Breaking up with Facebook

Jenn Van Grove
May 9, 2014 · 10 min read

Can there be life after Facebook? At least one company seems to think so.

On March 28, online food-ordering service Eat24, fed up with the social network’s ever-changing rules, deleted its Facebook page. The defiant act struck some as social media suicide. It wasn’t.

Here’s what Eat24 concluded in a post-mortem blog post:

“Breaking up with Facebook was the best marketing move we made all year.”

That’s quite the statement, as was the initial breakup letter, which, as they say, went viral.

We give you text posts, delicious food photos, coupons, restaurant recommendations… and what do you do in return? You take them and you hide them from all our friends.

It’d be funny if it weren’t true.

Most marketers — the people behind the Facebook Pages of bands, brands, artists, local businesses, restaurants, clubs, and teams that you say you “Like” — can relate. They feel as if Facebook has pulled a bait and switch. They set up shop on the social network six or seven years ago to build their communities, but now they can no longer reach their fans. At least, not like they used to.

The heart of the issue has to do with Facebook’s control over how often organic updates, marketing-speak for the unpaid status updates they post, reach the News Feed.

Whole Foods operates 275 Facebook Pages with many metro-focused ones designed to help the brand keep in touch with customers who frequent local stores.

“We’ve seen pretty substantial decreases in organic reach across the board,” Whole Foods Social Media and Digital Marketing Director Natanya Anderson told me.

“You stop and say, ‘Is it us? Is it our content?’”

Well, no, of course not. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, which is constantly being tweaked to give users the content they really want, is responsible for a much smaller percentage of fans seeing updates from the brands they “like.”

Whole Foods, Anderson said, has noticed a 50 percent dropoff in organic reach since the end of 2013. But she’s not going to pull an Eat24 and kill off the 275 pages the brand manages, and neither will most marketers.

Life isn’t that simple.

Still, Eat24’s very public display of disaffection could be a tipping point in the growing tension between marketers and Facebook.

A quid pro quo relationship gone awry

Adam Schoenfeld, who runs social media analytics company Simply Measured, frequently hears from clients who are seeing a decline in their organic reach on Facebook.

“They feel like they’ve invested a lot to build these audiences on Facebook, and when they publish content, they’re not able to reach people without paying,” Schoenfeld said. “It’s throwing a wrench into their assumptions about Facebook.”

It wasn’t always this way.

In late 2007, the Page arrived as a Facebook home for public figures, local businesses, and organizations.

Marketers were like, “yes!”

By mid 2009, the Page became more like a typical member profile. Celebrities, causes, neighborhood coffee shops, and others could post status updates just like everyone else.

“Just as you connect with friends on Facebook, you can now connect and communicate with celebrities, musicians, politicians and organizations. These folks will now be able to share status updates, videos, photos or anything else they want, in the same way your friends can already. You’ll be able to keep up with all of their activity in your News Feed.” — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, March 2009

Group hug!

The point was to expand the company’s social graph, or map of connections, beyond people to interests. It was a quid quo pro arrangement where marketers got to use pages to commune with fans and promote themselves from a rent-free abode while Facebook got to learn more about people’s interests.

“Facebook, in its start-up phase, was gaining customers and gaining their loyalty through apps, services that were free,” Gartner Internet Analyst Brian Blau told me. “At some point they’re a business and they’re no longer going to fund the free. Someone’s got to pay for it. Someone’s got to pay for access to those users.”

That someone turned out to be marketers — or so that’s what they think.

The bunch has been complaining about an organic reach problem since the spring of 2012, just before Facebook’s May 2012 initial public offering. Their quibble was amplified when Facebook opened up News Feed to sponsored stories in the summer of that year. Sponsored stories are paid advertisements marketers can use to promote their usual photos, videos, or updates to a wider audience.

Now it’s Facebook’s turn to say, “yes!”

By the end of the third quarter of 2012, Facebook’s brand-new business was bringing in $4 million a day. In the first three months of 2014, News Feed ads running in Facebook’s mobile application accounted for 59 percent of $2.27 billion in total advertising revenue.

“The free ride wasn’t going to last forever,” Melonie Gallegos, who runs social-media marketing firm Fandom Marketing, told me.

Eat24’s initial breakup note explains it best:

When we first met, you made us feel special. We’d tell you a super funny joke about Sriracha and you’d tell all our friends and then everyone would laugh together. But now? Now you want us to give you money if we want to talk to our friends. Now when we show you a photo of a taco wrapped with bacon, you’re all like “PROMOTE THIS POST! GET MORE FRIENDS!” instead of just liking us for who we are.

Two years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a marketer to organically reach, on average, 40 percent of their fan base with a status update posted to their page, Gallegos said. Nowadays, her clients are lucky if a post reaches 5 percent of their audience; one percent is more common.

Facebook contends that organic reach declines have to do with the algorithmic decisions that go along with picking and choosing News Feed stories for 1.28 billion people who share and “like” more than ever.

On any given day, the company has to riffle through 1,500 possible stories to give you just the ones it thinks you want. The task is harder if you’re really popular or follow a ton of pages. For you, the social network may need to filter through as many as 15,000 story options to build your feed.

“We will always optimize News Feed for people.”

That’s what a company spokesperson previously told me.

