry about.
These changes focus on bringing content from the people you know best further up the news feed. It's a response to users who miss key updates from people they most care about, which is a concern I've heard expressed frequently myself. Facebook further stressed the control users now have to actively ask for more or less content from any source.
It's worth noting that Facebook specifically talks about bringing content further up the news feed rather than fundamentally changing what's in or out. It's a small nuance but the implication is that ultimately the same content would be there if you scrolled far enough, similar to how Instagram reorders rather than completely hides content. We rarely acknowledge that users inevitably can't take in everything posted so there'll always be some sort of balancing act.
A focus back on personal content also highlights that Facebook has been almost too successful at becoming a destination for publishers and video. It's important for Facebook to preserve the personal connections which make its platform unique, and to encourage users to keep sharing their own content. Earlier in the year there were rumours that 'original content' sharing by users was tailing off, and giving it more visibility and thus more reassuring response is one counter measure.
Inevitably the consequence of this is that posts from publishers and pages have to move further down the news feed to make room. You can see why marketers would jump straight to concerns about their own reach, and indeed there's a resurgence of posts on how to beat the algorithm and secure an extra couple of % organic reach. In my perspective however, anyone making these arguments is totally missing the true marketing potential of Facebook.
Promoted posts aren't a tax on marketers, they're a huge opportunity to reach well beyond a core existing audience and out to over a billion targeted consumers who can be exactly who you want them to be. Anyone fighting for an extra tiny percentage of their followers to see something should look up and see that they could be reaching 10,000 per cent with a basic media strategy. In reality that's the audience you need to be reaching to grow and if you're not willing to invest to do so then you'd be better off spending your time elsewhere. Tweaks to Facebook's news feed of this sort have absolutely no impact on the scale you achieve through promoted content, and these posts will still be inserted throughout the timeline.
News feed algorithms ultimately improve the experience for users, keep more of them coming back more often and for longer, and thus create an even bigger audience for advertisers to target. Helpfully this growth of time spent will also increase inventory, helping avoid escalating prices due to increased competition. The industry should be welcoming the change, alongside new algorithms from Twitter and Instagram. As Mondelez's Sonia Carter says: “We wouldn't have these headlines if ITV changed its schedule to include more popular programmes.”
The picture for publishers isn't necessarily quite so pretty. These businesses increasingly find their traffic driven by Facebook, and through Instant Articles users might even have their entire experience within their feed. Anything that makes content less likely to surface reduces traffic and cuts into advertising revenues. The ability for Facebook to casually shift this balance will remind publishers that while it may be driving a large chunk of their traffic, it's perfectly capable of moving the goal posts, a risky proposition for any business.
The announcement points out that publisher content re-shared by your close friends will still be prioritised and thus alludes to the need to make your posts more shareable to benefit. Personally I'm not sure that's the most positive pressure to put on an already stretched industry. As rich content and video has dominated the news feed, platforms like BuzzFeed have evolved past the clickbait titles they became famous for – let's hope this doesn't push them right back.
Ultimately even advanced publishers, like marketers, are using paid media to get their content started and kick off a wider sharing effect; advertisers who are still clinging on to organic reach and thus worried by these changes are arguably now half a decade behind the times. Even those on small budgets will find algorithm worries vanish and their impact sky rockets with a few £s behind it, even at today's exchange rate.
Jerry Daykin is global digital partner at Carat Global