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Facebook Risks Biting The Hand That Feeds It

Earlier this week, Facebook announced a major change in how its more than 2 billion users will experience the social network. It’s around the News Feed, the most recognizable and important part of the service, and the update wasn’t just a minor tweak to its algorithm — it was something much more significant. Facebook is adjusting it so that your News Feed will prioritize posts from your friends and family over brands and publishers.

Has Facebook just bit the hand that feeds it?

Ensuring time on Facebook is “well spent”

2017 was the year when more people began to open their eyes to the enormous influence that Facebook held over their lives and society as a whole. Previously heralded as an enabler of the Arab Spring, the social networking company has come under fire for allowing Russia to interfere with the United States presidential election and inundating our News Feed with “fake news”. Company chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has put forward his 2018 resolution: to fix Facebook. And perhaps a big step to do this is to make people happier, starting with what they consume through his own product.

The majority of users probably won’t find the change too problematic. After all, why would you complain if photos, posts, videos, and links your family and friends share appear at the top of the News Feed. Facebook assumes you’d want to see those — wouldn’t you want to see updates from your family prioritized over those from the Four Seasons Hotel? According to Zuckerberg:

“We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us. That’s why we’ve always put friends and family at the core of the experience. Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our well-being and happiness.”

What he’s aiming for is to improve time well spent on Facebook. What is time well spent? Generally speaking, it’s a concept of maximizing attention without impacting the quality of life of someone. It’s about not having Facebook take over our lives, which it seems to be practically every day — our News Feed is cluttered with so much noise that it’s hard to really find the signal. From articles around Donald Trump, Russia, cybersecurity incidents, viral videos that serve no purpose, pointless livestreams, politics, world affair, global warming and climate change, sexual harassment, and endlessly wishing friends a happy birthday, we’re spending a lot of time on Facebook.

But are we any happier? Current studies suggest no, at least according to research conducted by Harvard professors published last year. Perhaps Facebook’s thinking is that we’re way too inundated with information that we’re really not getting the important posts that really matter to us. And it might depend on the people and things we follow and like. Personally, my News Feed is cluttered with a mix of people I’m friends with, Pages I’ve liked, groups, and an ad every 3 or 4 posts. It’s overwhelming trying to parse through it all, filled with additional notifications like On This Day, birthdays, and even Facebook Stories — calling it information overload is putting it lightly.

Adjusting the algorithm to surface more relevant posts isn’t anything new for Facebook. The company has made multiple tweaks over the years, just like how Google does with its search results. And in both cases, the slightest modification can cause untold calamity for people and brands. Previous updates include efforts to combat what Facebook called “engagement baiting”, reducing the chances of you seeing fewer clickbait posts, and prioritizing posts with links to websites that load fast.

And while there’s uproar around the latest News Feed adjustment, in 2016, the company touted an update that would show you more friends and family:

Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president of product management, wrote that the company’s top priority is “keeping you connected to the people, places, and things you want to be connected to — starting with the people you are friends with…That’s why if it’s your friends, it’s in your feed, period…”

Pushing the community angle

In an interview with The New York Times, Zuckerberg remarked about the depth of content that Facebook has been consuming in the past 15 years: “This big wave of public content has really made us reflect: What are we really here to do? If what we’re here to do is help people build relationships, then we need to adjust.”

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg during his first-ever town hall Q&A event. Held for the public at Facebook headquarters on November 6, 2014, nearly 200 people from around the San Francisco Bay Area attended.

It’s shocking to hear such a turn of events taking place within the company, especially coming from the person responsible for its creation. But it’s perhaps in tune with another theme that Zuckerberg has been promoting recently: Community. In an open letter published nearly a year ago, he revealed a push to bring us together in a global community, writing:

Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial. Every year, the world got more connected and this was seen as a positive trend. Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection. There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.

So amid all the hostility around social issues and polarized politics, not to mention controversy around Russian bots and fake news proliferating through Facebook, the company is pushing forward with its mission to try and bring us together. but it needs to do something drastic in order to restore its original intentions. Sure, Zuckerberg touts the success of individual groups, but as Facebook has grown, it has evolved a bit wildly out of control and now it’s time to reign in control.

