Facebook has hurt mainstream media more than fake news sites

Five things we learned when Facebook’s Explore Feed destroyed our organic reach.

Two months ago, Facebook launched major “reach-killing” test here in Slovakia and in five other countries. It removed all Page posts from the News Feed and relocated them to a separate new Explore Feed. That means Facebook’s main feed is no longer a free playing field for publishers — you can find here just posts from friends and sponsored posts.

Here is what happened next:

  • average number of interactions (likes, comments, shares) on 50 biggest Slovak media Facebook pages fell by 52 percent;
  • average number of interactions on serious news pages fell by 39 percent;
  • average number of interactions on disinformation sites and pages that share hate speech fell only by 27 percent;
  • fortunately, traffic levels of main news sites remains (almost) unchanged;
  • but traffic to some sites fell by tens of percentage points, this is the case of media that have most of the traffic from Facebook.

The test may take several months and Facebook has no current (!) plan to roll this out beyond six test countries (Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Cambodia). After a few weeks there are still several bugs — some people don’t have Explore Feed, but Page posts disappeared from their News Feed. So they can’t follow pages they like.

I am editor and social media manager for Slovak news website Denník N (read our story on NiemanLab). We are three years old premium medium with 23,000 subscribers and we have 40 percent of our traffic from Facebook. Two months ago, we lost 32 percent of interactions on our Facebook page, our reach is 34 percent smaller and engagement declined by 38 percent. Most importantly, our traffic decreased only by 3 percent since Explore Feed test started.

Post Reach of Denník N’s Facebok Page fell by 32 percent since Explore Feed test started.

5 things we learned

1. Facebook Pages are not as important as we thought. What’s important are influencers and people who share your stories. Facebook Pages help, but their impact is not dramatic.

2. If your medium has a significant presence beyond Facebook, changes on its social media channels don’t have to be a threat. We lost our reach, engagement, interactions, but our traffic has not changed.

3. Don’t worry about reach. Some numbers Facebook gives us are useless. They are a meaningless indicator that we stress about, but that doesn’t correlate with anything. Reach can swing up or down by 50% in a day and traffic may not be affected.

4. Facebook doesn’t think about consequences and has no interest at all in what is happening inside its test countries. For example, in Slovakia Explore Feed test has hurt mainstream media more than fake news sites. But it’s not just about the media. There are human rights organizations, charities, civic initiatives and they are left with no choice but to rely on the organic reach Facebook provides them with.

5. Publishers and journalists are reconsidering their digital distribution strategies. The decline of organic Facebook reach is nothing new, but when it falls from day to day so radically, it will change your attitude. Today everyone is clear that it’s important to build strong relationship with your readers and diversify your traffic sources (newsletters, app notifications, browser notifications, SEO…).

We don’t know whether this test will soon be over, Facebook’s representatives just reapeat that there is no current plan to roll this out globally. Anyway, Explore Feed test should empower publishers to begin thinking beyond Facebook. There is no reason to wait.

For more information, follow me on Twitter.

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