The End of Facebook's Free Ride

What does Facebook's policy change mean to your social media outreach strategy?

by Joe Dysart / September 5, 2014
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Organizations smarting over Facebook's decision to severely limit their ability to communicate with people who like their business pages on the social network recently got an explanation from the Web titan about the policy change.

But many aren't buying it.
 
"Facebook wants us to pay for real estate that we used to get for free," said Leslie Nuccio, creative strategist at Meltwater, a social media monitoring and press relations firm. 
 
Before the policy change, organizations absolutely loved the Facebook "Like" system. Essentially, any person who clicked a button and 'Liked' a business page on Facebook regularly received posts from them in his or her News Feed.
 
The Like was a marketer's dream, in that any organization on Facebook could stay in constant contact with customers by sending out interesting posts related to their product or services.
 
Indeed, a corporate business that had 300,000 people who Liked their business page on Facebook could post a message to the social network, and all 300,000 people on Facebook would see that message -- at no cost.
 
Savvy organizations also quickly realized that the way to stay Liked among current and potential customers was to engage in authentic conversations with them, rather than launch old-school posts in promotional blast form.
 
In the technical jargon of marketing, this ability to send posts for free to everyone who Liked your page on Facebook is known as "organic reach."  
 
Marketers loved it.
 
That cozy relationship between organizations and Facebook users began to degrade about two years ago when Facebook began severely throttling back the reach of these posts.
 
The result: These days, as little as 6 percent or less of people who have Liked a business page on Facebook actually receive any particular post that business sends over the social network, according to Marshall Manson, a managing director at ad agency Ogilvy & Mather.
 
Moreover, Manson predicts it's "only a matter of time" before the organic reach of businesses and organizations on Facebook will plummet to zero.
 
Officially, Facebook insists that the only reason organizations on the social network are now only reaching a fraction of the people they used to reach is due to an enhanced content filtering process the social network has been fine-tuning during the past year.
 
Essentially, Facebook says its users are being inundated with too much content on a daily basis, so they are increasingly filtering content that shows up in news feeds based on the data in those users' profiles and their activity on Facebook.
 
"Rather than showing people all possible content, News Feed is designed to show each person on Facebook the content that’s most relevant to them," said Brian Boland, who leads the ads product marketing team at Facebook. "To choose which stories to show, News Feed ranks each possible story -- from more to less important -- by looking at thousands of factors relative to each person."
 
This filtering process is an entirely benign, innocent attempt by Facebook to ensure that Facebook users' News Feed is as relevant and interesting as possible, according to Boland.
 
"In our tests, we’ve always found that the News Feed ranking system offers people a better, more engaging experience on Facebook," Boland said. "We’ve gotten better at showing high-quality content, and we’ve cleaned up News Feed spam."
 
Maybe so.
 
But in the view of many organizations that have spent precious resources reaching out to Facebook users -- cajoling them, tempting them, rewarding them -- to Like their pages, Facebook's move to scale back their ability to post to those Facebook followers feels more like a money grab.
 
"To be fair to the brands here, Facebook has put on a real dog-and-pony show over the past several years to convince companies that building up their followers is a great idea, and that the big payoff is the earned media that we were getting in those News Feeds," said Meltwater's Nuccio.
 
Indeed, Facebook's Boland is quick to note that any business that wants to override Facebook's content filtering system and get a post into the News Feed of all the people who have Liked their business page on Facebook can still do so, if they are willing to pay.
 
In Facebook terms, that override is called a "boost," available to any business that is willing to pay for the added reach -- often billed on a "per-thousand-users" rate scheme.
 
Again, this option smells more like money grab to many Facebook business users. But like it or hate it, Facebook's boosts and its trumped-up content filtering system appears to be here for the long haul.  
 
While it may take organizations some time to cotton to that new reality, they still have some ways right now to deal with the new regime: 
 
Encourage Followers to Recommend Your Posts
Facebook automatically increases the reach of a post from your business if one or more of your followers recommend your post to a friend or colleague. Encourage your followers to do this with every post you make.
 
Beef Up Your Email Marketing
Many businesses are aggressively seeking the email addresses of people who have Liked them on Facebook. The theory is that if people have gone out of their way to Like your business on Facebook, they've already signaled they want communications from you. With email, you can go directly to these people without worrying about a middle man.
 
"Email offers 'reliable reach,' in that if you have someone's email, you can almost assuredly send them a message they will receive," said Jay Baer, president of Convince and Covert, a marketing consultancy that often advises government agencies. "They may not open or read it, but they'll receive it. Facebook's reach is unreliable in that way, and getting less reliable all the time."
 
Cautioned Sean Smith, head coach at That Social Media Guy: "It's a double-edged sword. If you are constantly emailing marketing and promotions, you run the risk of alienating your potential customer by being so much spam." 
 
Bite the Bullet, Buy the Boost
Even though the deal is not nearly as good as before, buying a boost from Facebook to reach everyone who's Liked your page is still relatively inexpensive compared to other advertising.  

Tim Dolan, executive vice president of the Decklan Group, said, "If and when we do invest money in paid advertising within Facebook, it is with a specific purpose to a very specific and targeted demographic. We feel that the power Facebook gives you with paid ads is unsurpassed in any marketing medium and well worth the investment."

Keir Murray, founder of KLM Public Affairs, added: "A major facet of the technology boom in communication is how quickly things can change. If there is widespread unhappiness with Facebook, another vehicle will emerge to supplant it."

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan.