By Trevor Clawson

Facebook’s New Focus on Family and Friends Leaves Marketers with a Conundrum

Facebook has announced plans to prioritise interactions with friends at the expense of less ‘personal’ content posted by media organisations and brands. It’s a move intended to enhance the experience of the platform’s 2.7 billion users but it will also affect the ability of businesses of all sizes to engage with customers and promote their activities via the world’s biggest social media channel.

In a statement published on Facebook last week, founder Mark Zuckerberg said he planned to ensure that the platform would continue to help users “stay connected” to the people who are closest to them. And he acknowledged a problem.

“Public content – posts from businesses, brands and media – is crowding out the personal content that leads us to connect more with each other,” he said.

The solution – as outlined by Zuckerberg – will involve a rethink of  the software algorithms that determine what Facebook’s users see on their newsfeeds  “The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups,” he added,

Slaves to the Algorithm

It was a statement that – perhaps unintentionally – cast a spotlight on how the Facebook experience is created and curated.

In an ideal universe, anything that is posted by a Facebook user would be seen by everyone in the relevant friendship group. In other words, if you have 500 friends then your post should find its way on the newsfeeds of at least that number of people, with the potential to reach a wider audience through likes and shares.

In reality, that’s not what happens. A great many of the 500 people in your friendship group will themselves have perhaps 300, 500 or 1,000 friends while also being subscribed to ‘Pages’ and ‘Groups’. Even before you factor in the brands and businesses that are also pushing content to newsfeeds, that amounts to an awful lot of posts. Too many for most people with large friendship groups to read. Helpfully Facebook’s algorithms act as a filter. The software prioritises those posts that it ‘thinks’ individual users will find most interesting or compelling and puts them at the top of the newsfeed.

A Balancing Act

As such Facebook effectively shapes the online experience by deciding what each of us see. And for Facebook, it means carrying out a tricky balancing act.

On the one hand, it’s probably true to say that Facebook is perceived by most of its users as a means to stay in touch with an extended friendship group. But it is equally true that the platform has become a place where many millions passively consume a wide range of media, in the shape of games, puzzles, newspaper articles and videos. To complicate matters further, this ‘branded’ content is often recommended and shared by friends, so there is no clear line of demarcation.

But what does seem clear is that under the New Facebook regime, businesses seeking to reach users via so-called organic (unpaid marketing) as opposed to paid advertising, will have a tougher time getting their content onto the newsfeed of target customers.

What it Means for Business

Facebook's New Focus Leaves Marketers with a Conundrum

According to Karen Pearce, client strategy director at Bristol-based digital agency Digirank, businesses have been finding it harder to reach customers via Facebook for at least two years. For instance, businesses often set up Pages to promote themselves and spend time and energy building a community of followers. However, posts from those pages might be seen by a very small percentage of those who have subscribed via the ‘like’ button. In some cases, the reach is said to be as small as 1.0%.

“Any business that has used Facebook over the past few years will have put in place ways to manage the decline of organic reach,” says Pearce. “We have primarily turned to paying for the visibility of our posts.”

Businesses who pay to boost their posts can opt to reach not only their own communities of followers but also a wider group of users, targeted in terms of geography, interests and demographics. But Pearce is concerned that in the future even paid-for posts will find it hard to reach an audience.

“These new and significant changes to the algorithm are likely to mean that brand posts are less visible across the board, regardless of whether they are paid or organic,” she says.

The Human Factor

As a result, businesses that want to continue using Facebook will probably have to spend a lot more time creating content that gets the broad community of Facebook users talking. In his statement, Zuckerberg signalled that ‘public’ content would be judged on its ability to stimulate interaction between friends. Or to put it another way, a video clip will gain more visibility if users discuss it, rather than simply ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ it.

Natalie Weaving of content creation agency, the Typeface Group recommends that businesses use advocates – members of staff, partners and customers – to help share their comment and create the kind of interactions that will appeal to the new Facebook.

“Whoever they are you need to ask them to start getting involved with your page,” she says.  “This could be sharing your content out to their audience or starting a conversation with people under the update. A lot of small businesses have set up ‘pods’ to help beat the Instagram algorithm, so why not now for Facebook.”

Equally, Weaving recommends that businesses take an active role in the Facebook community – for instance by joining Groups and entering into discussions with other members.

Health and Wellbeing

In re-casting the Facebook experience, Mark Zuckerberg cited the wellbeing of users as the primary motivation. As he explained it, interacting with those who are close to us ensures the social media experience is positive. In contrast, consuming media (or simply reading the posts of others) potentially have negative consequences. In his view, it was best to spend less time on Facebook but use that time more fruitfully.

What that will ultimately mean for Facebook’s commercial value as a company remains to be seen. In the meantime, the user experience will change – perhaps only subtly – and marketers will have to adapt their content accordingly.