“In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us,” Zuckerberg wrote in his lengthy missive. While Facebook can push out tool after tool to support people coming together, it’s fundamentally needs to shift its thinking and go back to basics, which is why the latest News Feed changes are being implemented.

Brands and publishers: Take appropriate steps

For years, Facebook has courted media outlets, publishers, and brands to produce content and be on its social network. From setting up Pages and buying up advertisements, to doing more video and livestreams, and even ensuring their content would render properly on the social network a la Instant Articles, there was all these enticements to show that it had the audience businesses needed to maximize their reach, way more than what the typical internet could offer.

And now it’s all blowing up — the paradigm businesses have been accustomed to is no longer there. Like all its News Feed algorithm updates, Facebook has warned that non-user accounts may see a decrease. After all, once users have parsed through all the content from their friends and family, the likelihood that they’ll continue to browse through more posts decreases — think of it like the search results page on Google. How often are you going past page 3 or 4 of those results? Being at the top of someone’s feed can generate enormous traffic and attention.

But here’s where I think the change in News Feed can cause a bit of a renaissance for marketers, community managers, and brands interested in still finding an audience on Facebook:

  • Decrease in gamified posts: As mentioned earlier, a previous News Feed tweak promised to reduce engagement and clickbait posts from surfacing to the top, but with a push to prioritize posts that’ll spark conversations and reactions, maybe we’ll see fluffed up posts like countdown clock livestreams on when the election will be or just nonsensical content.
  • Push for engagement versus reactions: Brands and businesses will need to up their game and focus more on posts that will drive conversation instead of just views. According to Facebook: Page posts that generate conversation between people will show higher in News Feed. This means that looking at more authentic and value add-type posts are more critical in this day of age.
  • Be creative in outreach: One way to get a Page shown at the top of someone’s News Feed is by defaulting it to be shown first, a setting that has long existed on the social network. But another way would be to try and do something creative like a livestream. Facebook touts that its live video option gets more interactions than regular videos, so be creative in finding things people are willing to discuss. In order to get users to want to default a Page to be seen first, it has to offer something of value. Just because you’re following a hotelier doesn’t mean it’s instantly valuable — make your content enticing enough that people will always want to come back for more conversation.

  • Human over intangible brand: We might start to see more emphasis within brands being placed on personalities over a brand acting like it’s human. There are some companies who have individuals that stand out as representative of the brand, but maybe this change could generate a shift?
  • Invest in advertising: This is probably an area where Facebook will probably see a more significant uptick in activity, greater than normal so it’s worth looking to see how the company’s earnings will be later this year. With Page posts being limited from prominence, will brands shift more dollars towards Facebook advertising in an effort to raise interest?
  • Push to Messenger and other Facebook properties: At Facebook’s F8 developer conference two years ago, the company announced the launch of a chatbot platform within Messenger and boasted about how the chat app could be used to help brands communicate with customers. With this News Feed tweak, brands may find a way to shift their conversations and news to bots and put it into Messenger, especially if they’re not going to be seen within the News Feed. And if Facebook wants to be more like WeChat where people are shopping and running their lives through chat, then this could be a subtle push towards that aim — interact with brands, make purchases, returns, track packages, and monitor your account right through Messenger while promoting it through ads on Facebook directly. And let’s not forget about the potential for Instagram and WhatsApp too.
  • Additional influencer outreach: If Pages can’t help get the message out there, then brands should look to boost its influencer programs, so we might see an increase in non-employee spokespeople start to appear.

All for the greater good?

Facebook has certainly upheaved everything and caused chaos to reign. It doesn’t know how well this tweak will be, but it does think that ultimately the greater good will be achieved. The company wants to restore its original mission around community and bringing people together. This ultimate reset is a gamble and may be good in causing brands and media to rethink their strategies in order to reach users. It might also reduce the stress many of us feel when perusing social media and rekindle relationships with our friends, having civil discussion around what’s going on in our lives, and reducing the clutter.

Only time will tell and it might wind up biting Facebook in the end.

Published in Facebook Industry Analysis Marketing Social Media