How Facebook Advertising Ate Our Organic, Locally Sourced Audience for Dinner

At BlogMutt, we’ve always thought of our social media audience like the food at a farmer’s market: locally-sourced and 100 percent organic. If we tended to our social media fields with consistent content and informative information, we would grow our “likes” and Twitter followers from the ground up. If we paid for “likes,” it was the equivalent of eating a hot dog from the gas station instead of, you know, food.

But we are a small business looking to grow, and Facebook makes advertising with them so easy, and so packed with data that it just became too tempting, and we tried it.

Continuing with the food analogy for one more paragraph: It left a terrible taste in our mouth, and even worse it ruined the organic feeling we had before we tried the advertising. In non-food terms: paying Facebook as a method of growth has largely ruined Facebook for us as a method of reaching anyone.

Here’s why:

Creating an Audience

Our choice was simple: Continue growing our business from scratch versus succumbing to the processed, saccharine world of Facebook advertising. Every article about marketing extols the virtues of growing through dogged inbound marketing, great branding, and philanthropic word-of-mouth from the hundreds of people who can’t wait to tell their friends about our service.

We did all that, and it worked. Our business has been growing for three years now.

But we knew that there are still millions of potential customers who don’t know what we do or that our services even exist, even though they wish they could get help with their blogging. (We are a crowdsourced content writing service.) Since Facebook has started pushing advertising and sponsored posts at every turn, that mission has only become harder.

How did things work well before? Simple, really. To use the vernacular, we eat our own dogfood. We’ve been diligent about creating blog content that educates our followers, feeds the content of our social media and newsletters and assists our SEO efforts. And from all of our inbound marketing channels, our most qualified traffic comes through the rigor of content marketing and SEO.

But Facebook told us that they could segment their audience, and show us only, for example, small business operators who have websites and are interested in content marketing. How could anything go wrong reaching out to those people?

Our Relationship with Facebook Then.

Initially, Facebook was a great platform for raising awareness about our company. Like many small businesses and startups, we diligently created content, shared it on Facebook, and tracked the reach of our posts, likes and impressions. It was a great model and helped slowly and authentically grow a fanbase.

See for yourself by looking at the amount of organic vs. paid engagement and reach we saw from January 1, 2013 — September 12, 2013.

Note that there are no solid orange (paid) spikes because we didn’t run any campaigns with Facebook. So far so good, right? People were coming, engaging, and Facebook served as a wonderful complement to our other marketing efforts.

Our Relationship with Facebook Now.

Now let’s compare last year’s numbers to this year.

And please note: Our social strategy and post schedule on Facebook never changed. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in mathematics to notice a difference. And those spikes? Well, when we saw our reach completely fall off the table, we tested two modest campaigns to see if advertising would change anything.

And “It worked!”, you’ll say. “Your reach went from hundreds to thousands!” But were these big numbers actually delivering us value? Were these thousands of people we actually targeted to engage?

If You Pay for It, They Will Come. Unless they don’t.

I could type another 1,000 words telling you why the increase in paid reach didn’t increase engagement, but I’ll let this video by Vertisasium explain the landscape of Facebook today. Yes, our reach grew. But our conversions and engagement didn’t. In fact, it dropped. So how authentic was our reach? Did they really care about us, our service, or the content we provided? Will we ever have that honest engagement we once did in 2013 without paying for it? And even if we do pay for it, will the engagement be from people truly interested in our content and services? /bangs head on wall.

It’s clear that Facebook built up our hopes, gave us a small taste of what it’s like to have lots of activity within Facebook, and is now essentially punishing us because we’re not still paying them. If we don’t pay to get inorganic attention, Facebook won’t let us have the organic attention we had before we ever paid a dime.

And there are other companies, like us, disenfranchised with Facebook’s constantly changing algorithms as well. A famous blog post from Eat24 takes the reader through why they’re ending their relationship with Facebook in hilarious fashion. Eat24’s biggest frustration was Facebook presenting itself as a social network and quickly becoming just another ad network. So where does a social network end and an advertising network begin? Small businesses, with cash-strapped marketing departments, don’t have the time, budget or patience to figure this out…assuming Facebook doesn’t change their whole algorithm again. Fortunately, Facebook Insights, its in-house analytics platform, will help you, me and anyone else dabbling in Facebook’s paid reach to answer some of these questions. Our answers were pretty stark. So, what story is your data telling you? How’s your engagement been of late?

Facebook’s Response

In fairness to Facebook, they addressed these issues with this post. It’s worth reading to understand their thought process behind the changes. And recently, Buzzfeed dissected how an ad gets placed in your Facebook news feed. Spoiler alert: It’s complicated.

As Buzzfeed notes: “The formula shown above is the basis of the algorithm, and determines whether an ad gets shown in a high slot in your News Feed at all.”

The debate over the algorithmically curated timeline versus the unfiltered timeline rages on — especially now that Twitter is considering going the algorithm route. It’s clear that Facebook hasn’t figured out the most tactful way to allay businesses’ concerns. They’re working on it. But our numbers don’t lie and will we want to be around until they figure it out?

Questions that Lie Ahead

The one thing that’s clear but easy to forget is the essential truth that Facebook is going to do whatever is good for Facebook, not for you or me. This is true of all large platforms. We saw this rather dramatically just recently when a court ruled that Yelp can show lower ratings for businesses than they actually earned because they don’t spend money with Yelp. While that sounds like, and is, dirty pool, Yelp’s case was that it doesn’t exist for the users, it exists to make money for Yelp. The court agreed.

The same is true for Facebook, and every other platform out there. The only safe thing to do, then, is to focus on your own site.

We’re a small business. With a small voice. Social networks like Facebook created a once democratic environment where people could follow the people (and brands) they wanted to hear or learn from. That’s no longer the reality. And if we have to pay, what’s the value of that audience? How engaged will they be? Lots of unanswered questions that we’re going to be working on over the next year. But perhaps the biggest question that every small business should ask themselves is: Is Facebook worth it?

For us, the answer is no. If something changes, we may look at it again, but for now we’ll just begin the long, slow process of rebuilding our organic brand on Facebook, and the other social networks, with our eyes wide open to the fact that Facebook is good for Facebook, and is not good for our business.

(P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to BlogMutt’s Founder Scott Yates for providing the cover photo—taken at the Boulder Farmer’s Market)