Discerning how technology companies are going to change their offerings is usually difficult.
Most of the time, firms will make vague statements (like Google) or remain completely silent (like 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 company 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.”
He said he felt the News Feed had strayed from its mission. “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,” wrote Zuckerberg.
Not surprisingly, the move quickly sparked terror in the hearts of the businesses, brands and media creating public content. Digiday called it the “Great Facebook News Feed Purge” and an agency executive declared that “organic reach on Facebook is dead.”
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Were those dire predictions right? 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.
These three insights stood out:
1. Engagement and visibility has dropped (for some).
The initial data indicates that content visibility and engagement has dropped for some organizations and 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 impact for fact-checking websites.
The clearest negative impact has been on “clickbait” pieces. What’s interesting is that this decline predates Zuckerberg’s announcement. 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, performance plummeted to fewer than 500,000 shares.
Facebook has been fairly transparent on this. Contrary to what was initially reported, the company 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.
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 that 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 year-over-year in January and 77 percent in February.
This data comes from a small sample size and is only for a short period, so it doesn’t necessarily reflect what happened across all brands and advertisers. However, 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 clear. The quantity and makeup of paid units may have changed or there may be a broad drop in engagement, or some combination of the two, or something else. What is clear is that the News Feed changes seem to have either driven or coincided with a rise in costs for Facebook advertising.
2. Facebook-driven referral traffic has declined.
According to Parse.ly data, in May and June of 2017, Facebook 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 for some content after the U.S. election, the rise of Google’s AMP pages and publishers scaling back their reliance on social distribution.
So, what’s a marketer to make of all of this?
The first lesson is simple: don’t panic.
While the News Feed changes have dramatically impacted some content—specifically clickbait and spam—they haven’t transformed the 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 and still has a scale and a level of engagement unmatched by any other social platform.
However, 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 (user base size and time spent) aren’t trending upward for Facebook. Of note is that this downward path 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.”
Facebook is consciously shifting its focus and 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, with fewer opportunities to distribute content and higher ad prices. However, it’s also possible that the next iteration will be improved, with more engaged audiences and a wider range of valuable News Feed posts.
Michael Del Gigante is the founder of MDG Advertising, a full-service advertising agency. A version of this article originally ran on the MDG blog.