In other words, you are the driving force behind changes to News Feed. Presumably that means you want to hear less from the pages you’ve said you “like,” though there’s no way to know for certain if that’s actually the case. Facebook makes its determinations using a number of signals, like your activity with stories in the feed, and its exact formula is a mystery.

The new cost of Facebook

“We need to start to understand what the new cost of Facebook is,” Whole Foods’ Anderson said. Read as: ads are the only way she can make up for lost reach.

Facebook has said as much.

In a December 2013 change to News Feed, Facebook ordained news as good and memes as bad. Media organizations got a boost in reach, but other marketers got the shaft. “This means that high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently,” the company said of the changes.

“If brands or any Page wants to guarantee that people see their content; if they want guaranteed reach, ads on Facebook are the best way to go,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

The most abrupt decline for marketers came around December 2, 2013, the day Facebook announced adjustments to News Feed, deciding to prioritize news and penalize memes.

What about Nyan Cat?

Then, in April, Facebook exiled spam — or rather its definition of spam.

On April 10, 2014, Facebook said it was improving News Feed by eliminating “spammy” content. The changes were designed to penalize marketers for soliciting additional reach.

For marketers, new rules mean new strategies, which is why Eat4 said this on life after Facebook:

The only difference is now we don’t have to think about things like optimal headline length, preview image resolution, and the proper ratio of cats to cheeseburgers to maximize virality.

The situation is creating uncertainty for marketers who need to decide if they want to pay for something they used to get free of charge.

“Anyone who has watched this space knew at some point that Facebook was going to have to monetize … it’s not like they woke up one day and decided … to make brands pay,” Anderson said. “Because the change came so fast, the decline was so drastic, I think it’s created stress inside of social teams and brands.”

Stress like reworking budgets and trying to explain to bosses why a company will have to pay more to get less.

Anderson’s response is relatively tempered. She just wants to know the cost to get her reach back. The immediate future may see Whole Foods pay to promote updates so that they are exposed to a larger number of people, which has been a relatively foreign practice for the brand to date.

“It’s naive of companies to think that they’re going to be able to freely get access to their customers and prospects.” — Brian Blau, Gartner

That’s good news for Facebook, which, as a public company, is always under pressure to grow its advertising business.

A news agenda

Not everyone is getting penalized by the new rules of News Feed. Media companies, incidentally aligned with Facebook’s current news agenda, are an extremely fortunate group. They’ve been ordained as best in class as Facebook attempts to rival Twitter in the topical, timely information department.

A marketing manager for a media company told me that the brand’s page is seeing the organic reach for its content hit all-time highs. Since mid March, that page is also garnering “likes” at an unprecedented rate.

We have those December 2013 changes to thank. That’s when news was called up from the bench. And beneficiaries of Facebook’s news agenda also news-breakers, like sports teams.

Likes for days.

Take the San Diego Chargers, for instance. The Chargers rarely pay to promote posts on Facebook. That’s because when the team has big news, Facebook is the network that helps spread the word. A recent Facebook update about signing safety Darrell Stuckey, a fan-favorite player, had 40 percent reach, according to Joel Price, who runs digital operations for the team.

Of course, the National Football League team, like most marketers, has noticed a “tremendous reduction” in organic reach. The typical off-season post is now reaching just 3 percent to 4 percent of the team’s Facebook fan base. But when it matters most, Facebook goes into action.

“Surprisingly, on game days, we’ll reach 2 million people when we only have 1 million followers,” Price. “On game day, we post 10 plus times and our reach is great.”

Proof enough, said Price, that quality of content is still what matters most.

Put up or …

Ultimately, though, Facebook makes the judgment call on News Feed.

Facebook would tell you that it does a good job sorting through all of your possible updates, but there’s no arguing that marketers have lost their voice.

Some, like Price, would say that this is just the natural order of things. Others like Eat24 will take their Sriracha and split. Eat24 left with a bang. It took with it a decent-sized budget — the company said it spent $1 million on Facebook ads in 2013 — and made a statement in the process.

“We closed our Facebook page, and absolutely nothing happened. The sky didn’t cave in. Hell didn’t freeze over.” — Eat24

Facebook launched “Facebook Fit,” an educational bootcamp for small businesses, on May 6, 2014.

Facebook seems aware of a marketers’ aggravations. It just announced a new bootcamp program and will be traveling the country to educate small businesses on best practices for reach. The bootcamp program is a potentially face-saving maneuver, especially with Eat24's vanishing act fresh on marketers’ mind.

After run-ins with developers and users, it’s not as if Facebook needs another complicated relationship making headlines. Still, when Facebook constantly changes the rules on marketers, that’s bad for business, Blau told me.

He might be right.

With Facebook warning marketers of darker days to come, marketers have two choices: take their money and run or fork over more dough for better reach.

Yes, life without Facebook is a seemingly unthinkable mode of existence for the vast majority of marketers. But Eat24 concluded that the future looks bright without Facebook. It’s not unthinkable that others will too.

Cover image credit: Lunabee/Flickr

Thanks to Ben Parr, abull, and Peggy Gartin

    Jenn Van Grove

    Written by

    Growth and development reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Web geek, vegan, UCLA grad. Email: jennifer.vangrove@sduniontribune.com

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