What publishers should be doing to get over Facebook

If you’re anything like me, you’re getting dangerously close to peak Facebook – not from using it, but from reading about it.

Since The Zuck’s big January announcement, it feels like all anyone in media and marketing has written about is how the world’s biggest social network has screwed publishing (again).

Unfortunately, like a bad newsfeed, this one is going to run and run and run.

On the off chance that you started the year with an off-grid retreat… Facebook’s baby-faced boss has basically said there’s too much news on his network, it’s making people sad, ruining democracy and (whisper it) it’s bad for business.

So to save the world, and his social network, he’s going to ‘deprioritise’ publisher and brand content and get back to basics: friends, family, community, local stuff. Best of all, he’s going to sort out that pesky fake news problem by letting the people vote for the news brands they consider trustworthy.

Between the screams of ‘We’re doomed… We’re doomed’ and ‘Why do you hate us?’ the world’s publishers are scrambling to find ways to replace Facebook traffic and revenue before they sink forever beneath a deluge of baby photos and Fox News updates.

What does it all mean?

Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor at The Verge, summarised the panic perfectly on Twitter:

“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.”

Newspaper and magazine operations that still have actual bona fide readers – people who value their publishing brands and return to their content regularly – will find them regardless of platform. Those who have profited from drive-by traffic are toast unless they shift their business models.

And the media can squeal until it's blue in the face about Facebook’s woeful corporate communications, but beyond the shock of those Friday announcements, the writing has been on the wall for a while.

Late last year, online analytics firm Parse.ly reported that referral traffic from Google was back on top after a four-year Facebook hiatus. And looking at the data, media commentator Adam Tinworth quickly came to the conclusion that the traffic drop was Facebook’s doing.

On his blog, Tinworth mused that the fall could be evidence of a familiar commercial MO: get people hooked on organic traffic, dial it down, then charge to promote the posts. But he also identified early indicators that the network was de-prioritising journalism in the face of the decline in personal sharing and the risks inherent in spreading misinformation ahead of US mid-term elections.

Chief executive Zuckerberg’s statements simply made things official.

Publishing’s post-scale future

A couple of weeks in and the publishing world is slowly coming to terms with the fact that Facebook prefers friends and family to journalists. And as the bad-breakup recriminations begin to subside, it’s becoming clearer what they need to do to reclaim their dignity.

The first is to calm down.

Despite all the hand-wringing, newspapers and magazines have no special right to appear in Facebook’s newsfeed.

Wolfgang Blau, president of Condé Nast International, acknowledges that Facebook has invested heavily in convincing, if not coercing, publishers to optimise their content for distribution on the platform. He also accepts that the industry benefited from building audiences of a size unimaginable before the newsfeed existed. But:

“Publishers have no given right to be on Facebook, though, and the sense of entitlement in some of the industry‘s initial reactions is a waste of time.”

Outside the newsfeed it will be harder get attention on the platform, but that’s just a return to publishing’s natural order, back working at your own scale instead of Facebook’s.

And it’s not like Facebook is banishing news content, just sidelining it, and the next thing that needs to be done is make sure that people remember you’re still there.

That effort kicked off early with everyone from the Economist to Scotland’s independence newspaper, the National, giving their readers the heads up on how to keep their articles in their feed.

"We know that you would hate to miss out on all the content we at the National share with you," wrote the National editor in an email to readers before sending them off to the paper’s Facebook page to like, follow and select the ‘see first’ option.

Time well spent

At the core of Zuckerberg’s grand plan is the notion of ‘time well spent’ which means different things to different people, but for him is about helping people have more meaningful social interactions on Facebook.

At the root of the changes to the newsfeed algorithm is a shift to counting active commenting, a much healthier way to measure meaningful interactions than counting passive likes and shares according to Zuckerberg.

So, although Facebook may be deprioritising news at a general level, articles that draw comments should do just fine.

The emphasis on comments as a metric for engagement has put fresh focus on the work of community managers; those people previously working away in the background scheduling posts and chasing likes and shares will now be tasked with cultivating conversations.

Facebook has also been pushing its ‘Group’ functionality since it launched in July last year and several publishers have already had a go at making Facebook groups work for them.

Facebook-first publisher Unilad was among the first out of the blocks with several groups, building out niche content in sports, gaming, fitness and travel. But legacy titles from the Times to the Mirror have also set up groups and while the numbers are tiny compared to historic Facebook reach, engagement is said to be high.

Tech and media journalist Simon Owens recently posted some strong advice for publishers considering the Facebook groups route: make them really niche, make your writers and subject matter experts available, avoid hard sells and sort out the trolls early.

Another strand of Zuckerberg's 2018 strategy is get more local content on the network. This has seen the trailing of it’s new ‘Today In’ feature, being tested in six US cities, and bringing local news to a drop-down in the mobile app.

For some regional news publishers, this might be an opportunity – one in three small businesses in the UK uses the platform to promote themselves. But with most having stripped their local newsrooms and Slate reporting that Google has plans to let anyone provide local news through its new Bulletin app, the local scene is likely to involve more risk than reward for publishers with anything but the tiniest overheads.

Trust me, I’m a publisher

The final loop on Facebook’s time-well-spent roller-coaster is trust – finally something that publishers enjoy more of than Facebook.

Platform bosses have fixed on the idea that, to fight fake news, they are going to ask the audience – 2 billion users – to rate news sources. With two questions, they hope to boost trusted news sources and weed out the fakers.

This approach seems overly simplistic, with the Daily Mail likely to be the most and least trusted news source at the same time. But it’s probably not as dumb as it first appears – add Facebook's user-data to those two questions and there’s the potential to generate comprehensive audience analysis.

But with trust in social media generally low – just one in four Britons trust news in their social feed – established outlets may have an opportunity to leverage the brand value they have built in legacy relationships.

As it stands, content branding has been getting lost in the mix, with surveys showing a significant number of people discovering news through social media and search can’t remember the organisation that published it.

If all of a sudden Facebook itself is drawing attention to the trustworthiness of the brands delivering content, audiences may be more inclined to look out for those they value.

For once this could be a win-win for publisher and platform. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer shows trust in platforms falling as trust in journalism rises. Boosting established publishing brands could help repair this drop for Facebook.

Relationship status

Whether the publishing sector likes it or not, Facebook is returning to its original position as a ‘social’ network. Tired of publisher and brand content “crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other”, Facebook wants some space.

Tweaks to accommodate the changes in the relationship status might repair some of the damage done, but the conventional wisdom is that traffic is never returning to the levels it was at previously.

That might mean finding alternative distribution platforms, and Snapchat has put itself firmly in the frame for that role. But signing on with new distribution partners on the rebound is a bad idea. The biggest lesson publishers can learn from being dumped by Facebook is don’t build your business on someone else’s real estate.

Instead, build your own relationships. The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten gave up chasing Facebook reach and two-years later was bringing in an additional $500,000 in subscriptions revenue annually.

Facebook will remain an important way to reach people, but it just became more important than ever to understand the relationship. Audience development expert Ned Berke says publishers need to be clear what they want to get from the time they spend with the network.

“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, emphasise 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.”

In the long run, Facebook might realise it needs publisher content more than it thought. Maybe one day it'll even consider a proper partnership, paying for content the way Rupert Murdoch has suggested.

But for now, maybe just accept the network is turning to friends and family to help it deal with its own problems.

Peter Houston is a journalist and commentator who specialises in covering media. You can follow him on Twitter @Flipping_Pages

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