Predicting how technology firms are going to shift, pivot or change is usually difficult.
Most of the time organizations make only vague statements (e.g., Google) or remain completely silent (e.g., Apple).
That’s not the case with Facebook’s News Feed. Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg clearly outlined a new direction for the product. In a public announcement, he explained that the social media organization was going to shift how it prioritized posts.
As he put it: “I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.”
Zuckerberg felt the News Feed had strayed from its mission. He continued:
Recently 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.
Not surprisingly, the move quickly sparked terror among the multitudes of businesses, brands and media outlets that have come to rely on the platform for content distribution. Digiday called it the “Great Facebook News Feed Purge,” and an agency executive declared that “organic reach on Facebook is dead.”
Were those dire predictions correct? Have the Facebook News Feed changes affected the performance of content, ads and the platform itself?
We looked at recent data to find out. What emerged is a complicated picture of the impact that the move has had. Specifically, these three insights stood out:
1. Engagement and visibility have dropped—on some content.
The biggest fear brands and publishers had about the News Feed shift is that their content would disappear completely. That has not happened.
The initial data indicate that content visibility and engagement has dropped for some organizations, but not for others. For example, an early analysis by The Western Journal shows a dip for some conservative publishers, while a study by Poynter shows no significant dip for fact-checking websites.
The clearest negative impact has been on “clickbait” pieces. This decline actually predates Zuckerberg’s announcement and began last year. A BuzzSumo analysis shows that pre-2017 top BuzzFeed listicle posts were getting more than two million shares; after Facebook started making News Feed changes, that plummeted to fewer than 500,000 shares.
What’s going on? Facebook has been fairly transparent on this. Contrary to what was initially reported, the organization isn’t hiding all content from publishers and brands. Rather, it’s doing two things: somewhat decreasing the number of public (brand/publisher) pieces, while also prioritizing some types of content and deprioritizing others.
As Facebook’s News Feed chief put it:
Last year, we worked hard to reduce fake news and clickbait, and to destroy the economic incentives for spammers to generate these articles in the first place. But there is more we can do. In 2018, we will prioritize: news from publications that the community rates as trustworthy; news that people find informative; news that is relevant to people’s local community.
2. Ad costs on Facebook appear to have increased
Organic content visibility and engagement isn’t the only area that’s seen changes this year; advertising pricing has noticeably shifted as well.
It seems there’s been a decline in the number of ad impressions in 2018, which has had a natural supply-and-demand consequence: Prices have gone up.
According to AdStage data cited by Recode, the volume of Facebook ad impressions dropped in the first two months of 2018, and CPMs spiked by 122 percent on a year-over-year basis in January and 77 percent in February.
These figures come from a small sample size and are only for a short period, so they don’t necessarily reflect what happened across all brands and advertisers.
That said, it does seem to indicate a general trend toward an increased cost for paid Facebook engagement. The specifics of what’s driving the shift isn’t certain. The quantity and makeup of paid units may have changed, there could be a broad drop in engagement, or some combination—or possibly something else. What’s clear is that the News Feed changes seem to have either driven or coincided with a rise in costs for Facebook advertising.
3. Facebook-driven referral traffic has declined.
Another trend that has dovetailed with the News Feed changes is a dip in referral traffic from Facebook.
According to Parse.ly data, in May and June of 2017 Facebook actually drove more traffic to Parse.ly’s customers’ sites than Google search. However, that’s no longer the case. Now, Google search accounts for 44 percent of referrals, and Facebook accounts for just 25 percent of referrals.
Again, this dataset is relatively small and may not apply to all brands and verticals. However, as with ad pricing, it does seem to indicate an overall trend.
The drop in referral traffic isn’t necessarily being driven fully by the News Feed changes. As Wired points out, the decline also coincides with less engagement on some content after the U.S. election, the rise of Google’s AMP pages and publishers scaling back their reliance on social distribution.
What’s a marketer to do?
The first takeaway is simple: Don’t panic. The News Feed changes have dramatically affected some content—specifically clickbait and spammy pieces—but they haven’t transformed the entire digital landscape. Views and interactions have gone up in some areas and down in others.
For brands that are creating valuable content, Facebook remains an important outlet. It still has a scale and reach unmatched by any other social platform. Some 68 percent of U.S. adults say they use Facebook, and 74 percent visit the platform at least once a day.
That said, it’s also clear that the Facebook platform is changing in significant ways. The mix of organic posts in the News Feed is shifting, ad prices are in flux and the status of the platform as a driver of traffic to external properties is uncertain.
Moreover, traditional metrics of success—such as user base size and time spent with content—aren’t trending upward for Facebook.
What’s important to realize is that this is (mostly) intentional. In his News Feed announcement, Zuckerberg wrote: “By making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down.”
In other words, Facebook is consciously shifting its focus, and it is willing to endure some growing pains in order to do so. It’s possible, of course, that what emerges will be less friendly to brands and marketers, with fewer opportunities to distribute content and higher ad prices. However, it’s also possible that the next iteration of the network will be improved, resulting in more engaged audiences and a wider range of valuable News Feed posts.
Which way will things go? Only time will tell.