How to prepare for the removal of publisher posts from Facebook’s news feed
In the coming year, Facebook will likely split the news feed. Non-promoted posts from Facebook pages will be placed in a secondary feed. When the company tested the format in Slovakia in 2017, Facebook pages saw two-thirds to three-quarters of their reach disappear. Pages in Slovakia and two other test markets — Serbia and Sri Lanka — reported a drop in Facebook engagement of 60 to 80 percent.
Facebook’s response to the backlash at the time was predictable: “There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries or to charge pages on Facebook to pay for all their distribution in News Feed or Explore.”
“Explore” is the name of the secondary feed publishers were demoted to in the test. But promoted posts kept their place on the main feed, worrying publishers that they would need to pay to reach any of their Facebook followers.
Facebook’s response also highlighted the company’s priorities: “We always listen to our community about ways we might improve News Feed. People tell us they want an easier way to see posts from friends and family…The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content. We will hear what people say about the experience to understand if it’s an idea worth pursuing any further.”
And what Facebook user doesn’t want more community and less noise? The news feed split is inevitable. Publishers need to begin preparing for it immediately. Here’s how.
1. Develop alternative channels.
Email, messaging, and push notifications are ways to skip the platforms and connect directly with your community. But getting users to opt into those channels will require a different approach. In Facebook’s news feed, your work is just another piece of content. In these more intimate settings, your work should serve a purpose for your community. Ask for email addresses and phone numbers and offer value in return.
Email newsletters are the dominant means of communications for local publishers The New Tropic and The Evergrey. Their methodology is worth emulating. Here’s some background on the parent company that launched them.
Read Pete Brown’s report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab to understand how push notifications are being used. If you publish on WordPress, OneSignal is a plugin that can get your push notification game off the ground. (The Center for Cooperative Media is hosting a OneSignal training for local publishers in February if you can make it to the great state of New Jersey.)
As for messaging, GroundSource has you covered. Take a look at some of the work we’ve done with local, national, and international partners here. (Reach out to Andrew Haeg or I if you’re interested in a demo.) GroundSource products and services are optimized for building trust with your community — a key component to life beyond Facebook’s secondary feed.
2. Emphasize social sharing.
Publisher posts will be removed from the primary feed but users will still be able to share content with their friends. That means you need to optimize your work for sharing.
Use engaging featured images. Place calls to share where you must. Write headlines that are welcoming, not seductive.
Consider the user’s journey from consumption to interaction to sharing. You need to build engagement momentum by creating meaningful interaction before expecting readers to share. Let your readers speak their mind, tell their story, and direct your work.
Embeddable polling widgets like those provided by Opinary are one way if you have the right audience. You can use The Coral Project’s Ask for crowdsourcing and Talk for your comments section. In all, adopting Hearken’s public-powered journalism model to empower your readers and oversee this user journey is the most potent and pragmatic approach.
(Full disclosure: I worked with Opinary in 2017 but have no any financial stake in the company.)
3. Cultivate Facebook groups.
In June 2017, Facebook rolled out “Groups for Pages.” It gave publishers the opportunity to create their own groups, a privilege previously reserved for individual users. It was also a hint. Facebook has been actively promoting “Groups for Pages” since, including hosting a presentation and Q&A for publishers on the feature at their New York City office in late 2017.
If you don’t have one yet, create a group for your page today. Start actively promoting it among your Facebook audience while you still can. It should not be just another place to broadcast your content, so you’ll need a community strategy. The Coral Project’s Community Guides for Journalism were compiled to walk you through developing one.
Consider different groups for different audience segments. Again, you’ll need to know what your audience needs. You’ll find out by listening. Here’s a starter pack and link to more resources to develop that skill. (If you’re in or near New York City, I would recommend taking this “How to Engage a Community” training being offered at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism).
In the “Groups for Pages” presentation, Facebook’s representative suggested that a well developed group could manage itself. That’s unlikely. Some of your time will need to be devoted to groups. It is not just an audience to broadcast your content to. You will become an advocate for the community you form and that comes with responsibilities. Accept them.
4. Collaborate and innovate.
Publishers can accomplish more together than they can alone. Consider collaborations and content sharing partnerships to reach across audience lines.
While you’re keeping an eye out for collaborators, learn from others and emulate them with due credit. Here’s a list of journalism newsletters put together by Joseph Lichterman that can help you do that.
This one is for the moneyed publishers: Don’t wait for someone else to build a distribution platform that competes with Facebook’s secondary feed. Look at the collaboration between 30 banks to launch Venmo competitor Zelle. Will space be made for a Facebook “Explore” competitor thats cooperatively managed for the benefit of publishers?
5. Adapt your business.
The smaller your audience, the more your traffic will be affected by Facebook’s move. The more you rely on CPM or CPC-based advertising, the more your revenue will be affected. You’ll need to develop new revenue streams.
All the suggestions above fit well with the development of a membership program. Follow The Membership Puzzle for guidance on that.
You’ll find that communities are willing to subscribe to your service if you are transparent and humble. At What The Fuck Just Happened Today, Matt Kiser outlines the costs of producing and facilitating the crowdfunded community. In Brooklyn, Bklynr asked its audience for a lifeline or they’d have to cease publishing and 1,745 people stepped up.
Asking readers to become investors is a short term solution. Berkeleyside raised $600,000 in a direct public offering with a minimum investment of $1000. WhereBy.Us had a minimum of $500 in their purposefully accessible seed funding round.
Private financing, however, requires you have a business model that produces surplus profit, which is its own challenge for some publishers.
What if I’m wrong?
Publisher and user content may be split up in different ways than Facebook had originally experimented. The impact may not be as drastic. But you have nothing to lose if you implement these suggestions and so much to gain. And I don’t think I’m wrong.